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How far is Fleen from New York City? (Hint: It’s closer than Floon)

U of T researchers probe the psychology of sound and distance

The two researchers stand with their arms crossed in front of a blackboard

Cristina Rabaglia and Sam Maglio say certain sounds are associated with distance (photo by Ken Jones)

Some sounds are associated with nearness and others with distance, say researchers from the University of Toronto.

In a study published online April 15 in the journal Cognition, Sam Maglio, a professor of marketing at the University of Toronto Scarborough and the Rotman School of Management, and Cristina Rabaglia, a research fellow in psychology at the University of Toronto Mississauga, demonstrate that people intuitively associate front vowel sounds – those produced with the tongue relatively far forward in the mouth, such as the "ee" in feet with things that are close by. Conversely, they relate back vowel sounds – those produced with the tongue far back in the mouth, such as "oo" in food – to things that are farther away.  

“Our feelings and intuitions about sounds influence what we feel is okay for names of specific items or brands,” Rabaglia says. “If you name something in a way that isn’t intuitive, it could decrease the likelihood that people will want to interact with that product.”

“Perhaps it’s no coincidence that a long haul airline carrier such as Lufthansa has a name that uses back vowels,” suggests Maglio.

Their findings are based on a series of five experiments conducted in New York City (NYC), including one in which the subjects were told that they would be given names of other cities in New York State and asked to estimate their distance from NYC. They were also advised that the greatest distance between any other city and NYC was 400 miles. 

The names of these non-existent cities were crafted so that one, Fleen, contained a front vowel and the other, Floon, contained a back vowel. Participants were randomly asked to estimate the distance between NYC and one of the two cities, not knowing that they weren’t actual places. The participants regularly predicted that Floon, N.Y., was much further from NYC than Fleen, demonstrating that people associated back vowels with distance and front vowels with nearness. The other four experiments yielded similar results; when hearing words created especially for the research; subjects generally paired those containing back vowels with distance and those including front vowels with nearness.

The study is a significant addition to the existing body of knowledge about sound symbolism, the intuitive understanding of the meaning of specific sounds. Previous studies have focused largely on sound and the properties of concrete objects, relating sounds to the roundness or sharpness of an object. 

The concept of symbolic sound has been gaining currency in the field of linguistics since the 1960s, says Rabaglia. 

“Previously, the idea that language was arbitrary – that one word for an object was as good as any other – held sway,” she says. “However, this isn’t true all the time. Feelings and intuitions about sounds also have currency, perhaps because we are human and we interpret things in a particular way.”