How words make us feel could be more about their sound than their meaning

  • We may associate certain emotions with the way words sound, according to a new study
  • Short vowels and sharp noises are viewed as harsh and aggressive
  • These emotional vocalisations could be the building blocks for early language development

Moist, cherish, vomit, ethereal – some of these words might feel nicer on your tongue than others. But, beyond their meaning, the way they sound could also elicit a certain type of emotional response. 

For example, words associated with the pandemic, like "corona", "covid" and "virus" made us wince even before they were so prolifically used in media.

Bouba-Kiki Effect

Studies have been done on the link between the sound of words and their perceived meaning, and the most famous of all is by Ramachandran and Hubbard in 2001.

They presented jagged shapes and rounded shapes to participants in the US and India, who had to choose which made-up word best represented each shape. It was called the Bouba-Kiki Effect.

Almost all preferred 'kiki' for sharper edges and 'bouba' for rounded edges, showing a certain bias toward certain sounds besides any prescribed meaning.

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Emotional connection

Now new research published in Psychological Science aims to better understand this innate human phenomenon by linking sound and shape to our emotional responses.

The researchers conducted three experiments to test this theory by rating the arousal or emotional intensity participants feel when looking at kiki-bouba-like words, including new ones they made up.

"Given that the bouba-kiki effect shows up early in development..., exists in radically different cultures..., is implicit ..., and occurs even prior to conscious awareness of the visual stimuli..., it is plausible that the mechanism underlying this phenomenon may be fundamental to human experience," according to the authors.

"Here, we propose that emotional congruence – the similarity in the arousal elicited by auditory and visual stimuli – may mediate the association between shapes and words, with kiki-like words and spiky shapes invoking a higher level of arousal than bouba-like words and rounded shapes."

Emotional responses to art, music and touching certain materials have already been explored, but the shape and sound of language could also have been influenced by our emotional brains. 

Kiki-like words – involving "k", "t" and "p" and short vowels with sharp sounds – are seen as harsh, aggressive and emotionally intense, and the shape of the word further enhance this inherent bias. 

Their findings helped substantiate the Bouba-Kiki Effect, and the emotional-median hypothesis can help explain its prevalent across age groups and cultures. 

READ MORE | Beyond baby talk: helping early language development

Visual cues

"Particularly, recent findings on the occurrence of the effect even in the absence of visual awareness... suggest the involvement of automatic processes that bypass higher-order cognitive analysis."

This means that even blind people showed certain emotional cues when hearing certain types of words, meaning that the reaction is not just dependent on visual cues. 

Language building blocks

What does it all mean, however? It could hold important clues to how humans developed language and how our ancestors used vocalisations as building blocks to convey meaning and emotions before the rise of structured language.

It also shows how young children learn languages, gauging the meaning of words through how they sound and look through the primal part of their brain before learning their meaning.

"Thus, learning to build abstract categories on the basis of emotional relevance may be a crucial stepping stone in the development of abstract semantic representations during early word learning."

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Image credit: Pixabay

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