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Sounds of Words Give Us an Emotional Rush

A study published in the journal, Psychological Science claims that some sound combinations of words elicit different emotional responses in our brains. Even before the current pandemic hit the headlines, the sound of the word ‘virus’ triggered a measurable reaction.

It seems that the researchers of the study, “Affective Arousal Links Sounds to Meaning”, also investigated the correlation between shapes and sounds. When volunteers were presented with a spiky shape and a rounded shape and then asked to predict which of the two was named Kiki and which was called bouba, the vast majority matched them according to the sound each word makes when read aloud.

Spiky cacti in little pots

This well-known matching test returns similar results across most age groups and cultures around the world, although no one can agree as to why it should be. The team, led by Jr Professor Morten Christiansen, wrote “For most words, the relationship between sound and meaning appears arbitrary: The sound of a word does not typically tell us what it means. A growing body of work, however, has shown that the sound of words can carry subtle cues about what they refer to.”

In their attempt to refine the study further, they asked the volunteers to rate the level of arousal for both auditory and visual stimuli, taken from eight former studies using the matching effect. Their findings showed that spiky shapes and kiki-type words were highly stimulating, while rounded shapes and bouba-type words were calming.

Not content with the voracity of these results, the team expanded the study to include a further nine hundred unrelated nonsense words. Their hypothesis was found to be valid. Spiky sounding words are stimulating and bulbous sounding words are relaxing to us.

Christiansen and his colleagues believe that this suggests that the mapping of new vocabulary in the human brain is assisted by our emotional response to the visual and auditory versions of the word. They also theorise that it may have, “Allowed early humans to get language off the ground in the first place, by making it easy to associate a word with its meaning.”

From a former teacher’s perspective, this finding is incredible. With the spoken word, we are able to convey completely different atmospheres using our intonation, volume and emphasis during the delivery. Any actor worth their salt knows when to hasten speech for dramatic effect just as every parent reading a bedtime story knows how to speak softly to induce sleep in their child.

Scrabble tiles spelling the word 'feel'

As an author, the link between the sounds of particular words and the intensity of emotion relayed to the reader is a glorious revelation. It opens up a whole new way of infusing our work with layers of feelings. In our continued pursuit of creating stories that are not just engaging, but wholly immersive, this knowledge is a game changer.

It also adds a new slant to the process of editing manuscripts, choosing stimulating or calming words or phrases to carry the reader seamlessly through to the conclusion of each tale.

Words really do have power, ladies and gentlemen. Please, wield them gently and with great kindness.

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