Do the sounds of certain words affect on our emotional state? It looks like the answer may be yes.

Recently, a psychologist and a phoneticist conducted experiments to test whether certain sounds can have a positive or negative effect on a person’s mood. Long story short, they found that the [i:] sound had a generally positive effect on a person’s mood, while the [o:] sound had a generally negative effect.** When I read this, it reminded me of the linguistic concept of sound symbolism.

I first learned about the concept of sound symbolism—where certain sounds are thought to have certain connotations and therefore influence how we react to them—while writing a paper on a well-known advertising slogan. I was attempting to demonstrate how linguistic awareness could help when coming up with new product names or marketing copy, and I discovered that research had been done on this concept of sound symbolism. (I’ve included a citation for the article I referenced most heavily at the end of the post, for anyone who wants to read up in more detail.)

But for these two sounds in particular, I thought the stronger case (rather than sound symbolism) was made by the section of the experiment that focused on stimulating the muscle groups required to make these sounds, and then measuring the effect on emotional state. This is primarily because the muscles used to make the [i:] sound are very much like those used to smile, where the muscles used to make the [o:] sound were the opposite, and as with other body language studies, the physical can have a marked impact on the mental and emotional. This is why body language experts like Amy Cuddy recommend adopting a powerful body stance, even when you don’t feel powerful—because “faking it” very often leads to “making it.”

What do you think? Do you think that sound symbolism has a leg to stand on as a concept? Or are actions speaking louder than words?

 

**Sidenote: I’m using the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) symbols for the “i” and “o” sounds, although the original article didn’t. I’m making an educated guess based on the pictures included in the article.

The reason for this disclaimer is because the author of the article used the word “like” as an example of the “i” sound, which doesn’t match the IPA symbol for [i] OR the facial expression (which looks like a smile). In fact, the IPA symbol for the “i” in the word “like” would be the dipthong [aI].

So I’m not 100% positive that the “i” and “o” sounds they tested are in fact a match for the IPA symbols I’m using. However that’s my educated guess—let me know if you agree or disagree in the comments!

 

Also, here’s that citation I mentioned above:

Klink, Richard R. 2000. Creating brand names with meaning: The use of sound symbolism. Marketing Letters 11 (1): 5-20.

 

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