Shadow play / 그림자 놀이

with a red candle can and a mobile phone flashlight.
빨간 쇠 촛불통과 휴대폰 조명.

YK 2020.

Answers: Axittic, Flissil, or Horgous?

This time, I received answers from four people, and while some names matched mine, no one got everything matched!

The original names that inspired me and the reasons were, in order:

  • Flissil: sounds fluid and at a loss (1/4 matched this name)
  • Horgous: sounds hollow and lonely (2/4 matched this name)
  • Axittic: sounds like an axis + excited (0/4 matched this name)

All in all, this week’s results showed that there are cases when it’s difficult to tell the names (3/12 answers matched the original), unlike last week’s (all 12/12 answers matched the original).

Here are some observations on individual responses:

  • It was interesting to note that when you focused on features similar to me, you also guessed the same word. For example, there was an answer that said Flissig is like “Flüssig, can’t stand, erect, define”, which was very similar to my original intention.
  • Also, when you focused on different features of either the word or the drawing, you guessed different words. For example, while the second drawing was also said to be “Horgous” because it was a “male name”, it was also named “Axittic” by some of you because it has a stick – an axis.
  • Finally, there were times that the drawing itself felt different to you than to me, like the last one. I was thinking of a whirling axis with flickering lights, and while one of you suggested it looks “proud and gorgeous”, many of you instead suggested it looked “watery”, “impermanent, changing being, like flowers wilting in a pot”.

In the original study, participants chose among 4 names. The original name was chosen ~31% of the times, which was higher than the opposite (~21%), unrelated (~24%) or similar (~24%) names. So the difference was statistically significant but not huge (~1.3x to 1.5x more likely to choose the original name than others), which was consistent with what we have seen in our two surveys.

What connects the nonword names to made-up drawings at all? The study suggests that certain properties, like

  • round vs. spiky
  • large vs. small
  • masculine vs. feminine

are inferred consistently across participants from either a word or a drawing, and those properties may have helped people identify the original name that inspired a drawing. For example, words like “heonia” were rated feminine, and elicited drawings that looked feminine. Also, in other studies,

Some sound-meaning associations are found across different language families, which is called “absolute iconicity“. For example:

Not every language has such associations, but those are found more often than by chance, even across different language families.

Also, many languages use characteristics of sounds to convey relative meanings, which is called “relative iconicity“. To list some in the paper:

  • “p” vs “b” and “t” vs “d”: mass (Siwu: tsaratsa, “a light person walking quickly” vs. dzradzra, “a heavy person walking quickly”)
  • “ε” vs “o”: size (Ewe: lεgεε, “slim” vs. logoo, “fat” )

I imagine it would be nice if there were a systematic map showing the relative iconicity found across the world. That would not only be fascinating to behold, but also be useful for naming and drawing new characters for a picture book!

Name it II: Axittic, Flissil, or Horgous?

If you are reading a picture book with creatures named Axittic, Flissil, and Horgous, would you be able to recognize the creatures just from the names? Let’s see if you can: Pick a name for each creature in the picture among Axittic, Flissil, and Horgous, and let me know a short reason why!

As I did last week, I drew each of these creatures for one of the names. As mentioned, this activity is inspired by a recent study which showed that drawings from made-up names can be matched with the original names better than chance. So you may as well be able to read my mind here!

Last week’s answers showed that you indeed could. All 6 answers about Heonia and Cruckwic I got (on WordPress and Instagram) were correct. So again, this is not impossible as some linguists suggested. Maybe matching two names was even too easy, so let’s try matching three!

How can names be connected to creatures? The study suggests that certain sounds (such as “k”) in the name evoke certain attributes (sharpness), which in turn are reflected in the drawing based on the name. Intriguingly, some of such associations are found across cultures. I will summarize the associations next week.

Until then, please pick a name for each creature in the picture among Axittic, Flissil, and Horgous, and let me know a short reason why!

Answers: Heonia or Kruckwic?

All six of you got it right! “Cruckwic” inspired the horned creature, and “Heonia” inspired the one with the dark blue background.

Among the interesting reasons for your guesses, my favorite was @riniscreature’s:

Heonia sounds like a dainty plant to me, like a flower. And then Cruckwic sounds more like a mischievous character. Like a creature hiding in a forest and giving people riddles and wrong directions.

That was a fun story I haven’t thought about!

Originally, I imagined Cruckwic as a gowned professor because that was shortly after I learned how to pronounce a professor’s name with a similar ending (according to which I would pronounce the final “c” as “ch” in “speech”).  With “Cruck-“, it somehow sounded like an old mythical creature with rough skin, so that’s how it came to be. Surprisingly close to reasons some of you gave.

With Heonia, I imagined a creature that lasts eons, producing rings signaling time, deep under the sea.

My reasoning sounds like this association between the sound and the drawing would be language specific, but surprisingly some of them hold across cultures. I will discuss this next week. Until then – try this week’s, where I now put three creatures as a challenge!

Name it: Heonia or Cruckwic?


In your reply, let me know which one you think is Heonia, and which one is Cruckwic, and a short reason why you think so!

These are portraits of two creatures that I conjured up from the two made-up names. Next week, I will reveal which name originally inspired which portrait.

If you feel like it, also try drawing Heonia & Cruckwic youself (in a random order) and let me know! I will try to guess yours. I tried this with my family and they loved it.

This activity is inspired by a recent study in cognitive science. It found that, when people are asked to draw creatures with made-up names, they nonetheless make drawings with consistent features. Furthermore, another set of people who viewed the drawings could match them with the original names better than chance. There are suggestions that this may be due to the “iconicity” of the words – the similarity between the words and its meaning. But that position goes against the conventional wisdom:

with the exception of words that directly imitate sounds, the relationship between word-forms and meanings is arbitrary: “There is no reason for you to call a dog ‘dog’ rather than ‘cat’ except for the fact that everyone else is doing it” (Pinker & Bloom 1990, p. 728)

More on this next week.

Until then, let me know which one you think is Heonia and which one is Cruckwic, and a short reason why you think so. If you feel like it, also draw them yourself in a random order and let me know!