Meme explainer: Kiki tea

(Lapine, 2020)

Literal description

An 800-by-600-pixel rectangular image.

The background is a uniform very light azure (#D3ECE9).

The foreground contains two near-identical schematic illustrations, on the left and right of the centreline of the image, depicting a cup of boba tea, a preparation of tea which is known for containing chewy tapioca spheres called bōbà. Both cups contain light warm brown (#C4996C) boba tea, dark brown (approx. #3E2414) straws, and dark brown pearls or equivalent. Both cups have labels above them in Arial Black type.

The left cup is labelled “boba tea” and contains spherical pearls. The right cup is labelled “kiki tea” and contains pearls that are in a variety of different, “pointy” polygonal shapes, including square, pentagon, heraldic caltrop, compass rose, five-pointed star, and hexagram.


The image is a visual gag referring to the linguistic bouba/kiki effect.

The bouba/kiki effect is a phenomenon whereby, when people are asked to assign names to shapes, they tend to associate certain sounds with certain shapes, across a very wide spectrum of different languages. The phonetic properties involved may include (D’Onofrio, 2013; McCormick et al., 2015; Bross, 2018):

  • lip rounding
  • place of articulation — coronal or dorsal
  • voicing — voiced or voiceless
  • vowel quality — a or e or i or …
  • vowel quantity — long vowel or short vowel

The effect was first documented by Köhler (1929/1947, p. 133), but has its name from Ramachandran & Hubbard (2001), who presented images of a rounded shape and of a jagged shape to American English speakers in the United States and Tamil speakers in the Republic of India, and asked them —

Which of these shapes is bouba and which is kiki?

Ramachandran & Hubbard (op. cit.)

In both groups, 95% to 98% selected the rounded shape as “bouba” and the jagged shape as “kiki.” Further work by Maurer et al. (2006) and Ozturk et al. (2013) noted that the same preferences appear to be evident in infants and toddlers, down to the age of 4 months. A 2019 fMRI study (Peiffer-Smadja & Cohen, 2019) suggests that biological correlates of this effect are evident in patterns of activation in the prefrontal cortex. The importance of these findings are that they suggest the naming of objects is not completely arbitrary (Ramachandran & Hubbard, op. cit.).

However, the bouba/kiki effect is not universal; it appears considerably weaker in autistic people (Oberman & Ramachandran, 2008), absent in congenitally blind people (Fryer et al., 2014), absent “when the test words do not behave according to the sound structure of the target language” (Syles & Gawne, 2017) and absent in some language communities for other reasons (Rogers & Ross, 1975).

Regardless, the image is playfully suggesting that the existence of “bouba” (boba) tea, which contains rounded pearls, implies the existence of “kiki” tea, which would contain jagged and uncomfortable pearls.


Bross, F. (2018, January). Cognitive associations between vowel length and object size: A new feature contributing to a bouba/kiki effect. In M. Belz, C. Mooshammer, S. Fuchs, S. Jannedy, O. Rasskazova, & M. Żygis (Eds.), P&P13: Proceedings of the Conference on Phonetics & Phonology in German-speaking countries (pp. 17 et seq.). Leibniz Center for General Linguistics/Humboldt University of Berlin.

D’Onofrio, A. (2013, November 15). Phonetic detail and dimensionality in sound—shape correspondences: Refining the bouba—kiki paradigm. Language and Speech, 57(3), 367-393. doi:10.1177/0023830913507694.

Fryer, L., Freeman, J., & Pring, L. (2014, August). Touching words is not enough: How visual experience influences haptic—auditory associations in the “Bouba—Kiki” effect. Cognition, 132(2), 164-173. doi:10.1016/j.cognition.2014.03.015.

Köhler, W. (1947). Gestalt psychology: An introduction to new concepts in modern psychology (2nd ed.). Liveright Publishing Corporation/Internet Archive.

Lapine, L. [@laurelthrone] (2020, November 4). has this been done before [Tweet]. Twitter.

Maurer, D., Pathman, T., & Mondloch, C.J. (2006, April 12). The shape of boubas: Sound—shape correspondences in toddlers and adults. Developmental Science, 9(3), 316-322. doi:10.1111/j.1467-7687.2006.00495.x.

McCormick, K., Kim, J.Y., List, S., & Nygaard, L.C. (2015, July). Sound to meaning mappings in the Bouba—Kiki effect. In Noelle, D.C., Dale, R., Warlaumont, A.S., Yoshimi, J., Matlock, T., … & Maglio, P.P. (Eds.), Proceedings of the 37th Annual Meeting of the Cognitive Science Society (pp. 1565 et seq.). Cognitive Science Society.

Oberman, L.M., & Ramachandran, V.S. (2006, October 31). Preliminary evidence for deficits in multisensory integration in autism spectrum disorders: The mirror neuron hypothesis. Social Neuroscience, 3(3-4), 348-355. doi:10.1080/17470910701563681.

Ozturk, O., Krehm, M., & Vouloumanos, A. (2013, February). Sound symbolism in infancy: Evidence for sound-shape cross-modal correspondences in 4-month-olds. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 114(2), 173-186. doi:10.1016/j.jecp.2012.05.004.

Peiffer-Smadja, N., & Cohen, L. (2019, February 1). The cerebral bases of the bouba-kiki effect. NeuroImage, 186, 679-689. doi:10.1016/j.neuroimage.2018.11.033.

Ramachandran, V.S., & Hubbard, E.M. (2001). Synaesthesia — a window into perception, thought and language. Journal of Consciousness Studies, 8(12), 3-34.

Rogers, S.K., & Ross, A.S. (1975, March 1). A cross-cultural test of the maluma—takete phenomenon. Perception, 4(1), 105-106. doi:10.1068/p040105.

Syles, S.J., & Gawne, L. (2017, August 25). When does maluma/takete fail? Two key failures and a meta-analysis suggest that phonology and phonotactics matter. i-Perception, 8(4). doi:10.1177/2041669517724807.

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