The sound of distance

Cristina D. Rabaglia, Sam J. Maglio, Madelaine Krehm, Jin H. Seok, Yaacov Trope

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Human languages may be more than completely arbitrary symbolic systems. A growing literature supports sound symbolism, or the existence of consistent, intuitive relationships between speech sounds and specific concepts. Prior work establishes that these sound-to-meaning mappings can shape language-related judgments and decisions, but do their effects generalize beyond merely the linguistic and truly color how we navigate our environment? We examine this possibility, relating a predominant sound symbolic distinction (vowel frontness) to a novel associate (spatial proximity) in five studies. We show that changing one vowel in a label can influence estimations of distance, impacting judgment, perception, and action. The results (1) provide the first experimental support for a relationship between vowels and spatial distance and (2) demonstrate that sound-to-meaning mappings have outcomes that extend beyond just language and can - through a single sound - influence how we perceive and behave toward objects in the world.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)141-149
Number of pages9
StatePublished - Jul 1 2016


  • Distance
  • Language
  • Sound symbolism
  • Spatial cognition

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Language and Linguistics
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Linguistics and Language
  • Cognitive Neuroscience


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