Bo-NO-bouba-kiki: Picture-word mapping but no spontaneous sound symbolic speech-shape mapping in a language trained bonobo

Konstantina Margiotoudi, Freie Universität Berlin
Manuel Bohn, Max-Planck-Institut für evolutionäre Anthropologie
Natalie Schwob, Pennsylvania State University
Jared Taglialatela, Kennesaw State University


Humans share the ability to intuitively map 'sharp' or 'round' pseudowords, such as 'bouba' versus 'kiki', to abstract edgy versus round shapes, respectively. This effect, known as sound symbolism, appears early in human development. The phylogenetic origin of this phenomenon, however, is unclear: are humans the only species capable of experiencing correspondences between speech sounds and shapes, or could similar effects be observed in other animals? Thus far, evidence from an implicit matching experiment failed to find evidence of this sound symbolic matching in great apes, suggesting its human uniqueness. However, explicit tests of sound symbolism have never been conducted with nonhuman great apes. In the present study, a language-competent bonobo completed a cross-modal matching-to-sample task in which he was asked to match spoken English words to pictures, as well as 'sharp' or 'round' pseudowords to shapes. Sound symbolic trials were interspersed among English words. The bonobo matched English words to pictures with high accuracy, but did not show any evidence of spontaneous sound symbolic matching. Our results suggest that speech exposure/comprehension alone cannot explain sound symbolism. This lends plausibility to the hypothesis that biological differences between human and nonhuman primates could account for the putative human specificity of this effect.