Sound symbolic congruency detection in humans but not in great apes


  • Margiotoudi Konstantina
  • Allritz Matthias
  • Bohn Manuel
  • Pulvermüller Friedemann


  • Human behaviour
  • Language

document type



Theories on the evolution of language highlight iconicity as one of the unique features of human language. One important manifestation of iconicity is sound symbolism, the intrinsic relationship between meaningless speech sounds and visual shapes, as exemplified by the famous correspondences between the pseudowords ‘maluma’ vs. ‘takete’ and abstract curved and angular shapes. Although sound symbolism has been studied extensively in humans including young children and infants, it has never been investigated in non-human primates lacking language. In the present study, we administered the classic “takete-maluma” paradigm in both humans (N = 24 and N = 31) and great apes (N = 8). In a forced choice matching task, humans but not great apes, showed crossmodal sound symbolic congruency effects, whereby effects were more pronounced for shape selections following round-sounding primes than following edgy-sounding primes. These results suggest that the ability to detect sound symbolic correspondences is the outcome of a phylogenetic process, whose underlying emerging mechanism may be relevant to symbolic ability more generally.

more information