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Krulwich Wonders: Vowels Control Your Brain

Thursday, December 08, 2011 - 09:55 AM


Here's something you should know about yourself. Vowels control your brain.

Drawing of "O"

Robert Krulwich/NPR

"I"s make you see things differently than "O"s. Here's how. Say these words out loud:

  • Bean
  • Mint
  • Slim

These "I" and "E" vowels are formed by putting your tongue forward in the mouth.

That's why they're called "front" vowels.

Now, say:

  • Large
  • Pod
  • Or
  • Ought

Foward vowels vs. Back vowels

Robert Krulwich/NPR

With these words, your tongue depresses and folds back a bit. So "O", "A" and "U" are called a "back" of the throat vowels.

OK, here's the weird part.

When comparing words across language groups, says Stanford linguistics professor Dan Jurafsky, a curious pattern shows up: Words with front vowels ("I" and "E") tend to represent small, thin, light things.

Back vowels ("O" "U" and some "A"s ) show up in fat, heavy things.

It's not always true, but it's a tendency that you can see in any of the stressed vowels in words like little, teeny or itsy-bitsy (all front vowels) versus humongous or gargantuan (back vowels). Or the i vowel in Spanish chico (front vowel meaning small) versus gordo (back vowel meaning fat). Or French petit (front vowel) versus grand (back vowel).

Try this yourself.

Frish vs. Frosh

Robert Krulwich/NPR

If I make up two words, "Frish" and "Frosh" and tell you each is about to become a new ice cream, which of the two seems richer, heavier?

For me, "Frosh," (with the back vowel "o") seems creamier. I don't know why. Just feels that way. And not just to me. A study in the Journal of Consumer Research found most people imagined Frosh creamier than Frish.

Here's another example. Richard Klink, a marketing professor at Loyola College in Maryland created a test using two sets of names. They were nonsense names, chosen at random:

Nidax vs. Nodax and Detal vs. Dutal

And then, slapping these names on various imaginary products, he asked a group of people:

  • Which brand of laptop seems bigger; Detal or Dutal?
  • Which brand of vacuum cleaner seems heavier, Keffi or Kuffi?
  • Which brand of ketchup seems thicker, Nellen or Nullen?
  • Which brand of beer seems darker, Esab or Usab?

"In each case," reports Professor Jurasky, "the participants in the study tended to choose the product named by back vowels (dutal, nodax) as the larger, heavier, thicker, darker product. Similar studies have been conducted in various other languages."

Jurasky then wondered, Do businesses know this about vowels?

For example, would an ice cream company (looking to create a rich, creamy and satisfying product,) and a cracker manufacturer, (looking to make something, thin, light and crackily) use different vowels?

He thought they might, so, on his blog, he writes:

To test the hypothesis I downloaded two lists of food names from the web. One was a list of 81 ice cream flavors that I constructed by including every flavor sold by either Haagen Dazs or Ben & Jerry's. The second was a list of 592 cracker brands from a dieting website. For each list, I counted the total number of front vowels and the total number of back vowels (details of the study are here). The result, shown in the table [below], is that ice creams names indeed have more back vowels and cracker names have more front vowels.

Ice Cream vs. Crackers Graph

Language of Food

Ice cream companies mix in lots of "O"s and "A"s, says Jurasky, like...

Rocky Road, Jamoca Almond Fudge, Chocolate, Caramel, Cookie Dough, Coconut

But the cracker people stick pretty much to "E"s and "I"s.

Cheese Nips, Cheez It, Wheat Thins, Pretzel thins, Ritz, Krispy, Triscuit, Thin Crisps, Cheese Crisps, Chicken in a Biskit, Snack sticks, Toasted chips, Ritz bits

But Why?

Why do we associate "front" vowels with small, thin light things and "back" vowels with big, solid, heavy things?

Cheese vs. Boo

Robert Krulwich/NPR

Two linguists, John Ohala and Eugene Morton proposed that over evolutionary time, humans instinctively associate pitch with size. Lions, bears, seals make low sounds, canaries, mice, rabbits higher sounds. Not always, but enough of the time that when we hear a low frequency (even in an "O" or a "U") we may think big and heavy, whereas higher frequencies (even in "I's and "E"s) suggest small and light.

