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Phonological and orthographic influences in the bouba-kiki effect

Lookup NU author(s): Dr Christine CuskleyORCiD



This is the authors' accepted manuscript of an article that has been published in its final definitive form by Springer, 2017.

For re-use rights please refer to the publisher's terms and conditions.


We examine a high-profile phenomenon known as the bouba–kiki effect, in which non-word names are assigned to abstract shapes in systematic ways (e.g. rounded shapes are preferentially labelled bouba over kiki). In a detailed evaluation of the literature, we show that most accounts of the effect point to predominantly or entirely iconic cross-sensory mappings between acoustic or articulatory properties of sound and shape as the mechanism underlying the effect. However, these accounts have tended to confound the acoustic or articulatory properties of non-words with another fundamental property: their written form. We compare traditional accounts of direct audio or articulatory-visual mapping with an account in which the effect is heavily influenced by matching between the shapes of graphemes and the abstract shape targets. The results of our two studies suggest that the dominant mechanism underlying the effect for literate subjects is matching based on aligning letter curvature and shape roundedness (i.e. non-words with curved letters are matched to round shapes). We show that letter curvature is strong enough to significantly influence word–shape associations even in auditory tasks, where written word forms are never presented to participants. However, we also find an additional phonological influence in that voiced sounds are preferentially linked with rounded shapes, although this arises only in a purely auditory word–shape association task. We conclude that many previous investigations of the bouba–kiki effect may not have given appropriate consideration or weight to the influence of orthography among literate subjects.

Publication metadata

Author(s): Cuskley C, Simner J, Kirby S

Publication type: Article

Publication status: Published

Journal: Psychological Research

Year: 2017

Volume: 81

Issue: 1

Pages: 119-130

Print publication date: 01/01/2017

Online publication date: 24/09/2015

Acceptance date: 05/09/2015

Date deposited: 09/05/2019

ISSN (print): 0340-0727

ISSN (electronic): 1430-2772

Publisher: Springer


DOI: 10.1007/s00426-015-0709-2


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