Blog | The Naming Lab

Abstract Names – Sounds Trigger Associations

Which is “Takete”?     Which is “Maluma”?
In an early experiment about sound symbolism and perceived associations, viewers were asked to compare each drawing with an invented name.

Names and images – perceptual associations
If you matched Takete with the angular illustration and Maluma with the curved one, you have made the same connections that most people do – responding to the sounds of names by aligning visual elements in the drawings with verbal elements in the alphabet letters – curves with gliding, soft sounds, angles with sharp, staccato sounds.

Which is larger – Zim, Zam, or Zem?
Say these syllables aloud and imagine they are words that mean “table” in a foreign language. The tables differ in size – large, medium and small. Which is which?

If each of the words were a racing car, which one would go the fastest?

You know more than you think you do.

Names and objects – physical associations
Most people will give similar answers about the sizes of the tables or the fastest car knowing only what is written here – and what kind of sounds they experience when they say the words out loud.

“Large” vowel sounds – like the “a” in Zam or the “O” that begins Omega – can evoke qualities of “largeness” or “strength” in a name. Because when you make these sounds, the voice box opens larger and the mouth opens wider.

“Small” vowel sounds – like the “i” in Zim and quick, or the “e” in teeny and speedy – can evoke qualities of “smallness” or speed. These sounds are made in the front of your mouth, with a smaller opening.

Vowel sounds can be ordered along a continuum of implied size or speed, as they move from the front to the back of the mouth when spoken. That’s why “quick” is quicker than “fast”.

From Zim to Zem to Zam, the perceptions of size increase from small to medium to large because you change the size of your mouth as you say each one.

The same front-to-back continuum also affects perceptions of several other dimensions – from light to heavy, gentle to strong, bright to dark, sharp to soft, angular to round.

Which is the bird?      Which is the fish?
Can you identify bird names in a language you don’t know?

Try reading the names out loud, row by row, then select the one – A or B – that sounds more like a bird name.

A. Read it A. Say it B. Read it B. Say it
1 chunchuíkit choon-chew-EE-keet máuts MAW-oots 1
2 chichikía chee-chee-KEE-a katán kah-TAHN 2
3 terés tah-RUSS takáikit tah-KAY-keet 3
4 yawarách yah-wah-RAHTCH tuíkcha too-EEK-cha 4
5 waíkia WAY-kee-ah kanúskin kah-NOOS-keen 5

Names and nature – amazing associations
In many languages, the names of birds may contain “bird-suggestive sounds”, higher frequency and higher pitched – as if inspired by birdcalls – but mammal and fish names tend not to include these sounds.

The ethnobiologist Brent Berlin* looked at the languages and fauna of South America and, in the language of Peru’s Huambisa people, he found such a profound unconscious agreement about sound characteristics – that people will even concur on which exact words make the best names for birds and fish.

Berlin read 50 pairs of names – one bird name and one fish name – to a group of 100 students, and asked them to identify which was which. The names had been randomly chosen from the Huambisa language, where the students had had no previous exposure.

The students identified the bird and fish names correctly 58 percent of the time, significantly more often than would be expected for random guessing. Somehow they were able to intuit patterns of “birdiness” or “fishiness” in the names.

Abstract names – from sound perception to drug associations
According to L.J. Shrum and Tina M. Lowrey*, phonetic sound symbolism is the ability of phonemes – the smallest units of sound in a language – to convey information on their own. When certain groups of letters are spoken, they produce sounds that have been shown to evoke meaningful associations that work across languages and cultures.

If you pair small vowel sounds with gliding consonants, you will have something that seems gentler, smoother and less disruptive.

Rituxin and Cimzia treat rheumatoid arthritis.

Assuming they both work equally well, which one might be most convenient to use?

Zytiga and Provenge are medications for prostate cancer.

Assuming they both work equally well, which one could suggest a brighter outcome?

Sounds spoken towards the front of the mouth are perceived as lighter, brighter, crisper – and these sounds may act as metaphors for hopefulness.

It all has to do with the motion and shape of your mouth when speaking the name, the sounds the individual letters or syllables make when you pronounce them – and your sense of the whole as your brain kicks in and puts it all together. It’s like gesturing with the mouth to awaken echoes already residing in the mind.

Abstract naming – how to make sense of the sound senses
An abstract name is not just a name.

When you read, hear or say it, the sounds from just its letters or letter-strings to the entire name itself can trigger associations, suggest physical dimensions, evoke feelings and emotions.

In pharmaceutical naming – if a supportive phoneme is built in that brings to mind implicit features or benefits of the drug, that name will often “sound more right” to the audience, at first exposure.

When designing abstract names, if an unusual phoneme is built in – without mitigating distractions – that name will cause a listener to feel more neutral toward the product at first exposure.

But, over time, as with a canvas that starts out blank, there is room, through brand-building, to paint a rich, shapeable range of associations around the name that will anchor its place in the healthcare arena.

In naming, the perceptual impact of vocal qualities – sound spectrum and tonality – is often underrated as a leverage to create resonating brands that go beyond conventional meaning or semantics.

It does take a certain intuition and mastery to orchestrate the intangible dimensions of an abstract name – its look, sound and feel – to build in subliminal associations that can yield distinctive, appealing pharmaceutical brands.

Which is the bird: chunchuíkit or máuts?                  Responses: 1A, 2A, 3B, 4B, 5A.