Tuesday, May 21, 2024

The shape of words

What shape are the words ‘bouba’ and  ‘kiki’, pointy or round? Most Westerners intuitively agree that the first word sounds round and the second sounds pointy, previous studies have shown. However, new research led by universities in Birmingham and Berlin show that speakers of different languages around the world agree, suggesting that universal links between certain sounds and shapes are a clue to the origin of spoken words.

The  international research team conducted an online cross-cultural test of the  bouba/kiki effect, surveying 917 speakers of 25 languages, including Hungarian, Farsi and Zulu. The results, which covered nine language families and 10 writing systems, showed the bouba/kiki effect occurs in societies around the world. 

Publishing their findings in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, the team, led by experts from the University of Birmingham and the Leibniz-Centre General Linguistics (ZAS), Berlin, says that such iconic vocalisations may form a global basis for the creation of new words.

Co-author Dr Marcus Perlman, Lecturer in English Language and Linguistics at the University of Birmingham, commented: “Our findings suggest that most people around the world exhibit the bouba/kiki effect, including people who speak various languages and regardless of the writing system they use.

“Our ancestors could have used links between speech sounds and visual properties to create some of the first spoken words and today, many thousands of years later, the perceived roundness of the English word ‘balloon’ may not be just a coincidence after all.”


Image courtesy of Pixabay
Melanie Butler
Melanie Butler
Melanie started teaching EFL in Iran in 1975. She worked for the BBC World Service, Pearson/Longman and MET magazine before taking over at the Gazette in 1987 and also launching Study Travel magazine. Educated in ten schools in seven countries, she speaks fluent French and Spanish and rather rusty Italian.
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