Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Aragorn or Elessar; Kiki or Bouba?

I'm going to go ahead and admit that our discussion of taste a couple of weeks ago made me a little uncomfortable. Before you jump all over me, let me clarify with a rather extreme example. I study Italian. Many people in my Italian classes study the language because it's part of their heritage or their family's culture — I don't. Coming from an English and Czech family background, I encountered Italian for the first time at the age of nineteen. If you told me that I gained my penchant for the Italian language and its literature through some kind of mystical Italian ch'i that trickled down through the tree of my lineage, bypassing generations of stodgy British ancestors buttering bits of toast in their tea rooms, only to awaken in me thousands of years later shouting, "Mamma Mia! That'sa spicy meataball-a!" I might suggest that you that you were full of... well, I'd be skeptical.

Luckily, I don't think anyone involved was trying to make a claim quite that strong. But something about the way we keep attributing certain qualities to our attraction to languages makes the analytical side of me squirm a little. It's a beautiful concept, and it's true, I like Italian. There are peculiarities of it that interest me — "pretty" elisions, et cetera — that don't exist in English. But really, why do I like it? Why do I experience this "taste" we keep talking about? On the whole, I can easily define my attraction to the language as something practical and explainable in very rational terms. But how, then, do I explain phenomena like ben sviluppato, a phrase that I knew the meaning of the first time I encountered it in reading, simply because I thought "sviluppato" sounded like it ought to mean "well-developed"?

A good guess? Context? Probably. But if I put aside the notion that the way my brain latches on to certain words because of something in my blood, how do I explain why I characterize "burrasca" as sounding like a strong gust of wind? That "sorriso" sounds like a smile? What is this term I keep using, and what do I even mean by it?

After frantic searching on Wikipedia, I finally discovered the Kiki Bouba Effect. All right, you say. Now she's really gone off her rocker. But give me a moment.

I'm going to show you a picture. Before I show you it, a question: which figure is named Kiki, and which one Bouba?

Image by Andrew Dunn, used under the CC license.

Ninety-five percent of people will name the left one "Kiki" and the right one "Bouba" — and not just English speakers, it seems.[Study PDF] The difference here is that the words have been detached from their meanings. The shapes mean nothing and the words mean nothing, but our brains forge links between the two regardless.

I do not know much linguistics, and much less phonoaesthetics, but this, I think, is Tolkien's cellar door. There's nothing really shocking about this study, except that it pins down a very specific function of how we think about words. We recognize that our brains assign qualities to words that have nothing to do with their actual meaning, as with the strength we hear in the title The Lord of the Rings, or even, on a more general level, the way we characterize words and phrases in poetry as "ringing," "lilting," or "a drone."

Tolkien was masterful in his selection of words, right down to the syllabic level, where he operated when constructing his languages. The first time I read through Tolkien's indices, his "rules" for pronunciation seemed excessive. Why would it matter to the average reader? Who cares if I say Fee-a-nor or Fay-a-nor? Why would Tolkien care?

Tolkien mentions that "The Orcs, and some Dwarves, are said to have used a back or uvular r, a sound which the Eldar found distasteful" (Appendix E). While Tolkien may not have been directly aware of psychological studies like the "Kiki Bouba Effect," he was clearly very directly concerned with the unconscious effect of the way a language sounds or rolls off the tongue, so much that he even tells us that his invented beings had preferences themselves.

This is one reason among many that Aragorn was not just Aragorn, but also Strider, the Dúnadan, Estel, and Elessar. I think we can agree that even to the uninitiated in Tolkien's lore, without knowledge of the languages at hand, there is something more stately in the name King Elessar than in, say, King Strider, or, dare I suggest it, King Trotter, which sounds more like it ought to be the name of my British grandparents' schnauzer puppy than actual royalty. Each of Aragorn's names, even without a knowledge of their roots within Tolkien's languages, evokes a certain mood that says something slightly different about his character in each of these situations.

And while Tolkien admits that he did not create his worlds and languages within a vacuum, his languages do allow him a sense of continuity that would otherwise be impossible. The fact that he is not bound to any rules beyond his own allows him to manipulate the name of each place, object, character within an infinite number of variables, limited only by the restrictions he himself has laid out. And he does. We see Tolkien scratch out and revise several times in his notes, often renaming characters several times before they suit his needs. It is this level of detail that adds yet another level to Tolkien's command of our senses as we read his work.


*I don't know anything about psychology or linguistics beyond the stuff I read casually -- if anyone has any more accurate or enlightening information, please share.


  1. An excellent "scientific" proof of what it means to have a "taste" for particular sounds! I wonder what Tolkien would have made of the concept of synaesthesia? Would he have said that he "tasted" sounds in the way that some have reported that they can hear motion or perceive personalities in numbers?


  2. I found this very interesting; I was with the ninety-five percent in naming the shapes, and I understand your comments about Italian, except my experience is in Spanish. What I really want to comment on, though, is your connection of the idea of taste to the names of Aragorn. Whenever I read LOTR I'm struck by not only his ability to change names in different situations, but appearances as well. As Strider he is haggard and travel-worn, as Aragorn he is still both, but somehow strangely noble, and as Elessar he becomes straight up kingly looking. Perhaps this connects to the study you cited. Not only does Strider/Aragorn/Elessar's name betray his place and essential mood at any given time, but so does his appearance and the aura he presents.

