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See this word? – Synaesthesia and the Origin of Language

‘Bouba’ and ‘kiki’ – meaningless words, or insights into the beginnings of human language?

Synaesthesia is the experience of a simultaneous stimulation of two or more sensory areas within the brain, when only one has been objectively triggered. Some products of being a synesthete are; seeing sounds, tasting numbers or colouring days of the week. Although officially only 0.05% of the population are synesthetes, many more of us experience milder forms of the condition. Our brains have developed in such a way that we use more than just one cognitive pathway to process our experiences, which allows us a more creative and emotional perception of the world around us. Metaphors are a good example of this. The saying ‘speaking with a sharp tone of voice’, for example, whilst physically impossible, is effective in conveying the desired meaning – that an angry or unpleasant quality of voice was used. The logic behind metaphors, and the human brain’s ability to process the quality of one sense in the context of another, lies the source of the beginning of signs and signifiers – a set collection of words for the elements of our environment that make up our language and, in turn, the importance of the words ‘bouba’ and ‘kiki’”.

The bouba-kiki effect was first noted as the result of an experiment designed by German psychologist, Wolfgang Köhler, in 1929. Travelling around the island of Tenerife, Köhler asked the Spanish-speaking locals to choose a name for two shapes that he carried with him: one, a jagged star-like shape and the other, bulbous and reminiscent of a puddle. He gave the residents the choice between the words ‘takete’ and ‘baluba’ (which years later developed into “bouba” and “kiki”). The findings of the experiment were, a vast majority of subjects assigned the name ‘takete’ to the star shape and ‘baluba’ to the other. This experiment suggested that our current language is not the result of a random assignation of names to objects and the subsequent normalisation of these, but rather that there was a cognitive pattern in the identification of certain words with particular things, in the same way that there is with metaphors. The beginnings of language was based, in part, on onomatopoeia .

However, it would be short sighted to suggest that this multi-sensory conception of our environment was altogether abstract. Having written my masters thesis on noise, I came across many obscure and wonderful qualities of sound that suggests to me that, whilst our imaginative processing of information in the brain is key to our more rounded and full experience of the world, that the perception of ‘kiki’ as sharp and ‘bouba’ as soft, has just as much to do with the actual quality of the sounds that we produce when speaking the words as our inventive minds. Sound is physical, it travels in waves and the release of sound determines the depth, length and quality of these waves. When our mouths wrap themselves around a ‘b’, we open our lips and release air and sonic particles through an even, ‘o’ shape. This means that the sound waves created are smooth and long, producing a softer noise. With letters such as ‘k’ or ‘t’, we tend to use our tongue and the back of our throat or teeth to flick out the letter, which consequently produces sharper, shorter, sound waves. So the word ‘kiki’ is in fact objectively a more acute word than  ‘bouba’ is.  

Thus, it can be understood that synaesthesia and the beginnings of the human language is as much to do with our perception of the world as it is to do with our subconscious understanding of the intricacies of its various elements, such as sound and the way that it works. We are more perceptive than we think.

Image source. Robert Buriss