The Hidden Power of Words

Words ought to be a little wild for they are the assaults of thought on the unthinking. — John Maynard Keynes

I’m certain I can read your mind.

Look at the picture below and assign one of them the name “Bouba” and the other “Kiki.”

Now, let me put my fingers to my temple, tap into the electronic current connecting us across time and space, and predict that you named the one on the left “Kiki” and the one of the right “Bouba.”Soc_img012

Freaky impressive, right?

If you thought about it, though, you probably recognized that the names “felt right” by simply considering the shape of the object. But the interesting question is why?

Before I answer that, let’s examine those names I gave you. The word “Kiki” uses short vowels–vowels formed at the front of the mouth. “Bouba,” on the other hand, uses long vowels–vowels pronounced at the back. Notice, then, the psychological “distance” created when simply pronouncing the word.

Now, this is where things get weird.

Researchers have taken a bizarre looking dog toy and placed it 30 feet in front of participants and asked them to estimate how far away it was. When the researchers named the toy “deeb” (a short-voweled word) people estimated, on average, that it was 23 feet away. When they named it “dohb” (a long-voweled word) people estimated it was 26 feet away.

Okay, that’s interesting, but not THAT interesting.

Well how about when researchers did a similar task, this time asking participants to throw a ball at a target (either named “deeb” or “dohb”) twenty feet away.

Here, when the target was named deeb, participants under-threw the ball, on average, by four feet. When it was named dohb, they over-threw it by five feet.

But it gets crazier.

When people were asked to evaluate how emotionally close they felt to a stranger described by a researcher, participants responded that they felt closer when the stranger was named Jean compared to Joan.

The theory to explain all of this, then, originates in the psycholinguistic “distance” from pronouncing those vowels. In reference to the original example, when you look at something close up, the edges become sharper, more angular. When you look at something farther away, things begin to round out, to blur.

Therefore, it feels natural to call the sharper image “Kiki” (the short vowels) while we call the other “Bouba” (the long vowels).

This notion of psychological “distance” then applies to all instantiations of the word, emphasizing, then, the importance of how we verbalize our world–not only the definitions and meanings behind our words, but also, more basically, the sounds they produce.

So if you want to practice your newfound consideration of the implication of words, go ahead and do so in the comment section below.



Research Credit:

Spector, F., & Maurer, D. (2013). Early sound symbolism for vowel sounds. I-Perception4(4), doi:10.1068/i0535

Maglio, S. J., Rabaglia, C. D., Krehm, M., Feder, M. A., & Trope, Y. (under review) On the bi-directional relationship between psychological distance and vowel sound.

Author: jdt

Jake writes weekly posts every Wednesday on the intersection of psychology and philosophy. To learn more about him, or to propose a topic you'd like him to cover, go to

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