Phonological and orthographic influences in the bouba–kiki effect

Christine Cuskley, Julia Simner, Simon Kirby

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

Abstract / Description of output

We examine a high-profile phenomenon known as the bouba–kiki effect, in which non-word names are assigned to abstract shapes in systematic ways (e.g. rounded shapes are preferentially labelled bouba over kiki). In a detailed evaluation of the literature, we show that most accounts of the effect point to predominantly or entirely iconic cross-sensory mappings between acoustic or articulatory properties of sound and shape as the mechanism underlying the effect. However, these accounts have tended to confound the acoustic or articulatory properties of non-words with another fundamental property: their written form. We compare traditional accounts of direct audio or articulatory-visual mapping with an account in which the effect is heavily influenced by matching between the shapes of graphemes and the abstract shape targets. The results of our two studies suggest that the dominant mechanism underlying the effect for literate subjects is matching based on aligning letter curvature and shape roundedness (i.e. non-words with curved letters are matched to round shapes). We show that letter curvature is strong enough to significantly influence word–shape associations even in auditory tasks, where written word forms are never presented to participants. However, we also find an additional phonological influence in that voiced sounds are preferentially linked with rounded shapes, although this arises only in a purely auditory word–shape association task. We conclude that many previous investigations of the bouba–kiki effect may not have given appropriate consideration or weight to the influence of orthography among literate subjects.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)119–130
JournalPsychological Research
Early online date24 Sept 2015
Publication statusPublished - Jan 2017

Keywords / Materials (for Non-textual outputs)

  • phonemic awareness
  • auditory task
  • abstract shape
  • phonological features
  • literate subject


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