Maluma, Maluma

Researchers investigating sound symbolism have shown that we instinctively link the taste of milk chocolate with rounded shapes and soft vocal sounds. Dark chocolate, on the other hand, is described in terms of angular shapes and sharp vocalisations

New Scientist recently ran an article called “Language’s Missing Link”, in which the concept of sound symbolism was explored – that is, the theory that humans instinctively link vocal sounds to specific sensory experiences. Almost everybody “knows” that the word kiki indicates a spiky object, and that bouba describes something soft and pillowy, even though those two words do not actually exist in any language.

Most research into sound symbolism has focussed on how we link sounds to visual and tactile stimuli, but a team led by Mary Kim Ngo at the University of Oxford has demonstrated that we also apply sound symbolism to our sense of taste. Ngo and colleagues asked a group of selfless volunteers to eat three different types of chocolate – Lindt Extra Creamy milk chocolate, and
Lindt dark chocolate with 70% or 90% cocoa content – and to rate each of the
chocolates according to the scales illustrated below:


So each type of chocolate was rated by the volunteers for tuki-ness, maluma-ness, and so on. Obviously, these are made-up words in the same vein as bouba and kiki, with tuki and takete representing sharp sounding words, and lula and maluma representing softer sounds.

The chocolates were also rated as tasting closer to the purple, rounded shape, or the orange, spiky shape. That may sound a bit crazy, but it’s not really: researchers like Vilayanur Ramachandran and Edward Hubbard think that we are all capable of experiencing synaesthesia, to a greater or lesser degree.

So, what were the results of this simple experiment? Well, nothing
too surprising: milk chocolate was consistently described as more lula and maluma, and linked with the rounded shape. Both the 70% and 90%
cocoa chocolate samples were consistently rated as more tuki and takete, and
linked to the spiky shape. Both the dark chocolates – 70% and 90% cocoa – were rated similarly on the scales, being equally tuki (or takete, if you prefer). That result was a little unexpected, though, because previous research has indicated that most of us find that, as dark chocolate goes,  85% cocoa content is really the limit of palatability. Beyond 85%, we’re chocolate wusses – 90% cocoa is too bitter for the majority of people. So a difference in tuki-ness
between 70% and 90% cocoa chocolate might have been expected – but that wasn’t actually observed in this experiment.

A similar type of test was then carried out, but using a new type of chocolate: Cadbury’s Koko© milk chocolate truffles. And this test highlighted something quite interesting.

Kim Ngo’s team asked their participants to rate the sensory attributes of Cadbury’s Koko, but they changed the rating system slightly. Rather than rating the chocolate on a scale from lula to tuki, or takete to maluma, participants were asked to rate the chocolate on a scale from lula to koko. And – importantly – the experiment was prepared so that the participants did not know that Koko was actually the brand name of the chocolate.

And the result? Well, just as with Lindt milk chocolate, the participants described this type of chocolate as pretty lula – certainly more lula
than koko. But – and this is the interesting bit – Kim Ngo’s team had wondered if the semantic similarity of “koko” to “cocoa” would override the symbolic
sharpness of the made-up word koko. If that was the case, then people would be more likely to use koko, rather than lula, to describe a chocolate product. But, as it turned out, the sound symbolism of lula which brings to mind sensations of softness – was more powerful than the semantic similarity between koko and cocoa.

Whilst making up words for different sensations is great fun – well, it passes a dull afternoon, if nothing else – exploring sound symbolism may reveal much more about us than how we feel about chocolate. As David Robson,
the author of the New Scientist’s article, points out, researchers like Sotaro
believe that genuine sound-symbolic words (like the Japanese gorogoro, meaning “a large object rolling”) may actually be echoes of the very first human language. Sound symbolism means that we could be hearing, many thousands of years down the line, the vocalisations that our ancestors made to describe their sensory experiences – the feel, taste and smell – of their world. Our modern languages may encapsulate, in amongst all our chatter, the sounds of ancient Earth. I wonder if there’s a word to describe how brilliant that would be?


Mary Kim Ngo et al (2011). Assessing the shapes and speech sounds that people associate with chocolate samples varying in cocoa content. Food Quality and Preference 22 pp 567 – 572  doi:10.1016/j.foodqual.2011.03.009

David Robson (2011). Language’s Missing Link. New Scientist 211 (2821) pp 30 – 33

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