Sound symbolism shapes the English language: The maluma/takete effect in English nouns

Psychon Bull Rev. 2021 Aug;28(4):1390-1398. doi: 10.3758/s13423-021-01883-3. Epub 2021 Apr 5.


Sound symbolism refers to associations between language sounds (i.e., phonemes) and perceptual and/or semantic features. One example is the maluma/takete effect: an association between certain phonemes (e.g., /m/, /u/) and roundness, and others (e.g., /k/, /ɪ/) and spikiness. While this association has been demonstrated in laboratory tasks with nonword stimuli, its presence in existing spoken language is unknown. Here we examined whether the maluma/takete effect is attested in English, across a broad sample of words. Best-worst judgments from 171 university students were used to quantify the shape of 1,757 objects, from spiky to round. We then examined whether the presence of certain phonemes in words predicted the shape of the objects to which they refer. We found evidence that phonemes associated with roundness are more common in words referring to round objects, and phonemes associated with spikiness are more common in words referring to spiky objects. This represents an instance of iconicity, and thus nonarbitrariness, in human language.

Keywords: Bouba/kiki effect; Iconicity; Maluma/takete effect; Shape judgment; Sound symbolism.

MeSH terms

  • Humans
  • Language*
  • Semantics
  • Sound
  • Symbolism*