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BOUBA-KIKI EFFECT: what’s in my name for you?

BOUBA-KIKI EFFECT: what's in my name for you?
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Is there a connection between meaning and sound? This debate has been going on for thousands of years. In the twentieth century, linguistics unconditionally accepted the postulate of the arbitrariness of this connection. Although, starting with Plato, many philosophers were convinced of the opposite.

According to Aleksei Losev, language is a system of understanding of the world. Moreover, the worldview itself, in which sound and meaning are merged. Modern science tends to agree with this opinion of philosophers.




A 2020 statistical study showed that modern humanity speaks 7139 languages. They are all very different. However, the set of sounds in them, even with numerous exceptions, is approximately the same. Therefore, psychologists at some point asked themselves the question: how similar is the perception of these sounds? The fact is that for many years the theory of arbitrariness dominated among scientists, according to which the form of a word is in no way connected with its meaning.

In his Course in General Linguistics, the great scientist Ferdinand de Saussure unambiguously determined that the concept of “sister” in French is in no way connected by internal relations with the sequence of sounds s-oe :-r. The set of sounds is random and any sound combination could equally well become a “sister”. Or take the English word tree. Communication form – meaning – pure convention. Because for a representative of other language groups, this word will never evoke thoughts about a tree. They have completely different forms for this concept, not related to the English tree: in German baum, in Spanish arbor…




Everything seems to be logical, but not everything is so simple. Some researchers point to such a phenomenon as iconicity. For the first time, attention was paid to it when they began to analyze onomatopoeia. It is clear that with a high degree of probability, not knowing other languages, we can easily recognize our “woof-woof” in English woof and bow-wow or in French ouaf. We can always guess that bang and bang describe the same process. Linguists call such words onomatheas. Later it turned out that the intuitive linking of sound and meaning, of a word and what it means, can go far beyond onomatopoeia and form dictionaries of spoken languages.

Scientists have found iconic correspondences of form and meaning in the main vocabulary elements – color, shape, size, texture, etc. For example, for speakers of different languages, the fundamental frequency changes in a similar way when describing a small or large object, located high or low. This suggests that iconicity is not an accidental phenomenon, but some kind of evolutionary pattern. The practical benefit of this discovery is that iconicity can be used in the study of foreign languages.




The phenomenon of synesthesia, in which stimulation in one sensory or cognitive system leads to an automatic response in another, helps shed light on the evolution of language. This explains why in many languages ​​the same concept is denoted by very similar sound structures. For the first time, the German-American psychologist Wolfgang Köhler drew attention to this.

In 1929, in Tenerife, he showed the participants of his experiment rounded and acute-angled geometric shapes and proposed to determine which of them is “baluba” and which is “takete”. You can do a similar trick with your acquaintances and, following Köhler, you will learn that “baluba” is necessarily something round, and “takete” is something sharp. Since then, similar studies have been carried out repeatedly. In the course of them, it was found that something similar happens when perceiving not only fictional, but also quite real words.




Experiments have shown that the name Molly is perceived by most as “round”, and the name Kate as “sharp”. People characterize carriers of “round” names as easy to communicate, and carriers of “sharp” names as sharper and more straightforward. For those who wish to get acquainted with how it “works”, we can talk about the onomatology of Pavel Florensky, a brilliant scientist and priest who was shot by the NKVD in 1937. His Names were published posthumously in the 1990s. But they miraculously anticipated subsequent scientific discoveries in this area.

Florensky considered the name as a “verbal organism”, in which every sound is important. In his dictionary of names, which, unfortunately, was not completed, you will most likely find your name or the names of people you know: Alexandr, Nikolai, Elena … And you can compare the characteristics given to their carriers by Florensky with your own perception.




The effect discovered by Köhler was retested by neurologists Vilayanur Ramachandran and Edward Hubbard at the beginning of the 21st century. They replaced the inhabitants of Tenerife with American college students and Tamils ​​in India. From 95 to 98% of the representatives of both groups called the rounded shape “bouba”, and the angular shape – “kiki”. Then this experiment was repeated with young children who could not read yet, with representatives of peoples living in different parts of the world – the same associations arose in everyone.

Thus, scientists confirmed the correctness of the philosophical tradition coming from Plato that the naming of objects is not completely arbitrary. There are some “natural” laws of perception that help humanity build certain patterns. For example, long vowels are associated with long objects, while words with short vowels are associated with short ones. Perhaps, from such “bricks” the language of people was formed at the earliest stage of its development.

Between the cortical visual and motor areas there are sensory-motor connections that can be mediated by mirror neurons that respond to changes in the shape of the lips of other people and the motor representations of the observer. In a 2003 paper, Ramachandran and Hubbard showed that damage to the angular gyrus, an area of ​​the brain important for language, makes a person much less likely to match a rounded object with the word “bouba.”




Scientists believe that the bouba-kiki effect has deep evolutionary roots. It is studied in order to understand how languages ​​were formed thousands of years ago or what a single language of all mankind could be, following the example of the famous universal language Esperanto created by Ludwik Lazar Zamenhof. However, there is one area where this bouba-kiki effect has been used for a long time and successfully – this is art and literature.

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