Revisiting 27: Lilo, Stitch, Bouba, and Kiki

Mike Pope on Facebook, following up on my posting of the 25th “Lilo & Stitch”, with a question about the naming of the characters in the movie:

(#1) Stitch and Lilo

MP: Do you think the animators consciously followed a kiki/bouba paradigm?

AZ:  Almost surely not consciously; they just chose names that “sounded right” to them.

In general, writers’ name choices for fictitious characters are inscrutable in detail; even if the writers have an explicit account of where the names came from, unconscious preferences for certain kinds of names can usually be seen to be at play.

One of these preferences is the bouba/kiki effect, which has to do with the visual appearance of the referents (see the images above). Also involved are effects having to do with the gender of the referents (Stitch is male, Lilo female). No doubt there are more.

From Wikipedia:

(#2) The shapes

The bouba/kiki effect is a non-arbitrary mapping between speech sounds and the visual shape of objects. This effect was first observed by German-American psychologist Wolfgang Köhler in 1929. In psychological experiments first conducted on the island of Tenerife (where the primary language is Spanish), Köhler showed forms similar to those [in the illustration] and asked participants which shape was called “takete” and which was called “baluba” (“maluma” in the 1947 version). Although not explicitly stated, Köhler implies that there was a strong preference to pair the jagged shape with “takete” and the rounded shape with “baluba”.

In 2001, Vilayanur S. Ramachandran and Edward Hubbard repeated Köhler’s experiment using the words “kiki” and “bouba” and asked American college undergraduates and Tamil speakers in India “Which of these shapes is bouba and which is kiki?” In both groups, 95% to 98% selected the curvy shape as “bouba” and the jagged one as “kiki”, suggesting that the human brain somehow attaches abstract meanings to the shapes and sounds in a consistent way.

There’s an awful lot of variables here — in the physical characteristics of the shapes and, especially, in the many phonetic properties of the names that might play a role in people’s judgments: high vs. low F2, voiceless vs. voiced consonants, lip rounding, obstruents vs. continuants, and more.

In any case, the character Stitch is spiky, the character Lilo rounded.

Then there are effects associating gender with the phonetic characteristics of names. Here there’s a fairly substantial, but quite complex literatures on the phonetics of women’s vs. men’s FNs (first names, personal names), some of it alluded to in the handout for my presentation “How to name a porn star” at the January 2005 meeting of the American Name Society. From the bibliography:

Cassidy, Kimberly Wright; Michael H. Kelly; & Lee’at J. Sharoni. 1999. Inferring gender from name phonology. J. Exp. Psych.: General 128:362-81.

Cutler, Anne, James McQueen & Ken Robinson. 1990. Elizabeth and John: sound patterns of men’s and women’s names. JL 26.2.471-82.

de Klerk, V. & B. Bosch. 1997. The sound patterns of English nicknames. Language Sciences 19.4.289-301.

Lieberson, Stanley. 2000. A matter of taste: How names, fashions, and culture change. New Haven CT: Yale U P.

– & Kelly S. Mikelson. 1995. Distinctive African American names: An experimental, historical, and linguistic analysis of innovation. American Sociological Review 60:928-46.

Slater, Anne Saxon & Saul Feinman. 1985. Gender and the phonology of North American first names. Sex Roles 13.429-40.

One general finding in this literature is that monosyllabicity is a strong tendency in male FNs. So it’s immediately relevant that Stitch is a monosyllable, Lilo a disyllable. (There’s more, but this is a particularly strong effect.)

PN1 & PN2 names. Lilo & Stitch is the name — the title — of a fiction (in this case, a tv show), in form a coordination of two proper names (either FNs or LNs), of the two major characters in the fiction. Coordinate titles of fictions are quite common (War and Peace, Freaks and Geeks, The Young and the Restless, and on forever), and two-protagonist coordinate titles are familiar in popular culture, for instance in the titles of tv shows with detective partners:

Starsky & Hutch, Turner & Hooch, Rizzoli & Isles, Cagney & Lacey, Tango & Cash, Dalziel & Pasco, …

and in the titles of children’s tv shows featuring partners in adventures:

Phineas & Ferb, Drake & Josh, Ren & Stimpy, Kenan & Kel,

(I use the ampersand rather than and in all these titles, though the actual usage varies from show to show.)

About these coordinate names, we can ask how the contrast in the names corresponds to contrasts in the characters (as above), and we can ask how the ordering of the names correlates with characteristics (especially phonetic characteristics) of them and with characteristics of the name bearers (like gender, relative social power, normativity of their behavior, whatever).

On the purely literary front, we can ask why writers might choose two-protagonist titles in the first place: why they chose to frame the fiction in terms of these characters, rather than in terms of some aspect of their their physical or sociocultural setting (Law & Order, Partners in Crime, Cold Case, Midsomer Murders, Bones, etc.), and rather than using a title playing on some sort of fixed expression (an idiom, in particular, as in Law & Order, Partners in CrimeBlue Bloods, etc.).



2 Responses to “Revisiting 27: Lilo, Stitch, Bouba, and Kiki”

  1. Robert Coren Says:

    Among my favorite names for fictional characters are those devised by Walter Brooks for his “Freddy the Pig” series, particularly the three cows: Mrs. Wiggins, Mrs. Wogus, and Mrs. Wurzburger.

  2. [BLOG] Some Thursday links | A Bit More Detail Says:

    […] Zwicky takes a look at the different factors, often unrecognized, going onto the formation of nonsense names, […]

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