UT Professor Explains How Language Shapes Our Thoughts

Maybe you haven’t spent that much time thinking about it, but it is a weird facet of the human experience that a collection of sounds you make by blowing air through your vocal cords and manipulating your mouth and tongue can allow you to communicate complex concepts to other people. Stranger still, perhaps, that cultures have developed symbols we can write out that allow you to form someone else’s words in your own mind to receive their thoughts well after they were initially set down.

For now, I want to focus on words. Why do they mean what they do?

In Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare wrote “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” He is making a general point that the word we use to name a concept seems random.

The philosopher C.S. Peirce pointed out that most words are symbols; the word is related to its meaning only by habit. Of course, some words are more like what he called icons—they resemble the thing they represent. Words like “meow” or “moo” are intended to mimic the sounds of animals, and so the sound itself relates to what it means. But, as Shakespeare noted, there is nothing about a rose that makes the word “rose” a particularly good symbol to use for it.

More recent studies, though, have shown that the relationship between words and their meanings is not completely arbitrary.

For one thing, words require some effort to say. Short words are less effortful than long words. And some sounds are easier to make than others. It is no surprise that the words children use for their parents involve sounds that are short and easy to make (like “mama” and “dada”).

In addition, words that are used often are generally shorter than words that are used rarely. People are trying to minimize their effort when communicating, and so concepts that need to be communicated frequently end up with short words. Communities often shorten words that have to be used a lot. For example, now that telephones are everywhere, we call them “phones.”

People are sensitive to the effort that goes into producing words, even if they are not aware of it.  A study by Erin Bennett and Noah Goodman in a 2018 issue of the journal Cognition looked at words called intensifiers. An intensifier magnifies a value. A very expensive watch is more expensive than one that is merely expensive, because of the intensifier “very.” Interestingly, the longer and more effortful an intensifier, the more that people think it magnifies a value. So, a very expensive watch pales in comparison to an extraordinarily expensive watch or a ridiculously expensive watch.

And now for something even weirder.

The sounds of language are also associated with shapes. Look in the mirror and say “kiki.” The sounds of the consonant is sharp, and the vowel makes you smile as you say it.  Now, say “bouba.” The consonant is smoother, and you round your mouth to pronounce the vowel.

“Kiki” and “Bouba” don’t have any concepts associated with them in English. But, suppose I showed you a shape with lots of angles in it and another one that had lots of rounded edges. If I told you that Kiki and Bouba are words in a foreign language that referred to shapes, chances are you would guess that Kiki refers to the angled shape, and Bouba refers to the rounded one.  Several studies have shown that people make this association.

And this works for names of people, too. A recent study by David Barton and Jamin Halberstadt contrasted men’s names in which the vowel sounds make people smile versus names in which the vowel sounds make people round their mouths. They showed people men’s faces and several possible names and asked which names went best with the face. People were more likely to select angular faces for names with vowels that cause a smile and round faces for names with vowels that cause a rounded mouth.

So, it appears that Shakespeare was mostly right. Perhaps it would have been better to say that a rose by almost any other name would smell as sweet. If only that scanned in iambic pentameter.

Illustration by Drue Wagner


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