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Phonological and orthographic influences in the bouba–kiki effect

Abstract

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.

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Notes

  1. The limitations on our materials in terms of voicing, orthography, and use of English phonemes creates a third contrast: that between stop (k, t, g, d) and continuant (s, f, z, v) consonants. This means that our items are stretched across all possible contrasts, and may make results difficult to interpret. The ideal remedy to this would be to test voiced/voiceless pairs of curved and angular stops and continuants. However, the constraints of English phonology and orthography prevent this: there are no voiced angular stops and no voiceless angular continuants in English. We address this issue more specifically in the results of each study, by looking at the specific rank of ratings for each pair of items combined with specific predictions informed by earlier results.

  2. For all p values reported in both experiments, we provide corrected p values (unless otherwise noted) using conservative sequential Bonferroni correction (Cramer et al., 2014), given both the use of multiple post hoc ANOVAs to explore effects of stop/continuant status and the general use of multi-way ANOVAs.

  3. Due to the fully crossed nature of our items, constrained by facts of English phonology and orthography described in the materials section, we also made post hoc analyses using two additional ANOVAs: one where stop/continuant status was included in lieu of voicing (shape × orthography × stop/continuant) and one in which stop/continuant status was included in lieu of orthography (shape × voicing × stop/continuant). A four-way model, shape × stop/continuant status × voicing × orthography, is impractical in this case since this model would result in eight cells, and we have only six types of items (two shapes, two letter shape types, two sound types). The results observed in the original ANOVA were straightforwardly replicated [significant interaction of shape × orthography, F(1, 292) = 671.28, p < 0.001; \(\eta_{p}^{2}\) = 0.509], and no additional significant interactions or effects emerged (all F’s < 1; p > 0.05). Replacing orthography with stop/continuant status (2 × 2 × 2; shape × voicing × stop/continuant status) did result in a significant three-way interaction of shape, voicing, and stop/continuant status [F(1, 292) = 671.28, p < 0.001], since crossing voicing and stop/continuant status results in divisions in orthography. Unsurprisingly, this interaction accounts for the same amount of variance explained by orthography in the other models (\(\eta_{p}^{2}\) = 0.509).

  4. As with Experiment 1, all reported p values are corrected due to multiple post hoc ANOVAS.

  5. As in the first experiment, we ran two additional ANOVA analyses to explore effects of stop/continuant status on shape–word ratings: one which excluded voicing in favour of stop/continuant status (shape × stop/continuant × orthography) and one which excluded orthography in favour of stop/continuant status (shape × voicing × stop/continuant; model 2c. In this case, these additional analyses presented with slightly more complicated results due to effects of voicing. Where voicing was excluded, the interaction between shape and orthography reported in the main ANOVA remained [F (1, 257) = 113.87, p < 0.001], and the voicing effect was borne out as a three-way interaction between shape, stop/continuant status, and orthography [F(1, 257) = 32.55, p < 0.001]. Where orthography was excluded, the interaction between shape and voicing remained [F(1, 257) = 32.55, p < 0.001], and the effect of orthography emerged in the form of a three-way interaction between shape, stop/continuant status, and voicing [F (1, 257) = 113.87, p < 0.001].

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Cuskley, C., Simner, J. & Kirby, S. Phonological and orthographic influences in the bouba–kiki effect. Psychological Research 81, 119–130 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00426-015-0709-2

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Keywords

  • Phonemic Awareness
  • Auditory Task
  • Abstract Shape
  • Phonological Feature
  • Literate Subject