MAR 8 2012, 1:30 PM ET
Could the layout of letters on a keyboard be shaping how we feel about certain words?
It’s long been thought that how a word sounds — its very phonemes — can be related in some ways to what that word means. But language is no longer solely oral. Much of our word production happens not in our throats and mouths but on our keyboards. Could that process shape a word’s meaning as well?
That’s the contention of an intriguing new paper by linguists Kyle Jasmin and Daniel Casasanto. They argue that because of the QWERTY keyboard’s asymmetrical shape (more letters on the left than the right), words dominated by right-side letters “acquire more positive valences” — that is to say, they become more likable. Their argument is that because its easier for your fingers to find the correct letters for typing right-side dominated words, the words subtly gain favor in your mind.
In their first experiment, the researchers analyzed 1,000-word indexes from English, Spanish and Dutch, comparing their perceived positivity with their location on the QWERTY keyboard. The effect was slight but significant: Right-sided words scored more positively than left-sided words.
With newer words, the correlation was stronger. When the researchers analyzed words coined after the QWERTY keyboard’s invention, they found that right-sided words had more positive associations than left-sided words.
In another experiment, 800 typists recruited through Amazon.com’s Mechanical Turk service rated whether made-up words felt positive or negative. A QWERTY effect also emerged in those words.
Jasmin cautioned that words’ literal meanings almost certainly outweigh their QWERTY-inflected associations, and said the study only shows a correlation rather than clear cause-and-effect. Also, while a typist’s left- or right-handedness didn’t seem to matter, Jasmin said there’s not yet enough data to be certain.
Jasmin and Casasanto leave open the question whether the effect may also be the result of subtle cultural preferences for things on the right-hand side. Additionally, they say, “There is about a 90 percent chance that the QWERTY inventor was right-handed,” so it’s possible that biases he carried, may have subconsciously place more likable sounds on the right. However, they say, “such implicit associations would be based on the peculiar roles these letters play in English words or sounds. The finding of similar QWERTYeffects across languages suggests that, even if English-based [biases] influenced QWERTY’s design, QWERTY has now ‘infected’ typers of other languages with similar associations.”