You Probably Know Which Shape Is A Bouba And Which Is A Kiki

Can you assign a nonsense word to a random shape with any certainty? According to the Bouba-Kiki effect, you sure can. This illustrates a fascinating aspect of the development of language.

So, What Are The Right Answers?

There is a blobby, rounded shape and a sharp, spiky shape. Which shape is the bouba and which one is the kiki? In tests, more than 90% of the participants will call the shapes with soft edges the bouba, and the pointy shape the kiki. Strangely enough, these answers remain consistent even among people from different cultures and who speak different languages. As reported by Psychology Today, "The bouba-kiki effect was discovered by German psychologist Wolfgang Köhler almost a century ago, and it has been tested in many languages, always with the same result." So, what gives? These two words are literally nonsense...

Whoa—Why Does Everyone Agree?

The bouba-kiki effect is an illustration of sound symbolism—the idea that certain sounds have certain primal meanings. Psychology Today explains, "Noted neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran proposes that some degree of synesthesia is a core component of the human experience. Thus, as our pre-human ancestors began shaping their first words, they created sound symbols that in some way resembled the things or events they were referring to. Eons later, sound symbolism based on synesthesia was abandoned as vocabularies became large and unwieldy, leading to the arbitrariness in word forms seen in modern languages." Sure, calling a shape a bouba is goofy, but it tells us a lot about the history of language and meaning.

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Editors' Picks: Our Favorite Videos About Accents And Language

The Bouba-Kiki Effect

Watch as everyone gives the same answers.

The Psychology Of Accents

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Key Facts In This Video

  1. The bouba/kiki effect explained: 00:11

  2. Accents can have a lot of influence over how others perceive us. 02:05

  3. We have positive biases associated with our own accent prosody, or rhythm of which we speak. 03:03

What Does Your Accent Say About You?

How do you think others perceive your accent?

Written by Curiosity Staff March 2, 2015

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