Thursday, July 1, 2010

Booba Kiki

Here's a quick test. Which one of these images is "booba" and which one is a "kiki"?
If you're like most people, you called the image on the left a "kiki" and the image on the right a "booba".

A couple of posts ago I suggested that there may be "some sort of synesthestic connection between the sounds of word and emotional states." In a comment, I offered up the word "prickly" as an example of a word that sounds exactly like it feels, tactically. I would actually argue that the word also sounds exactly like it feels emotionally--but let's set aside that supposition and look into what makes a kiki so prickly and a booba so supple.

The theory proposed by some researchers into this phenomenon, according to Wikipedia, is:

"The rounded shape may most commonly be named "bouba" because the mouth makes a more rounded shape to produce that sound while a more taut, angular mouth shape is needed to make the sound "kiki". The sounds of a K are harder and more forceful than those of a B, as well. The presence of these "synesthesia-like mappings" suggest that this effect might be the neurological basis for sound symbolism, in which sounds are non-arbitrarily mapped to objects and events in the world."
I dig the synesthesia-like mapping idea, but I dunno that I buy that it's due to mouth shapings.

I'd prefer to see an argument that looked at the association of certain sounds with certain tactile sensations at an early age--ideally as early as in the womb. This is not to propose a Pavlonian association--more that we start off with lots of nerve connections, and the nerve connections that are used become stronger while those that are used less become weaker. If there was some sort of in-utero sensation association, could this lead to synesthetic mappings? And what would that association be? Also, given that ultrasounds make the fetus hot, are babies of the ultrasound era born with some new synesthetic mapping that didn't exist in pre-ultrasound babies?

I dunno, I reckon I'm probably just full of it tonight.

Lemme know what your theories/thoughts/obs/insights/questions/links are!

Answer my questions, dang it--esp., "What makes a kiki so prickly and a booba so supple?"


  1. That Wiki explanation does seem quite plausible. Interesting note: I showed this post to a student of mine and asked her which was the booba and which the kiki. She answered as one would expect. So, just goes to show that this is not a strictly Anglophone thing. Of course, one person does not a scientific sample make, but I suspect most people would answer the same.

  2. Maybe yer onto something there, like the first vocalization were linked to tactile or other sensory respnse: a yelp or cry, ouch or yow for pain, ohhh for wonder, uh for confusion, umm for pleasure etc.

    This formed the first vocalizations and as words developed, associated with one or the other sensation, they were uttered close to the original receding farther as more words developed?

    Just a thought.

  3. Also, i Spanish speaker chose between kiki and booba as predicted.

    One could be called a "start" and the other a "bubble" or "amoeba." Soft versus hard, staccato sounds....

  4. "1 Spanish speaker" that is.


Thanks for taking the time to comment!

Need to add an image? Use this code: [ximg]IMAGE-URL-HERE[x/img]. You will need to remove the the boldface x's from the code to make it work.

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.