Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Kohler, Wolfgang: Can We Represent Sounds with Shapes Using the Bouba-Kiki Effect? #AtoZChallenge Letter K

During April I'm participating in the A to Z blogging challenge.
Each day, sans Sunday, offers an opportunity to write about a
letter of the alphabet with the goal of writing 26 posts.
April is also National Poetry Month.
Back in 1929 German-American scientist Wolfgang Kohler conducted an experiment we now call the Bouba-Kiki effect. 

I first learned about the Bouba-Kiki effect watching James Geary's excellent TED talk, "Metaphorically Speaking."

Which of the following images would you label Bouba? Which Kiki?

If you're like approximately 90% of people, you identify the image on the left as Kiki and the one on the right as Bouba. 

A simple explanation of Bouba-Kiki is that we associate pointed-sounding words with Kiki and rounded-sounding words with Bouba. This suggests that language functions metaphorically as well as synesthetically. 

Even lists of nonsense words show the same effect. Those with rounded vowel sounds represent Bouba in the minds of most while Kiki suggests sharper sounds such as /t/ or /k/ or /g/. 

Science Friday posted an excellent video about Bouba-Kiki in February. 

For even more Bouba-Kiki fun, try the experiment on Shape Science from Scientific American.

In the spirit of contemplating sounds and meanings, I'm including Charles Wright's provocative poem "Chickamauga" In it Wright reminds us to hear and acknowledge the past rather than discarding it as often happens when winners control the narrative: "History handles our past like spoiled fruit." 

And while a poem may offer up meaning that confounds when we see only its surface, we must acknowledge the person, the face of its creator: "The poem is a code with no message: / The point of the mask is not the mask but the face underneath..."

The final stanza resonates with the metaphorical implications of the Bouba-Kiki Effect: "Structure becomes an element of belief, syntax / And grammar a catechist..." We may find difficulty in understanding all the meanings and implications of language, but the search for words and meanings goes on. 

Here's the poem in its entirety. 

ChickamaugaBy Charles Wright
Dove-twirl in the tall grass.
                                              End-of-summer glaze next door
On the gloves and split ends of the conked magnolia tree.
Work sounds: truck back-up beep, wood tin-hammer, cicada, fire horn.

History handles our past like spoiled fruit.
Mid-morning, late-century light
                                                 calicoed under the peach trees.
Fingers us here. Fingers us here and here.

The poem is a code with no message:
The point of the mask is not the mask but the face underneath,
Absolute, incommunicado,                                                                                                  
                                       unhoused and peregrine.

The gill net of history will pluck us soon enough
From the cold waters of self-contentment we drift in
One by one
                  into its suffocating light and air.

Structure becomes an element of belief, syntax
And grammar a catechist,
Their words what the beads say,
                                        words thumbed to our discontent.


  1. Very interesting concepts and poem. I especially like the line "The point of the mask is not the mask but the face underneath,"

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