  3. Oddly enough, I guess I'm with the five percent.I thought Kiki sounded like a girl's name and that the image on the right looked like a flower, so I put the two together. Bouba reminded me of "Bubba", a funny guy's name and the image on the left reminded me of one of those comic strip "POW" bubbles, which I associated with a guy, hence Bouba. All that happened within 10 seconds. But anyways...another good example of Tolkien's interplay with language and identity is with colors, i.e. Gandalf the Grey to Gandalf the White (grey being a mixture of black and white, light and darkness) and the multicolored (and hence deceitful and morally ambiguous)Saruman. And with something like Latin poetry, many things help make the language tasteful even on paper like alliteration and onomatopoeia. Even if I didn't understand Latin I would still enjoy the alliteration of s, which mimic sinister hissing,chilling my bones, or long vowel sounds which give gravity to the words.

    Sam D.

  4. I think you're right about one's "native tongue" not being necessarily hereditary. I'm interested in tongues like Greek or Italian, for example, though my ancestry is mostly British/German/French/Slavic.

    Well, now that I think about it, I'm more interested in Old English, Latin, German, and Russian, so...maybe I'm a bad example. Hm.

    --Luke Bretscher

  5. Thank you for making me aware of Kiki and Bouba. I’m very interested in metaphorical thinking, and this seems to be connected to that. Slightly different, but studies also suggest that people lean forward when talking about the future, back when talking about the past (this touches on themes from class on 4.25, but that was more on the ineluctability from metaphor). There is some intuition about the meaning of words that really transcends the intellectual or cognitive. I certainly don’t know enough to speak on it, but it somehow strikes me as right, that people must think this way, that the genesis of language is somehow tied up in it. On the other hand, I think we can discard theories of blood, fashionable in all kinds of areas more in Tolkien’s day than our own. I think you’re right about Elessar. We can say that he is a king, and that Strider is not. Is there a regality to open e sounds and to sibilants? The very name effects a transformation from the Strider known in Bree. At any rate, your questions leaves me perplexed. I experience the mystery of sound, the mystery of words, in this way, but I can’t explain it.

  6. I am also part of the 95%. Because I’ve scrolled through these blog entries several times since April, I made subconscious associations with the shapes based on presence/absence of rounded edges. For the kiki model, I related pointed edges to what I considered cacophony. Honestly, I cannot easily describe my ridiculous rationale for these choices…but that is the point.
    Nonetheless, I agree with your point about Aragorn’s different names “evoke a certain mood that says something slightly different about his character in each of these situations.” Several other characters evoke similar nuances depending upon the situation. Gondorians address him as Mithrandir (from Sindarin for ‘Grey Pilgram’), while he is known as Tharkun and Olórin (in both Quenya and Tengwa) among the Dwarves and Ainur, respectively. Without speaking too much on the etymological relations of the name Gandalf to the Gandalfr of Old Norse in the Völuspá of the Elder Edda, I want to note how a name like Mithrandir or Olórin reveals his use of language change to show differences in history and historical processes between the races of Middle Earth. The proud and noble Numenoreans of Gondor address him with the Sindarin title of ‘Grey Pilgram’, while the horsemasters of Rohan use the word Greyham for Greycloak or Greymantle. Unlike the Gondorians, who retain their knowledge of the ancient world and memories of Ainur and Maiar who once walked the gardens in Numenor that bore their names. In their name for Gandalf—as a pilgrim from Valinor- the Gondorians reflect their deeper historical memory than the Rohirrim.


  7. That Kiki and Bouba thing is really interesting! I would like to propose that the reason people name the left one Kiki and the right one Bouba is because of the sharpness of the Ks in Kiki mirror the pointiness of the star points, and comparatively, the softer tones of Bouba are mirrored in the curves of the blob. Ks sound hard, or sharp, to us, because they are what are called nonvoiced velar fricatives. They are velar because of their placement, all the way back in the throat, they are nonvoiced because your vocal cords don't vibrate when you say k, and they are fricatives because the air flow stops completely when you pronounce a k - try humming a k, or saying a k continuously: it just doesn't work. All these together add up to a very sharp, pointed sound. Bs, on the other hand, are much softer. They are voiced bilabials, which means that they are made with your lips and your vocal cords vibrate when you say them. So although there is no literal connection between Kiki and the left shape, or between Bouba and the right shape, there is a SYMBOLIC connection between them - the associations we have with the word sharp, both visual and aural - combine to make us want to associate that shape with that sound. The fantastic thing is that Tolkien was certainly aware that the way a thing sounds can have an influence on the way it is perceived, and can even suggest the way it looks (and I'm not talking about onomonopoeia here!). If the elves were named Orcs and came from Mordor, it would be extremely jarring with our image of them as beautiful, ethereal, regal beings. Tolkien's knowledge of this helped him form appropriate names for his creations, and in doing so helped us understand how he wanted us to imagine and perceive his characters and places.


  8. Since I wrote this post, I've been thinking a lot about the relationship between this kind of thinking and semiotics (which Wikipedia helpfully summarizes for me as "the study of signs and sign processes"). I had to read a chapter of Ferdinand de Saussure's "Course in General Linguistics" for a class I took last year. It's a piece which, while considered by many linguists to be outdated, contains ideas which have been appropriated by fields like English and have made their way into modern literary theory.

    One of the things that Saussure talks about is the distance between the "signifier" and the "signified" -- in other words, the lack of a connection between the word "tree" and an actual, physical "tree." Saussure argues that there isn't necessarily a direct link between these two, and that the connection could be completely arbitrary -- that there is nothing particularly suggestive of a tree in the word "tree" except the fact that whenever we say tree, we imagine a tree.

    I think that the way I’m simplifying Saussure’s argument is making it look much more oppositional to my own argument than it really is in its full form. Regardless, I have to wonder how Saussure would feel about this kind of discussion. Would he argue that that in the cases of Elessar and Aragorn as signifiers, they're actually referring to two different "signifieds"? Has anyone else read (more) Saussure?

    Getting way too theoretical for my own good,