Why do some words sound cool?
Posted: Sat Nov 22, 2014 10:02 pm UTC
What makes one word "cooler" than another? As an example, why do I think "genesis" sounds cooler than "origin"?
Forums for the webcomic xkcd.com
Lazar wrote:I think part of it might be that Greek words sound cooler than their Latin equivalents: in the Greco-Roman equation, it's the Greek part that seems more ancient and mysterious. Don't tetra- and penta- sound cooler than quadri- and quinti-?
Nearly 100 years of linguistics research has been based on the assumption that words are just collections of sounds - an agreed acoustic representation that has little to do with their actual meaning. Yet a spate of recent studies challenge this idea.
They suggest that we seem instinctively to link certain sounds with particular sensory perceptions. Some words really do evoke Humpty's "handsome" rotundity. Others might bring to mind a spiky appearance, a bitter taste, or a sense of swift movement. And when you know where to look, these patterns crop up surprisingly often, allowing a monoglot English speaker to understand more Swahili or Japanese than you might imagine (see "Which sounds bigger?" at the bottom of this article). These cross-sensory connections may even open a window onto the first words ever uttered by our ancestors, giving us a glimpse of the earliest language and how it emerged.
While the German psychologist Wolfgang Kohler was staying in Tenerife, he presented subjects with line drawings of two meaningless shapes - one spiky, the other curved - and asked them to label the pictures either "takete" or "baluba". Most people chose takete for the spiky shape and baluba for the curvy one. Though Kohler didn't say why this might be, the observation strongly suggested that some words really might fit the things they describe better than others. His work, first published in 1929, did not attract much attention, and though others returned to the subject every now and then, their findings were not taken seriously by the mainstream. "They were considered a curiosity and never properly explored," says Gabriella Vigliocco, professor of the psychology of language at University College London.
The turning point came in 2001, when Vilayanur S. Ramachandran and Edward Hubbard, both then at the University of California, San Diego, published their investigations into a condition known as synaesthesia, in which people seem to blend sensory experiences, including certain sounds and certain images (Journal of Consciousness Studies, vol 8, p 3). As many as 1 in 20 people have this condition, but Ramachandran suspected that cross-sensory connections are in fact a feature of the human brain, so that in practice we all experience synaesthesia at least to a limited extent. To explore this idea, he and Hubbard revisited Kohler's experiment to find out whether average people, and not just synaesthetes, might automatically link two different sensations.
Using similar shapes to those in the original experiment, but changing the names of the invented terms slightly, they found that an astonishing 95 per cent of people labelled the spiky object as "kiki" and the curvy one as "bouba".
Building on the idea that certain words might elicit cross-sensory connections in our brain, a team at the University of Edinburgh, UK, decided to explore the links between sounds and tastes.
Christine Cuskley, Simon Kirby and Julia Simner dropped bitter, sweet, salty and sour drops of solution into their subjects' mouths. Then they asked them to manipulate a computer synthesiser to produce different kinds of vowel sounds that seemed to best match the taste on their tongues. The results were not random. Sweet tastes were associated with high vowel sounds, in which the tongue is placed nearer to the roof of the mouth, and back vowels, where the tongue is placed towards the throat rather than the lips. The "oo" in boot demonstrates both of these traits. Low, front vowel sounds, meanwhile - something like the "a" in "cat" has these qualities - were associated with sour tastes