The Origin Of The Smile?

Dan Jurasky goes even further. Scholars have noticed, he says, that when people say "Boo!", they form an o-shape with their lips and mouth, and look aggressive and a little dangerous.

But use the "front" vowels, like "I" and "E", your mouth and lips will widen into a kind of smile. Why do we say "cheese" when it's time to take the picture? Why does the word smile contain an "I"? These front vowels, he says, are the "smile" vowels. One day they may even explain why we smile, but in the meantime, the big news is that it's old fashioned to think of vowels as just sounds.

They are more than that: they are little strings that pull on our brains and it turns out, "I"s pull us to different places than "E"s.

Who knew?

Thanks to blog reader and reporter Peter Smith of Good Magazine for suggesting this story.


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Comments [9]

margaret schlegel

What about the A vowel?

Dec. 30 2011 12:47 PM
Clare from Joliet, IL

A goals for classical singers is consistent vocal timbre from the top to the bottom of the vocal range. This requires careful shaping of vowel sounds by subtly modifying the shape of the oral cavity (mouth). Otherwise, a word like "sea" might sound shrill on high notes or shallow on low notes; a word like "heart" might sound woofy or hollow. Singers' techniques to achieve consistent and beautiful tone quality include elevating or lowering the tongue, raising the soft palate, etc.

Dec. 29 2011 05:42 PM
John Keeney from West Chicago, IL

There's a whole world of insight into the world of speech sounds in the speech formation and eurythmy work of Rudolf Steiner:
And much more like it. In many creation stories, the world was sung or spoken into existence - an idea that links form and sound together as different aspects of the same thing. The chapter in C.S. Lewis's "The Magicians's Nephew" where Narnia is sung into being is one of the most beautiful passages in literature. A fascinating topic.

Dec. 29 2011 10:56 AM
K. Aaron from Normal, Illinois

I teach these aspects of sound symbolism to my students (I think my linguistics professor Geoff Nathan used an example like this) by asking them to imagine that two objects are found in an archaeological dig. (A) has sharp, pointed edges with a glossy finish and (B) is rounded with a matte finish. (Never mind how they have kept their finishes after being buried in the ground for centuries!) We know that one of them was called "pitiki" and the other "bodogo." Not surprisingly students almost always give A=pitiki and B=bodogo. However, it is clear that it is not just the vowels that give this effect, but also the consonants (see other comments here too). Specifically voiced consonants (b,d,g) are consonant (ha!) with the rounded, matte object and the voiceless consonants (p,t,k) with the sharp, glossy object. The latter point is evidenced by the fact that when I ask my students to assign "bidigi" and "potoko" (i.e. with interchanged high/low vowels and voiced/voiceless consonants) to the two objects, the judgements are not nearly as categorical as with "pitiki" and "bodogo."

Dec. 29 2011 09:38 AM

For those interested in this topic please check out the research of Dr. Ramachandran's Bouba-Kiki effect and his claim on the evolution of language.

This from wiki:
"Ramachandran and Hubbard[3] suggest that the kiki/bouba effect has implications for the evolution of language, because it suggests that the naming of objects is not completely arbitrary. The rounded shape may most commonly be named "bouba" because the mouth makes a more rounded shape to produce that sound while a more taut, angular mouth shape is needed to make the sound "kiki". The sounds of a K are harder and more forceful than those of a B, as well. "

Dec. 16 2011 11:44 AM

How do the genders of nouns in many languages relate to this? How do languages come up with genders for genderless objects?

Dec. 11 2011 01:58 PM
jessica from San Francisco

I think all (most) words are onomatopoetic in some way.

Dec. 09 2011 03:23 PM
Quinn Lake from Kansas

It is also interesting to notice the consonants in the list of foods....the crackers have a lot of "ch," "s," and "t" sounds, while the ice cream flavors have a lot of "k" sounds...

Dec. 09 2011 03:07 PM
Pinky Sharma from India

Nice observation. Thanks

Dec. 09 2011 09:15 AM

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