Synaesthetic (sound) symbolism in non-synaesthetic brains

Seminar Paper, 2014

24 Pages, Grade: 2.0


Table of Contents

1 Introduction ... 1

2 Literature Review ... 2

3 Methodology ... 3

4 Results ... 5
4.1 Findings for the phonetic-based part of the survey ... 5
4.2 Findings for the colour assessment ... 8

5 Discussion ... 9
5.1 Discussion of the phonetic-based results ... 10
5.2 Discussion of the results for colour perception ... 11

6 Conclusion ... 12

7 Bibliography ... 13


1 Introduction

Everyone is aware of the fact that the sense of taste is strongly connected with the sense of smell. People, who are due to special circumstances not able to smell properly, often lose their appetite because they cannot really taste the food. But what about the other senses? Is tasting also connected with the visual or the auditive sense, or are there in general connections between other senses than smell and taste? People in a special neurological condition called synaesthesia are able to draw these connections. Ramachandran and Hubbard describe synaesthesia as a “condition, in which an otherwise normal person experiences sensations in one modality when a second modality is stimulated” (Ramachandran/Hubbard 2001:4). This can become obvious in many different, most abstract, ways like the matching of graphemes, letters or numbers, with special colours, colours with sounds or even with (tactile) conditions. But experiments in the past, for example by Wolfgang Köhler, have shown that not only synaesthetic persons but everyone can be able to draw a couple of sensual connections inside the brain. But is this the case for any connection between randomly chosen senses or only for special ones?

As far as possible within its limitations, this paper is going to answer the question whether non-synaesthetic people are able to connect the sense of taste, the auditive, the visual and the tactile sense with each other. While most of the synaesthesia studies focus on visual stimuli like colours or graphemes, this paper is mainly concerned with the auditive sense, represented by phonemes. However, since the visual sense is one of the most important senses for humans, and for the sake of comparability, visual stimuli in form of colours and different shapes are also included in the questionnaire. In order to give the reader a proper overview of the topic, a short literature review, which gives information about the literature that is the base of the paper, can be found in chapter 2. Subsequently, in chapter 3, one finds a description of the methodology on which the research based on: the evaluation of data taken from a questionnaire. The presentation of the results of this research follows in chapter 4 as well as a detailed discussion of these results, which can be found in chapter 5 right in front of the conclusion in chapter 6.

2 Literature Review

This paper focuses primarily on the effect that different phonemes can have on other sensual perceptions, also called 'synaesthetic sound symbolism', which “can be defined as the acoustic symbolization of non-acoustic phenomena.” (Hinton et al., 2006:4), i.e. non-acoustic, abstract categories like conditions or sensations are expressed by the usage of special phonetic patterns. These patterns can be frequently used single phonemes or phoneme-clusters, suffixes and also complete lexeme patterns, which are supposed to signify a certain meaning as a whole. Different groups of phonemes and their connotations have been discussed in the past by many linguists of several languages. As some of the findings in different languages match, this paper does not only refer to English literature.

Besides special phonetic patterns like clusters, there are groups of consonants and vowels which are said to be connected with different sensations and conditions. Among the group of vowels, a distinction can be made between high front vowels with a high pitch, like [ɪ], [i], [y] or [e] and low back vowels with a low pitch, like [a], [ʌ], [ɔ] or [o] (cf. Ohala). High front vowels are said to connote conditions like smallness and also cuteness and feminity, while low back vowels in contrast are connected with the opposite, first of all bigness. Ohala points out that there are several words for 'little' and 'big' in other languages, which include the relevant vowels. Examples mentioned are the high front vowel dominated lexemes petit, piccolo and pequeño, as well as grande and grosso with “a predominance of low back vowels” (ibid.). The diminutive respectively augmentative function of these vowels is also mentioned by Ungerer (1991:149).

Concerning consonants, the distinction between voiced and voiceless phoneme is the most important factor. Therefore, the voiceless plosives /p/, /t/ and /k/, the voiced consonants like /l/ and the nasals /n/, /m/, and /ɳ/ have to be taken into account primarily. The plosives, that represent the voiceless phonemes, seem to transport the opposite meaning of all the other mentioned – voiced – consonants. They are often used as initial phonemes and represent hardness. Ronneberger-Sibold (2004:597) in contrast emphasises the softness of voiced consonants, which are used in brand names. Leech supports this hypothesis by highlighting the softness (cf. Leech 1969:98) of nasals and voiced consonants like /l/ on the other hand. But although many researchers agree on the effect that these phoneme groups cause inside the brain, which makes connections between the auditive sense with other senses possible, one has to underline that iconism – and first of all phonetic iconism or sound symbolism – is no universal concept but rather a question of individual perception. The meaning is not inside the phonemes, it is in the recipient's mind and not every brain may draw the same connections, as Hinton et al. (2006 [1994]:6) state: “At the ends of sound symbolism, then, we see the human mind at work creating links between sound and meaning even where such links might not be intrinsic or universal.“ That means even though there is certainly no universal connection of auditive stimuli with other sensations, this phenomenon of cognitive linguistics seems to be real, although the results may differ.

