These Nonsense Words Transcend Language Barriers

Medscape Staff

November 15, 2021

Across dozens of languages, people associate the same sounds with the same shapes, according to new research. What can this tell us about how language first developed in humans?

What to know:

  • A new study found that 72% of speakers of 25 different languages associated the same made-up words with the same shapes. Most participants assigned the word "bouba" to a rounded blob shape and the word "kiki" to a sharply pointed shape.

  • The research is a new incarnation of a famous study in linguistics in which the same test was performed by persons who spoke only English.

  • Initially, it was thought that the spikiness of the letter "K" and the roundness of the letter "B" were the reasons for the association. However, the same link has been observed among children who had not yet learned to read and in cultures that don’t use written language.

  • In this study, 75% of speakers of languages using the Roman alphabet linked "bouba" and "kiki" to the same shapes, as did 63% of speakers of languages that use other alphabets, such as Japanese. This indicates that people make a connection between the sounds of the words ― not just the letters ― and the shapes.

  • According to the lead researcher, Aleksandra Ćwiek, a PhD student, the finding suggests that noises can evoke shape and that the relationship between gesture and speech may be at the core of the evolution of language in humans.

This is a summary of the article "Nonsense Words Make People Around the World Think of the Same Shapes," published in Science on November 14. The full article can be found on science.org.

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