The sound of a word like "knife" or "truck" seems totally arbitrary—it’s just a random sound we’ve assigned to a thing, right? But for several decades, scientists have found good evidence that the sound of words have meaning in a very real way.
Sound can convey subtle information about traits such as size, shape, smoothness, and also, according to a new study in Cognition, distance. This suggests that while the sound of company and product names—Lyft, Smuckers, Nike—may seem meaningless, it may actually quietly shape consumers' perceptions.
This is what’s called "sound symbolism"—the theory that there’s an intrinsic meaning we unknowingly attach to certain speech sounds. Sound symbolism is probably best illustrated by a well-known study from 1929 by the renowned linguist and anthropologist Edward Sapir.
In his experiment, Sapir had people assign two fake words—"mil" and "mal"—to either a larger or smaller table. And what he found was pretty astonishing: The majority of participants called the smaller table "mil" and the larger table "mal." Since Sapir made up the words "mil" and "mal," he concluded that people inferred word meaning from the sound.
Over the decades, researchers have verified and added to what Sapir discovered in his study, that certain speech sounds have meaning, separate from the definition of a word itself. They’ve found links between word sounds and concepts for all sorts of characteristics, including size, shape, speed, weight, sharpness, and creaminess.
"Sound symbolism says that people have this intuition, that there are right words for certain things," explains Sam Maglio, one of the authors of the new Cognition study and an assistant professor of marketing at the University of Toronto Scarborough....