By Barbara Malt
In many animal communications, there’s a transparent link between what is being communicated and how that message is communicated. Animal threat displays, for instance, often make the aggressor look larger and fiercer through raising of the hair and baring of the teeth. A dog communicates excitement through look and sound.
Human language is different: most words and sentences don’t inherently look or sound like anything in particular. It is only through a conventional and learned association of sounds with meanings that a message is conveyed. That’s why the same animal can be called dog in English, perro in Spanish, chien in French, and hund in German. And that’s why a human can sit in a dark movie theater and quietly whisper, “That’s exciting!” or stand on a hiking trail and calmly say “Freeze; there’s a rattlesnake just ahead.”
But some words in human language do resemble what they mean. Think about crinkly and crispy, smooth and satin. This phenomenon is known as sound symbolism and it has been observed in many languages. People who are shown word pairs of an unfamiliar language can guess above chance which word would refer to something that is, say, crinkly vs. smooth. The links between sound and meaning apply to vowels as well as consonants. High-pitched vowels, made toward the front of the mouth, tend to be associated with things that are thin and light. Lower-pitched vowels, made toward the back of the mouth, tend to be associated with things that are large and heavy.
Linguist Dan Jurafsky has shown that the food industry imbues food names with this sort of sound symbolism. He found that commercial ice creams, which gain market share by being known as rich and creamy, tend to use more names with back vowels (consider rocky road, Jamoca almond fudge, chocolate, caramel, and so on). On the other hand, crackers, which are products meant to be crisp and crunchy, tend to use names with front vowels (consider Cheez-Its, Ritz, Krispy, Wheat Thins). So sound symbolism is not a vestige of long-ago days when human language emerged from some more primitive form of communication. It is commonly and productively used in creating names for things in the modern world.
But are marketing departments full of former linguistics majors who learned their lessons about sound symbolism well? Jurafsky’s research didn’t address that question. More likely, the link between sound and meaning is reinforced by focus groups that reliably prefer certain types of names for certain types of products. Not every product has the benefit of such vetting of names, though. Cars like the Edsel and Gremlin may have helped sealed their own fate as sales disasters by having the wrong vowels in their names.
Barbara Malt is a Professor of Psychology at Lehigh University. She is the Associate Editor of the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition and a co-editor of Words and the Mind: How Words Capture the Human Experience. She is interested in language, thought, and the relation between the two.
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Image credit: Caramel nut ice cream by Lotus Head. Creative commons license via Wikimedia Commons.