25 Jun 2016

Symbolic sounds

From This Way Up, 1:40 pm on 25 June 2016

From Nads Hair Removal Gel , to Wack Off! insect repellent, there's the tasty SARS canned drink and Ikea's Fartfull work bench; consumer history is littered with a litany of product names that have been lost in translation.

Now there's something else for people naming new products to worry about; the distance of sound.

Husband and wife Sam Maglio and Cristina Rabaglia of the University of Toronto research sound symbolism, the intuitive understanding of the meaning of specific sounds.

Husband-and-wife research team Cristina Rabaglia and Sam Maglio examine whether we judge distances based on word sounds.

Husband-and-wife research team Cristina Rabaglia and Sam Maglio examine whether we judge distances based on word sounds. Photo: (University of Toronto Scarborough)

Their work has shown that people associate some sounds with closeness, and others with distance. So people automatically associate front vowel sounds (produced with the tongue forward in the mouth, such as the 'ee' sound in 'feet') with things that are close by. On the other hand they relate back vowel sounds (produced with the tongue far back in the mouth i.e. the '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," Cris 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."

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