Stanford linguist confirms role of sound symbolism for food names

Photo Credit: Stevendepolo (Flickr)In the Good Food blog’s “Watch Your Mouth,” a report about a seemingly obscure or trivial phenomenon that is part of a set of virtually unheard of linguistic discoveries that I am convinced have astonishing importance: sound symbolism.

Dan Jurafsky, a Stanford linguist who blogs on The Language of Food, recently performed a ?breakfast experiment? on 81 ice cream flavors and 592 cracker brands. He found that the ice cream names tended to employ back vowels?sounds formed in the back of our mouths that generally refer to big, fat, heavy things. Front vowels, on the other hand, tend to be used in words that refer to small, thin, light foods, like crackers.


Say them out loud: rocky road, chocolate, cookie dough, coconut?heavy on low-frequency o’s. Now listen to Cheese Nips, Cheez-Its, Wheat Thins, Ritz Bits, Triscuit, Cheese Crisps?you can hear all those little bitty e’s and i’s.

These things matter. Sound symbolism appears to be more universal than the kinds of learned cultural associations we pair with colors or odors. One linguistic theory, John Ohala’s “Frequency Code,” suggests that we associate lower pitches with aggression and hostility, while high-pitched frequencies tend to sound submissive, appeasing, or friendly. And these sound associations may explain the origins of one of the most positive symbols of all?the smile.

Sound symbolism does not just give us insight into smiles and brand marketing. It’s a marginal field of study that might one day become mainstream once more applications are developed which are able to identify and take advantage of the relationship between the kinesthetics of speech production and semantics.

A hint of why this is important for the integral worldview: sound symbolism suggests that there are patterns that connect words and objects that may be cross-cultural universals. Since the world’s languages create symbolic systems out of the sounds of words, then there would be an esoteric or hidden ordering system within languages.

And language is a crucial medium through which all human experience (including spiritual experiences) are described, prescribed, and practiced. Thus what linguists discover today about the non-arbitrary nature of the word “ice cream” they could be discovering tomorrow about the names for “God,” “Enlightenment,” or “Spirit.” And creating means for people of diverse worldviews to connect with shared symbolism and language is a further step along the conveyor belt than simply connecting via a shared abstract idea.

(And I’ll have more to say on the subject as it’s a favorite of mine.)

Hat tip: Zoe Pollock, The Daily Dish.

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