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English Words: Sounds and Meaning

Experiments in Sounds and Meaning

This week’s topic is about sounds and meaning.
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In 1929, psychologist Wolfgang Köhler did some psychological experiments where he showed people two shapes and asked them to label one as a ‘takete’ and the other as a ‘baluba’ (also called a “maluma”).

In 2001, Vilayanur S. Ramachandran and Edward Hubbard, two linguists, repeated the experiment but used the words “kiki” and “bouba”.

Between 95% to 98% called the round shape the “bouba” and the sharp, jagged one the “kiki”. There was a great difference in the languages and culture of the two groups, which led them to believe that we naturally associate some sounds with shapes. The round shape might be called the “bouba” because the mouth makes a more round shape to make the sound and the sounds of a K are sharper.

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  • In English, words which talk about surfaces in close contact often begin with “cl” (clasp, clamp, clam, clench, clad, clog, close, clot, cleft, cloven, clump, cluster, clutch, club, cling, clinch, clap).
  • Words which talk about the emission of light begin with “gl” (glare, glimmer, glass, glaze, gleam, glimpse, glint, glisten, gloss, glow, glamour, glitz, glory)
  • Words connected to the nose have a tendency to begin with “sn” (snorkel, snort, sniff, snivel, snore, snot, snuff, sneer, snide, snob, snooty).
  • and words meaning tiny pieces or small marks tend to end in “-le“, (bubble, crumble, dapple, freckle, mottle, pebble, pimple, riddled, rubble, nipple, spangle, speckle, sprinkle, stubble, wrinkle).

Do you understand all the words in the 4 groups above? Are there sounds in your language which have a similar meaning?

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