Nav: Home

Do we judge distance based on how a word sounds?

April 18, 2016

Marketers and brand managers responsible for naming new products should be interested to learn that people associate certain sounds with nearness and others with distance, say researchers from the University of Toronto, whose new study adds to the body of knowledge about symbolic sound.

In a study published online April 15 in the journal, Cognition, Sam Maglio, a professor of marketing at the University of Toronto Scarborough and the Rotman School of Management, and Cristina Rabaglia, a research fellow in psychology at the University of Toronto Mississauga, demonstrate that people intuitively associate front vowel sounds - those produced with the tongue relatively far forward in the mouth, such as the ee in feet -- with things that are close by. Conversely, they relate back vowel sounds - those produced with the tongue far back in the mouth, such as oo in food - to things that are farther away.

"Our feelings and intuitions about sounds influence what we feel is okay for names of specific items or brands," Rabaglia says. "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."

Maglio notes, "Perhaps it's no coincidence that a long haul airline carrier such as Lufthansa has a name that uses back vowels."

Their findings are based on a series of five experiments conducted in New York City, including one in which the subjects were told that they would be given names of cities in New York State and asked to estimate their distance from NYC. They were also advised that the greatest distance between any in-state city and NYC was 400 miles.

The names of these non-existent cities were crafted so that one, Fleen, contained a front vowel and the other, Floon, contained a back vowel. Participants were randomly asked to estimate the distance between NYC and one of the two cities, not knowing that they weren't actual places. The participants regularly predicted that Floon, N.Y., was much further from NYC than Fleen, demonstrating that people associated back vowels with distance and front vowels with nearness. The other four experiments yielded similar results; when hearing words created especially for the research; subjects generally paired those containing back vowels with distance and those including front vowels with nearness.

The study is a significant addition to the existing body of knowledge about sound symbolism, the intuitive understanding of the meaning of specific sounds. Previous studies have focused largely on sound and the properties of concrete objects, relating sounds to the roundness or sharpness of an object.

The concept of symbolic sound has been gaining currency in the field of linguistics since the 1960s, says Rabaglia.

"Previously, the idea that language was arbitrary - that one word for an object was as good as any other - held sway," she says. "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."
Media Contacts:

*Both researchers are available April 18-19 and April 23 onward

Cristina Rabaglia
Research Fellow, Psychology
U of T Mississauga

Sam Maglio
Assistant Professor, Marketing
U of T Scarborough

Nicolle Wahl
Associate Director, Communications, UTM

University of Toronto

Related Research Articles:

More Research News and Research Current Events

Trending Science News

Current Coronavirus (COVID-19) News

Top Science Podcasts

We have hand picked the top science podcasts of 2020.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Teaching For Better Humans 2.0
More than test scores or good grades–what do kids need for the future? This hour, TED speakers explore how to help children grow into better humans, both during and after this time of crisis. Guests include educators Richard Culatta and Liz Kleinrock, psychologist Thomas Curran, and writer Jacqueline Woodson.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#556 The Power of Friendship
It's 2020 and times are tough. Maybe some of us are learning about social distancing the hard way. Maybe we just are all a little anxious. No matter what, we could probably use a friend. But what is a friend, exactly? And why do we need them so much? This week host Bethany Brookshire speaks with Lydia Denworth, author of the new book "Friendship: The Evolution, Biology, and Extraordinary Power of Life's Fundamental Bond". This episode is hosted by Bethany Brookshire, science writer from Science News.
Now Playing: Radiolab

Dispatch 3: Shared Immunity
More than a million people have caught Covid-19, and tens of thousands have died. But thousands more have survived and recovered. A week or so ago (aka, what feels like ten years in corona time) producer Molly Webster learned that many of those survivors possess a kind of superpower: antibodies trained to fight the virus. Not only that, they might be able to pass this power on to the people who are sick with corona, and still in the fight. Today we have the story of an experimental treatment that's popping up all over the country: convalescent plasma transfusion, a century-old procedure that some say may become one of our best weapons against this devastating, new disease.   If you have recovered from Covid-19 and want to donate plasma, national and local donation registries are gearing up to collect blood.  To sign up with the American Red Cross, a national organization that works in local communities, head here.  To find out more about the The National COVID-19 Convalescent Plasma Project, which we spoke about in our episode, including information on clinical trials or plasma donation projects in your community, go here.  And if you are in the greater New York City area, and want to donate convalescent plasma, head over to the New York Blood Center to sign up. Or, register with specific NYC hospitals here.   If you are sick with Covid-19, and are interested in participating in a clinical trial, or are looking for a plasma donor match, check in with your local hospital, university, or blood center for more; you can also find more information on trials at The National COVID-19 Convalescent Plasma Project. And lastly, Tatiana Prowell's tweet that tipped us off is here. This episode was reported by Molly Webster and produced by Pat Walters. Special thanks to Drs. Evan Bloch and Tim Byun, as well as the Albert Einstein College of Medicine.  Support Radiolab today at