Is sound symbolism a uniquely human trait?

March 22, 2022 by Alison Tunley

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Is sound symbolism a uniquely human trait?This blog recently described a study investigating sound symbolism, in other words non-arbitrary mappings between phonetic properties of speech sounds and their meanings. Researchers described the way people associate the pseudowords “bouba” and “kiki” respectively with rounded and angular shapes. Now another study has tried to establish whether this could be a uniquely human trait by conducting an experiment with a language-competent bonobo.

The lucky test subject was Kanzi, a 40-year-old male bonobo who lives at the Ape Initiative in Iowa, USA. According to the Ape Initiative website, Kanzi is regarded as something of a superstar and is thought to be the first great ape to demonstrate an understanding of spoken English. Kanzi can understand novel sentences and is able to combine lexigram symbols to describe new objects and foods. His exposure to language began at a very young age and he communicates via a ‘lexigram’ board containing 395 different symbols or ‘lexigrams’. Kanzi can request objects (such as his favourite foods: bananas, grapes and peanuts) and suggest activities (playing or grooming). In fact, Kanzi has a sizable vocabulary and can comprehend roughly 200 spoken English words.

The researchers in this latest study wanted to find out whether Kanzi would exhibit any tendency towards symbolic speech-shape matching. The results are written up on detail in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B (Biological Sciences) but the short story is that, despite his extensive language training and exposure to spoken English, Kanzi did not show any sign of detecting congruencies between nonwords and shapes.

The experiment consisted of two types of trials. The first are referred to as ‘regular trials’ and involved an audio recording of a regular word that Kanzi was familiar with followed by a pair of images (one matching the word, one not), which were positioned randomly on a screen (to avoid location bias). Kanzi was familiar with the task of selecting the correct image, and differential audio feedback was provided depending on whether he made the correct choice. Interspersed among these regular trials were the test trials involving audio recordings of pseudowords and pairs of ‘rounded’ or ‘edgy’ shapes. This experimental design was aimed to ensure that Kanzi understood the task of matching the audio recording to the shape, in the same way as he was used to doing for familiar words.

Kanzi matched spoken English words to the correct picture at a rate significantly above chance. In fact, Kanzi selected the correct picture for real words with an incredible accuracy of 87% and a consistently high performance across test sessions. By contrast, however, Kanzi did not show any sign of choosing a round shape when a ‘round’ sounding pseudoword was presented, nor an edgy shape after the corresponding pseudoword was heard. The researchers conclude that their findings support the hypothesis that sound symbolism is an ability specific to humans.

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