Aoife Fitzpatrick, winner of the inaugural Books Ireland Short Story Competition 2015 writes about The Story of Bouba, Kiki & Tolstoy and why it makes Niall Williams’ writing course in Kiltumper worth a special trip.

Once upon a time, in a land far away, a human being used a spoken sound to symbolise a thing. It was the first time that they, or anyone in their group, had done so. These days, we don’t know who that person was, or what was on their mind. They might have been calling out in the dark, warning against a poisonous plant or hustling for a better cut of the buffalo. But one thing is certain. Whatever their intention, on this particular day, at least one other person recognised their meaning. Multiple persons started using the same sound to represent the same thing, and the very first word was born. Spoken language had sparked into being, and passed through the generations.

Oral communication is an almost-universal form of expression now. Most of us take it for granted, and represented in writing, it gives us the glory of the book. Yet there’s no empirical evidence for why, when or where it first appeared. In truth, we’ll never know what happened in that moment when a catchy and effective word was first used and later copied by others. But (in spite of their lack of footwear) there is a way to take a short walk in the proto-linguistic shoes of our ancestors.

Consider the below. Tolstoy—master manipulator of a modern language—is holding two shapes. The one on your left is curvy and bubbly, while the other is pointed and sharp. If I were to tell you that one of these shapes is called a ‘Bouba,’ and the other a ‘Kiki,’ which would you say is which?


Which is a Bouba and which is a Kiki? Made your choice?

Well … if you think that the curved object is a Bouba, and that the spiky one is a Kiki, you’re in the majority by quite some distance. Over 90% of us will assign the names in exactly this way. We can even speculate that Tolstoy would have done the same, because the ‘Bouba-Kiki Effect,’ so dubbed by V.S. Ramachandran and Edward Hubbard, does not only occur in the English speaking world. It was first observed in the Spanish speaking population of Tenerife, and has since been confirmed across multiple languages and continents.

The phenomenon is strongest within our neuro-typical population, while those with autism are less likely to show a strong preference. But why, for so many of us, are certain sounds especially good for representing certain meanings?

There are several theories about what’s behind the Bouba-Kiki Effect

Perhaps it’s the wiring of our brains, our vision and hearing coming together to have a language party. Or maybe our sense of a word’s meaning is influenced by the shape the mouth makes when sounding it. (Bouba makes for a rounded mouth with an open cavity, while Kiki is tense, linear and tight.) Myriad ideas have been mooted, but each appears to be underpinned by a common theme—resonance. We create, and respond to, words that resonate strongly with the object, action or concept being described.

Some words are pure onomatopoeia; beep, chomp and clap are imitations of the sounds they signify. They are virtual bombs of meaning. Many other strongly-resonant words are further removed from their sources. Gargle, scrape, wriggle, and palpitate have evolved over time, their origins being variously French, Germanic and Latin, yet they still chime powerfully with the actions they describe. Astonishingly, humans have even conjured words that capture the abstract. Cold, pain, and shock are deeply resonant of unpleasant sensations, while honour, integrity and warmth accurately evoke intangible virtues.

By comparison, certain words can seem a little anaemic. Alacrity is no zeal. Pulchritude can’t hold a candle to beauty. So how have these thin-blooded specimens survived? Well, if a word is just one unit of language, perhaps these subtler types have an important place in setting the global rhythm and tone of a sentence, a paragraph and, ultimately, an entire book. If we aim for maximum resonance every time, our stories risk being drowned in noise. For elegance, nuance and layers, we need words with fainter resonance. Get a modern character speaking of ‘pulchritude and alacrity’ and voilà—their stiffness, formality and possible neurosis are instantly and sleekly bared.

The way that we like our stories to be told is a matter of taste, of course. One woman’s Gerard Manley Hopkins is another’s pedlar of cloying, infernal dins. Japanese author Taichi Yamada’s  efficient prose is a thing of spare beauty to many and antiseptic to others. When it comes down to it, writers and readers can only connect at that sweet spot where their tastes in resonance collide.

How, then, can a solitary teacher, when faced with a diverse group of writers, help each one to tell their tale as best as they can? Stories, styles and tastes are so disparate, after all, and time is limited. In the case of Man Booker Prize long-listed author, Niall Williams, the course that he offers over 2 – 3 days in Kiltumper, County Clare, makes an apt crucible for every kind of writer. Not least because Williams has a preternatural feel for language.

His lyrical fiction has been variously described as ‘luminously written … magical,’ by The New York Times and ‘unfailingly resourceful and strong,’ by The Guardian. His skill is inarguable. But Williams has further crucial attributes. With great openness, and palpable curiosity in others’ work, he imposes nothing of his own style or taste. Like the best teachers, he is visibly energised and delighted when a writer under his direction outdoes themselves on their own terms.

To this end, Williams sets deceptively simple exercises that, coupled with expertly managed group discussions, crack the writer’s perception of their own work wide open. (His enthusiasm allows this to happen in an atmosphere of complete ease.) When it comes to close readings of excerpts from a suite of international authors, Williams’ dexterity as a prose-anatomist exposes even the most subtle working parts for all to behold and plunder. And individual sessions—to review writers’ works in progress—are conducted with the same laser-focussed energy. Whatever the genre, whatever the story, Williams has acute insight into what the author wants to achieve and how to get there. To heed his advice is to draw closer to every letter on every page resonating with your goal.

This might be enough without the outstanding hospitality of the Breen/Williams household. Yet author, Christine Breen Williams, sustains every motley crew that comes to Kiltumper with home-cooked lunches and evenings of ice-breaking drinks, all in a beautiful nineteenth-century cottage in the countryside. This generosity elevates the whole.

As participants from around the world can attest, Niall Williams’ course in Kiltumper is exceptional. And like any 3-star venue in the Michelin Guides, it’s worth a special journey.

Books Ireland is gratefully supported by the following organisations:

May Book Competition

The Doctor Who Sat for a Year

By Brendan Kelly

The twelve-month project of a self-confessed ‘Zen failure’

for a chance to win:

The Doctor Who Sat for a Year
By Brendan Kelly
ISBN: 978-0-7171-8457-6
Publisher: Gill Books



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