The first researcher, who provided a famous study about this research field, was Wolfgang Köhler in 1947 (originally 1929). Köhler asked his participants to match the nonsense names maluma and takete with one of two given shapes, a round one and a star-like angular one, with the implicit expectation of the round shape being matched with maluma and the angular shape with takete (cf. Köhler 1947:224). His study was repeated by Vilayanur S. Ramachandran and Edward Hubbard in 2001 with similar shapes and the words bouba and kiki (cf. Ramachandran/Hubbard 2001:19). In their experiment, 95 % of all participants matched the round shape with the word bouba, which verifies Köhler's findings from 1929/47. Ramachandran and Hubbard explain their findings with a unity of visual perception of the shapes, a natural feeling for the inflection of vowels and a motoric factor: the movement of the tongue, the opening of the mouth and the form of the lips when speaking (cf. ibid). Also Daphne Maurer, Thanujeni Pathman and Catherine J. Mondloch were able to verify Köhler's and later Ramachandran's and Hubbard's theory with a similar experiment in 2006. Additionally to adults, they asked toddlers to match the respective shapes and words and could get similar results to the other researchers (cf. Maurer et al. 2006).

3 Methodology

For this paper, a questionnaire was designed with the help of and handed to 23 randomly chosen volunteers, in order to find out whether they connect visual stimuli, in form of different shapes and colours, and/or auditive stimuli, in form of different nonsense words, with other senses like the tactile sense and the sense of taste. Due to the assumption that the ability of connecting these senses is different for everyone, and depends on gender, age and educational background in the corresponding research fields, a participant field as homogeneous as possible is an advantage. Most of the participants are German students, 91 % of them female. There is only one native speaker of English among the volunteers. It must be mentioned that most of them are or were students of subjects that could have given them knowledge about the issue of this paper, which does not have to be a factor but could be, as these participants could have been biased.

The questionnaire itself consists of different question types, which are supposed to cover as many intersensual connections as possible. Although the paper focuses on linguistic aspects, especially the connotations with different phonetic patterns, the survey also includes questions without linguistic connection in order to provide visual stimuli, like matching of different colours with tastes and tactile conditions. The chosen colours cover a wide range, including tones which are commonly connected with everyday objects and such that are more abstract. This is supposed to provide information about whether the connotations participants have are real sensational connections or rather a product of associations with concrete objects. For the matching of a visual stimulus with phonemes in form of nonsense words, two different shapes were chosen instead of using the colours, as colours already have names. Participants could have chosen the word which sounds the most similar to the real name of the colour, which would have falsified the result. The shapes are similar to those Wolfgang Köhler used, in order to be able to compare the findings given in this paper directly to the consulted literature. Therefore, one of the shapes is rather round and amoeba-like, the other one looks similar to a star, with sharp edges. The corresponding words are nonsense, like in Köhler's studies. Two of them, bimmle and vadong, consist of merely soft consonants, two other words, teki and sopak, include only hard consonants and the last one, daltik, functions as kind of a control word and is built of phonemes from both groups. Furthermore, in each of the two word groups one finds one word with high front vowels, the other one includes only low back vowels, to be able to include different vowels, which were in the focus of Köhler's research.

4 Results

In the following chapter, the most important results of the given survey (cf. Appendix 5) are presented and some facts are emphasised with the help of charts. If you are interested in the whole result of each question in detail, you can find the complete findings in the appendix (cf. Appendix 6).

4.1 Findings for the phonetic-based part of the survey

The part of the questionnaire which deals with phonetics, can be divided into two subparts. In one of them, the participants were given an auditive stimulus in form of a nonsense word, and asked to match it with both a taste and a tactile condition, in order to find out whether there is a connection between the auditive sense and the sense of taste, respectively the tactile sense. In the other sub-part, which is similar to Köhler's experiment, participants were asked to match the same words to a visual stimulus in form of two different shapes. The results of the latter part are quite clear. 18 out of 23, or 78 % of all participants chose one of the words with the soft consonants for the round shape, while with 12 votes, twice as many persons chose bimmle rather than vadong, which got 6 votes. Both, the control word daltik and both words with hard consonants can be neglected in this case, although it should be mentioned that daltik was chosen more often (3 votes) than teki (none) and sopak (2 votes) (cf. Figure 1). The results for the angular shape show a similar tendency, which is yet not as obvious as the other one and goes towards the hard consonants this time. The majority, which means 65 %, chose teki or sopak, while five participants named the shape daltik. For this shape, both words with the soft consonants are the negligible quantity (cf. Figure 2).


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Synaesthetic (sound) symbolism in non-synaesthetic brains
University of Bonn  (Institut für Anglistik, Amerikanistik und Keltologie)
Language and Cognition
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BA Nicole Eismann (Author), 2014, Synaesthetic (sound) symbolism in non-synaesthetic brains, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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