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Through the looking glass, Lewis Carroll's Alice stumbles upon an enormous egg-shaped figure celebrating his un-birthday. She tries to introduce herself:
"It's a stupid name enough!" Humpty Dumpty interrupted impatiently. "What does it mean?"
"Must a name mean something?" Alice asked doubtfully.
"Of course it must," Humpty Dumpty said with a short laugh: "My name means the shape I am - and a good handsome shape it is, too. With a name like yours, you might be any shape, almost."
PURE whimsy, you might think. Nearly 100 years of linguistics research has been based on the assumption that words are just collections of sounds - an agreed acoustic representation that has little to do with their actual meaning. There should be nothing in nonsense words such as "Humpty Dumpty" that would give away the character's egg-like figure, any more than someone with no knowledge of English could be expected to infer that the word "rose" represents a sweet-smelling flower.
Yet a spate of recent studies challenge this idea. They suggest that we seem instinctively to link certain sounds with particular sensory perceptions. Some words really do evoke Humpty's "handsome" rotundity. Others might bring to mind a spiky appearance, a bitter taste, or a sense of swift movement. And when you know where to look, these patterns crop up surprisingly often, allowing a monoglot English speaker to understand more Swahili or Japanese than you might imagine (see "Which sounds bigger?" at the bottom of this article). These cross-sensory connections may even open a window onto the first words ever uttered by our ancestors, giving us a glimpse of the earliest language and how it emerged.
More than 2000 years before Carroll suggested words might have some inherent meaning, Plato recorded a dialogue between two of Socrates's friends, Cratylus and Hermogenes. Hermogenes argued that language is arbitrary and the words people use are purely a matter of convention. Cratylus, like Humpty Dumpty, believed words inherently reflect their meaning - although he seems to have found his insights into language disillusioning: Aristotle says Cratylus eventually became so disenchanted that he gave up speaking entirely.
The Greek philosophers never resolved the issue, but two millennia later the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure seemed to have done so. In the 1910s, using an approach based in part on a comparison of different languages, he set out a strong case for the arbitrariness of language. Consider, for instance, the differences between "ox" and "boeuf", the English and French words for the same animal. With few similarities between these and other such terms, it seemed clear to Saussure that the sounds of words do not inherently reflect their meanings.
The world of linguistics was mostly convinced, but a few people still challenged the status quo. While the German psychologist Wolfgang Kohler was staying in Tenerife, he presented subjects with line drawings of two meaningless shapes - one spiky, the other curved - and asked them to label the pictures either "takete" or "baluba". Most people chose takete for the spiky shape and baluba for the curvy one. Though Kohler didn't say why this might be, the observation strongly suggested that some words really might fit the things they describe better than others. His work, first published in 1929, did not attract much attention, and though others returned to the subject every now and then, their findings were not taken seriously by the mainstream. "They were considered a curiosity and never properly explored," says Gabriella Vigliocco, professor of the psychology of language at University College London.
The turning point came in 2001, when Vilayanur S. Ramachandran and Edward Hubbard, both then at the University of California, San Diego, published their investigations into a condition known as synaesthesia, in which people seem to blend sensory experiences, including certain sounds and certain images (Journal of Consciousness Studies, vol 8, p 3). As many as 1 in 20 people have this condition, but Ramachandran suspected that cross-sensory connections are in fact a feature of the human brain, so that in practice we all experience synaesthesia at least to a limited extent. To explore this idea, he and Hubbard revisited Kohler's experiment to find out whether average people, and not just synaesthetes, might automatically link two different sensations.
Using similar shapes to those in the original experiment, but changing the names of the invented terms slightly, they found that an astonishing 95 per cent of people labelled the spiky object as "kiki" and the curvy one as "bouba". One possible explanation is that this might be down to the shapes of the lips as we form the vowels in these words; in "bouba" they are more curved than in "kiki".
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Robson, David. 2011. "Kiki or bouba? In search of language's missing link ". New Scientist. Posted: July 19, 2011. Available online: http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg21128211.600-kiki-or-bouba-in-search-of-languages-missing-link.html