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Perception of Words and Their Weight

05 July 2014

Have you ever thought about how certain words, and more specifically the sounds within them, play a role in our perception of what that word symbolizes? Part of this concept is called 'sound symbolism', where certain sounds can convert different perceptions. It's an interesting topic, and has been researched by several different fields. It's even recently caught the eye of a Reader's Digest writer, Alison Caporimo, who wrote a little ditty on this concept in the December 2013 issue (page 55).

She mentioned that researchers from NYU used the pseudo-words 'frish' and 'frosh' to describe a fake product and asked subjects to rate which they thought seemed like more of an ice cream brand. Can you guess which fake word subjects felt more keen to eat as a snack food? Frosh.

Now why is this? Caporimo goes on to state that these researchers believe that it is due to something deemed as the "Frequency Code". This term has been used by other researchers, even  as early as 1994 by John J. Ohala, a UC Berkley Linguistics professor. It is used to describe the phenomenon of associating front vowels (like 'i') with smaller (and thus healthier) things. Following suit, this is why words with back vowels like 'frosh' sound heavier, creamier and/or bigger.

It does make sense, as our oral cavity is much smaller when creating the front sounds, which could partially be the reason why we associate words with these sounds as 'smaller' or 'lighter'. Whereas, when we create sounds that are further back, our oral cavity is larger and we even open our mouth more, relating to larger, heavier objects that take up more space. At least, that's what I think.

Although this concept isn't 100% speech-language pathology related, what do you guys think? Conjure up some words that fit this or even some that don't. I believe most food brands follow suit with this. John J. Ohala even mentions in his article that it is seen cross-linguistically and he showed similarities in the vowels of words meaning "large" and "small" across several languages, it's worth a check (Table 22.2, page 336).

This does come with a  disclaimer that the author of the Reader's Digest article didn't mention who the NYU researchers were or provide a reference. I tried to find who they were for referencing through some online research, but couldn't. I did find John J. Ohala's article that discusses this concept, and other linguistic phenomena, that contribute to sound symbolism. There is a research article by two Marketing professors, one of which is from NYU, that used the terms 'fresh' and 'frosh' in their research... so perhaps that is who Caporimo is referring to? I've added it below.

Reader's Digest Article:

John J. Ohala, "The frequency codes underlies the sound-symbolic use of voice pitch" :

Eric Yorkston & Geeta Menon, "A Sound Idea: Phonetic Effects of Brand Names on Consumer Judgments" :

* I'd also like to thank my lovely mother, who is an avid reader of several magazines and found this article. She's always looking out for linguistics and speech/medical related articles for me. :)

There is also a disclaimer that I wasn't paid by any of these people or their affiliated organizations or publications. This is solely a reflection of my own interest in this subject and the desire to share this information with others.