If you’ve ever fallen down a stress spiral, you’ve probably struggled finding the right words to calm down yourself. There might be a few stock mantras in your back pocket or the totally-not-anxious chant of “You’re good, you’re good, you’re good, you’re good” (just me?). But the next time that you’re bugging out, struggling to talk yourself out of it, take a minute to stop yourself and think round.
A recent study published in Psychological Science found that participants felt particularly calmed by round-sounding pseudowords as compared to “spiky” words. Now, what Earth does that mean? Well, for example, participants found themselves less aroused and stimulated to round, like literally round, words like bouba. On the flip side, a word like kiki tends to inspire more stimulation. This is called the bouba-kiki effect, and it speaks to the sounds and shapes that we find comforting.
This is interesting in two regards. First, it implies why certain words like “virus” can arouse nervousness (beyond its connection to COVID-19). You can have grounding associations between abstract concepts like shapes and linguistic signs, such as spoken words. And second, certain words might have different affects on our emotions, regardless of their meaning.
What’s interesting, then, is that we can find a sense of calm in speaking these round pseudowords, like bouba or a round non-word used in a 1947 study, maluma. Try it. It’s fun to say: “Bouba, maluma, bouba, maluma, bouba, maluma.”
If you find that it isn’t fun to say and you actually prefer the sound of kiki, there might be a reason for that. The study focuses on female college students who are native-English speakers. “Throughout the study no further mention was made to the participants’ backgrounds, and whether they are multilingual with perspectives shaped by participation in multiple sociocultural linguistic systems,” says sociocultural linguist Jamie A. Thomas, PhD.
Dr. Thomas points out that for speakers of Swahili—a language spoken around the world, and largely in eastern African countries by over 150 million people—has an entirely different morphosemantic (shape-meaning) and morphophonological (shape-sound) system from English. Therefore, they would have “vastly different reactions, or affective arousal, to the contours of kiki,” says Dr. Thomas. “In Swahili, the morpheme or meaningful word part ki is highly productive, and one of its uses is as a diminutive, to refer to things as small and/or lower status: mtoto (child) vs. kitoto (child-like, childish). It’s also a morpheme that appears in words that describe delicate objects and concepts: kipepeo (butterfly), kidokezo (hint, inkling), kitendawili (riddle).”
So native English speakers are socialized not only associate curvy looking words with a curvy sound, we’re bred to find this sense of curviness appealing and non-threatening.
“I would say it’s not so much about why certain words inherently sound calming or aggressive, but what about the languages and related communicative value systems we are most used to that facilitates our affective responses to the sound and shape contours of words,” says Dr. Thomas.
But if you find it calming, keep those round words rolling.