Study: Some words sound farther away than others

"Previously, the idea that language was arbitrary -- that one word for an object was as good as any other -- held sway," explained study co-author Cristina Rabaglia.
By Brooks Hays  |  April 18, 2016 at 2:59 PM
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TORONTO, April 18 (UPI) -- Words have meanings beyond those found in the dictionary. The very sounds of the syllables that form everyday words carry symbolic meaning.

As researchers at the University of Toronto recently discovered, some words sound and feel "farther away" than others. The sounds of the consonants and vowels connote a sense of distance -- some sound or feel far, while others intimate closeness.

A pair researchers -- a marketing professor and a psychologist -- came to the revelation after conducting a series of tests, one of which asked New York City residents to estimate the distance of other cities in New York State from the Big Apple. The city names they were given were fictitious and included places like Floon, N.Y. and Fleen, N.Y.

The results suggest people associate vowel sounds made with the front portion of the tongue -- like "ee" in feet -- with objects that are relatively close. Vowel sounds made toward the back of the mouth -- like "oo" in foot -- connoted a sense of greater distance.

Similar studies have shown people associated different sounds with physical qualities of objects, like roundness or sharpness. The latest findings, published in the journal Cognition, lend credence to the idea that the sounds that form words have symbolic value.

"Previously, the idea that language was arbitrary -- that one word for an object was as good as any other -- held sway," study co-author Cristina Rabaglia, a research fellow in psychology at the University of Toronto Mississauga, said in a news release. "However, this isn't true all the time. Feelings and intuitions about sounds also have currency, perhaps because we are human and we interpret things in a particular way."

The findings also have relevance for anyone who uses words to try to sell products.

"Our feelings and intuitions about sounds influence what we feel is okay for names of specific items or brands," added Sam Maglio, a professor of marketing at the University of Toronto Scarborough. "If you name something in a way that isn't intuitive, it could decrease the likelihood that people will want to interact with that product."

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