The shape of boubas: sound–shape correspondences in toddlers and adults


Address for correspondence: Daphne Maurer, Department of Psychology, Neuroscience & Behaviour, McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario, Canada L8S 4K1; e-mail:


A striking demonstration that sound–object correspondences are not completely arbitrary is that adults map nonsense words with rounded vowels (e.g. bouba) to rounded shapes and nonsense words with unrounded vowels (e.g. kiki) to angular shapes (Köhler, 1947; Ramachandran & Hubbard, 2001). Here we tested the bouba/kiki phenomenon in 2.5-year-old children and a control group of adults (n =20 per age), using four pairs of rounded versus pointed shapes and four contrasting pairs of nonsense words differing in vowel sound. Overall, participants at both ages matched words with rounded vowels to the rounder shapes and words with unrounded vowels to the pointed shapes (both ps < .0005), with no significant difference between the two ages (p > .10). Such naturally biased correspondences between sound and shape may influence the development of language.