The science of sound symbolism is the study of the relationship between the sound of a word and its meaning. The ancient Greeks were the first to theorize that there was a relationship between sounds and word meaning. In Plato’s Dialogues, he recounts a debate where Socrates rejected the contention that the relationship between sound and word meanings was purely arbitrary, contending that in the “good words” sound and word meaning were the same.
In the last hundred years, the field of sound symbolism has formally studied whether Socrates was correct. Studies investigating the “Bouba Kiki effect” have shown a consistent association of certain sounds with specific shapes. Other research has showing that certain phonomes (the smallest part of a word) have specific associations as well.
Considerable investigation has been directed at the front- and back-vowel effect on perceived word meaning. In this context, “front” and “back” refer to the part of the mouth used to make the sound. For example, the “ee” sound in “tea” is a front-vowel sound and the “oo” sound in “toot” is a back-vowel sound.
In a seminal experiment, subjects were shown two different-sized tables and were then asked to describe each using one of two made-up words, “mil” or “mal.” Subjects consistently selected mil (front vowel) for the smaller table and mal (back vowel) for the larger table. This result is reproduced when the experiment uses words containing different one-syllable front- and back-vowel pairs and different test subject populations. This front/back vowel effect is consistent across subjects of different ages, nationalities, or native languages. Further research has shown the front/back vowel distinction applies to color (light/dark), speed (fast/slow), and distance (near/far).
Researchers have applied this knowledge to select potential brand names whose vowel type is associated with a desired product characteristic. For example, when consumers were asked to choose between “frish” and “frosh” for ice cream, they chose frosh, which has a back-vowel sound likely to be associated with a smoother, richer and creamier flavor.
However, more recent research has proven the existence of culturally-specific positive/negative sound associations. For example, in American English the “yoo” sound (as in “puke” or “yuck”) is associated with disgust and is perceived negatively. This effect is so pronounced that American political candidates with this “yoo” sound in their last names are disproportionally likely to lose elections.
Sound symbolism researchers were curious how these positive/negative sounds would interact with the seemingly universal associations of front/back vowel sounds. First, as a control, subjects were asked whether a made-up two-syllable word was for a small 2-seat convertible or a SUV. As expected, front-vowel sounds corresponded to the small, fast convertible choice and rear-vowel sounds corresponded to the larger, more solid SUV.
However, when asked to choose a preference for a SUV brand between a word with “yoo” as the back-vowel sound and a word containing front-vowel sound, subjects selected the option that did not include the negative “yoo.” Similar, users also preferred words with the positive front-value “ah” sound from “posh” even for products associated with rear-vowel sounds.
This effect even carried over to products like beer, which can use different promotion strategies to take advantage of the front/back vowel effect. For example, a clean, crisp taste is associated with a front-vowel sound and a smooth, mellow and rich taste is associated with a rear-vowel sound. However, even when test subjects are told a fictitious beer had a smooth, mellow and rich taste, they preferred the name with front-vowel “ah” positive sound over a neutral rear-vowel sound.
This research underlines the importance of knowing your audience when selecting a product name. Sound symbolism is just one factor to be considered when choosing a business or brand name. Brandroot can help you with this process. We select names and match them with potential uses, applying scientific research and other best practices. We help you find the “good words” so that your customers will be attracted to your brand, rather than saying “yuck!”