A curveball angle

Mallory Wober on shapes and thought.

Kohler in the 1920s explored connotations of the words maluma and takete (later researchers replaced these with bouba and kiki). Most readers will readily associate maluma and bouba sounds with a rounded shape – takete and kiki with a cornered shape. A 2011 David Robson article in New Scientist took us back to Humpty Dumpty who declared ‘my name means the shape I am’. These word/shape associations were not just evident in English but also in other languages, so they are not merely an amusing byway in the halls of mental science. An American team in the 1960s claimed that the nature of what people see in their environment influenced their susceptibility to a range of visual illusions; their ‘carpentered world hypothesis’ was supported by Gregory in the UK.

Psychology should next explore whether the nature of people’s visual world (be it cornered or rounded) and auditory world (be it evocative of curves or of corners) influences how they feel and behave. Important implications may well include: the degree of rectilinearity of the inhabited world; the perceived solidity and ultimately resilience of a currency depending on its name; and the possibility of an effect of a musical culture that is rhythmically two-timed (as opposed to a culture which is predominantly three-timed) and how its members feel and interact. Let us take this third suggestion first.

Music in three time ‘projects itself’ onto curves of motion and vision (as in the kite flying of Ray Bethell) while music in four or two time hearkens unto marching and jumping. This four- and two-timed ‘jerkiness’ is increasingly normative in Western popular music; one would hypothesise a move towards a less contemplative demeanour in feelings, and in behaviour (than if a culture had heard a normative shift towards three time).

As to currency, the great majority of names are ‘takete-like’ with at least one firm consonant. The Bhutanese ngulturum has four firm consonants and ‘sounds as though’ it would resist inflation. There is one currency whose name is extremely ‘maluma-like’ and that is the euro, for which one would hypothesise a lack of defensive robustness first in users’ perceptions, then feelings and eventually behaviour.

A current exhibition on the Japanese house mentions that most urban Japanese ‘live stacked up on top of each other in hutch-like apartments’. Hong Kong is a remarkable place to witness such a design – the living units are unavoidably rectilinear, but at the foot of such urban estates shopping malls are emerging which use curves wherever possible. Perhaps the ‘taketic’ apartments promote feelings (and behaviour) of bounded discipline, while the ‘malumic’ swirls of the malls intentionally promote a ‘letting-go’, suitable for shopping?

Mallory Wober
London NW3

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