The sound of a word like “knife” or “truck” seems totally arbitrary—it’s just a random sound we’ve assigned to a thing, right? But for several decades, scientists have found good evidence that the sound of words have meaning in a very real way. Sound can convey subtle information about traits such as size, shape, smoothness, and also, according to a new study in Cognition, distance. This suggests that while the sound of company and product names—Lyft, Smuckers, Nike—may seem meaningless, it may actually quietly shape consumers’ perceptions.
This is what’s called “sound symbolism”—the theory that there’s an intrinsic meaning we unknowingly attach to certain speech sounds. Sound symbolism is probably best illustrated by a well-known study from 1929 by the renowned linguist and anthropologist Edward Sapir.
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