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Why Ice Cream Sounds Fat and Crackers Sound Skinny

Words carry weight. A linguist explains.

Patch file photo
Patch file photo
By Dan Jurafsky, a professor of linguistics and, by courtesy, of computer science at Stanford University. Courtesy of the Stanford News Report.

Do the names of some foods make them sound heavier or lighter than others? This seems unlikely; after all, as Shakespeare said in Romeo and Juliet:

What’s in a name? That which we call a rose/By any other name would smell as sweet. . . .

Juliet is expressing the theory we call conventionalism: that a name for something is just an agreed-upon convention. The alternative view, that a name might naturally fit an object, that some names might naturally sound sweeter than others, is called naturalism. Although conventionalism is the norm in modern linguistics, Plato argued for naturalism 2,500 years ago in the Cratylus,pointing out that sometimes sounds seem to carry meaning, a phenomenon we now call sound symbolism.

Modern research has found support for Plato’s position by looking at the meanings associated with front vowels and back vowels. Front vowels are the ones in which the tongue is high up in the front of the mouth, like the vowels in teeny, thin or Chex. By contrast back vowels are made with the tongue lower in the back of the mouth, like the vowels in bold, coarse or large.

In many languages, front vowels are used in words for small, thin, light things, and back vowels in words for big, fat, heavy things. It’s not always true, but it’s a tendency that you can see in the stressed vowels in words like little, teeny or itsy-bitsy (all front vowels) versus humongous or gargantuan (back vowels). Or in Spanish, chico (“small,” front vowel) versus gordo (“fat,” back vowel). Or French petit (front vowel) versus grand (back).

One marketing study at Loyola College created pairs of made-up product names that were identical except for having front or back vowels and asked participants to answer:

Which brand of laptop seems bigger, Detal or Dutal?

Which brand of vacuum cleaner seems heavier, Keffi or Kuffi?

Which brand of ketchup seems thicker, Nellen or Nullen?

In each case, the product named with back vowels (Dutal, Kuffi, Nullen) was chosen as the larger, heavier, thicker product.

Since ice cream is a product whose whole purpose is to be rich, creamy and heavy, it is not surprising that people seem to prefer ice creams that are named with back vowels. Researchers in an NYU study had participants read a press release describing a new ice cream about to be released. For half, the ice cream was called “Frish” (front vowel) while for the other half it was called “Frosh” (back vowel). Asked their opinions, the “Frosh” people rated this hypothetical ice cream as smoother, creamier and richer than the other participants rated “Frish,” and were more likely to say they would buy it.

In a study for an upcoming book based on my freshman seminar The Language of Food, I checked to see whether commercial ice creams (like Häagen-Dazs and Ben & Jerry’s) make use of this association by using more back vowels in their names, and conversely whether thin, light foods like crackers would have more front vowels. I found more back vowels in ice cream names—Rocky Road, Jamoca Almond Fudge, Chocolate, Caramel, Cookie Dough, Coconut—and more front vowels in cracker names: Cheese Nips, Cheez-It, Wheat Thins, Pretzel thins, Ritz, Krispy, Triscuit, Chicken in a Biskit, Ritz bits.

So what’s going on? Why are front vowels associated with small, thin, light things, and back vowels with big, solid, heavy things?

The most widely accepted theory, the Frequency Code, was developed by linguist John Ohala, one of my undergraduate professors at Berkeley. Ohala noticed that front vowels have higher-pitched resonances than back vowels. He suggested that because larger animals like lions make deep sounds while smaller animals like birds make high-pitched sounds, animals and humans learned to associate lower pitch with bigger size.

Researchers have extended this idea to show that fronting and high pitch are both especially associated with babies or children. In a study of more than 60 languages around the world I investigated such associations as the common use of front vowels in children’s names, like the y in pet names like Janey and Timmy. My linguistics colleague Penny Eckert shows that front vowels are associated with positive affect, and that preadolescent girls sometimes use vowel fronting to subtly imbue their speech with a feeling of sweetness or childhood innocence. Stanford linguistics student Kate Geenberg, MA ’10, found that speakers of American English move their vowels toward the front when using baby talk, and psychologist Anne Fernald shows that, across languages, baby talk tends to have high pitch.

This baby code might even be related to the origins of human language. Early in the evolution of language, the iconic link between vowels and concepts might have helped speakers to communicate their ideas. Perhaps an early word created by some cave woman had high pitched i sounds that meant “baby,” or low pitched a sounds that meant “big.” Such iconicity may thus help us understand some of the crucial early bootstrapping of human language.

In the end, whatever hidden meanings there may be in sounds, we can always enjoy an ice cream on a hot summer day, as a much later bard, Wallace Stevens, told us:

Let be be finale of seem.

The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.

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