Cross-sensory perception of tone – English and Syuba (Tibeto-Burman, Nepal) - Lauren Gawne


Cross-sensory perception of tone – English and Syuba (Tibeto-Burman, Nepal) - Lauren Gawne

Across languages, people have different ways of describing the pitch of sounds. English-speakers describe pitch according to the spatial dimension of height (the dimension also encoded in Western musical notation), but this is by no means the only option. In other languages people employ different scalable dimensions, for example speakers of Farsi (Dolsheid et al. 2013) talk about ‘thick’ and ‘thin’ pitch. These linguistic metaphors are not only used for speaking about pitch, but are deeply rooted cognitive metaphors.

In this talk I present results of a collaborative project with Suzy Styles from NTU Singapore, that seeks to better understand the cross-cultural perception of tone from a cross-sensory perspective. We designed an experiment in which participants matched sounds of different pitch with pairs of physical objects. The participants were from two groups; half were native speakers of English, and the other half were native speakers of Syuba (Tibeto-Burman, Nepal). Syuba has high and low lexical tone, and currently no consistent terminology for referring to this distinction in the language. This study shows us a unique way that language interacts with sensory systems. Syuba and English both show similar tendencies for tone mapping, which are congruent with the established literature, but have stronger preferences for particular mappings.

Alongside the tone-mapping exercise the participants also did the kiki/bouba (AKA maluma/takete) test, mapping nonsense words to spiky and blobby items. I discuss the results, which include the second documented failure of the experiment, the first since Rogers & Ross (1975). I discuss the implications of this failure, and the need to test cross-sensory mapping with speakers of a broader range of languages.


  •  Lauren Gawne
    Lauren Gawne, La Trobe University