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The Influence of Phonesthesia on the English Language

This document is Copyright 1997 by the author.

"The validity of a phonestheme is, in the first instance, contextual only: if it fits the meaning of the word in which it occurs, it reinforces the meaning and, conversely, the more words in which this occurs, the more its own meaning is strengthened." M. L. Samuels


Scientific studies are now proving what poets and logophiles have intuited since the dawn of language: in our minds, sound and meaning are inextricably related. The ancient Greek philosophers wrote sagely about this phonetic and semantic relationship, but, until recently, many of their intriguing observations have been ignored. Modern linguists call the relationship between sound and meaning sound symbolism, but most assume that it plays only a minor role in language. The general principle , they assume, is that sound and meaning relate only arbitrarily . According to this view, called symbolism, we say things the way we do merely out of custom, habit, or circumstance. The evidence accumulated from the past three decades challenges this assumption, and it is clear that sound symbolism plays a far larger role than hitherto recognized. In this paper, I will present evidence demonstrating how phonesthesia, an aspect of sound symbolism, plays an influential role in the English language.

The Myriad Manifestations of Sound Symbolism

Sound symbolism, also known as iconism, subsumes four primary typological significations: corporeal sound symbolism, imitative sound symbolism, synesthetic sound symbolism, and phonesthetic sound symbolism.

Corporeal sound symbolism, also known as expressive symbolism, is the use of certain non-segmentable sounds to express or reflect the internal state of the speaker. A non-segmentable sound, such as a grunt, a cough, a hiccup, a cry, or an interjection , is a sound that does not play a syntactic role. A corporeal sound symbol is usually punctuated as its own sentence. Corporeal sound symbols are primitive, understudied, and mostly unanalyzable, but, because their use is so prevalent in the animal kingdom, they perhaps hold the secret to how more advanced language developed.

Synesthetic sound symbolism is the use of sound to symbolize something that is not sound. An example of a synesthetic sound symbol is the rising intonation to mark the end of a question. Another example is the use of a deeper voice to symbolize largeness. My favorite examples are the manys ways that English speakers can "sing" a single word: depending on the intonation pattern (the starting pitch, and whether the pitch rises, falls, falls then rises, or rises then falls) the connation of the word can be involved or detached, emotional or unemotional, friendly or cold, enthusiastic or sarcastic. There has been much research on synesthetic sound symbolism, but, henceforth, this paper will deal no more with it.

Imitative sound symbolism is the use of onomatopoeia. An imitative sound symbol represents a sound actually heard, but its actual component speech sounds may only vaguely resemble the imitated sound. Some examples of imitative sound symbols are the words whish, tap, bang, and cuckoo. Imitative sound symbols can range from "wild" to "tame." A wild symbol, such as frrrrppp, breaks the phonetic or orthographical conventions of a language. Wild symbols are not often included in dictionaries. Tame symbols, such as click, represent sounds in a conventional way, and their use in writing is fully accepted. An imitative sound symbol can often play a wider grammatical role than a corporeal sound symbol. For example, click can be a noun, a transitive verb, or an intransitive verb, and a cuckoo can be a sound, a bird, or a bird-brained person. Imitative sound symbols often have component phonesthetic sound symbols.

Phonesthetic sound symbolism, also known as conventional sound symbolism or phonetic symbolism, is the use of sound symbolic elements called phonesthemes. A phonestheme is a sound, sound cluster, or sound type that is directly associated with a meaning. The initial cluster /gl/ (light, shining) is often cited as an example of an English phonestheme. It occurs, to a greater or lesser extent, in the following words: glass, gleam, gleed (live coal), glisten, glow, glare, glent (glean, shine), glimmer, glimpse, glister, glitter, glim (shine, gleam), gloat, gloom, gloss, glaze {from gaze, glare, glance}, glint {ablaut variant of glent}, glower {blend of glow, glare, glance, lower}, glum (look sullen) {probable ablaut variation of gloom}, glade (a open passage through a wood; a grassy open or cleared space in a forest), moonglade (moonlight on water). The shared cultural response to a phonestheme is called phonesthesia, and the study of phonesthemes and phonesthesia is called phonesthetics.

Secondary sound symbolism

Secondary sound symbolism is the study of minor aspects of sound symbolism including ablaut modification, reduplication, spoonerisms, rhyming slang, malapropisms, and folk etymology.

Ablaut modification is the process whereby new words are formed by the modification of the vowel of an already existing word. For examples of ablaut modification, see the end of my Dictionary of English Phonesthemes.

Reduplication is the use of a repeated sound segment in a lexeme. In English, reduplication plays only a small role in word formation. I think, in English, reduplication signals silliness, triviality, or informality. For example, heebie-jeebies and walkie-talkie. Gang-bang is an interesting term because its extremely serious referent is juxtaposed with its silly-symbolizing reduplicative form.

Blending is the process whereby the sounds of two or more words are combined to form a new word. Blending is obviously very closely related to phonesthetics. A spoonerism is an erroneous or humorous transposition of two or more sounds in a word or phrase. My favorite spoonerism is "shining wit ."

A malapropism is an erroneous or humorous substitution of one word or phrase for another. An erroneous malapropism is not usually due to what is popularly referred to as a Freudian slip. The evidence suggests that malapropisms are most often caused by mere phonetic similarity.

Folk etymology is the study of fanciful but erroneous tales of the origins of words. A persistent folk etymology is the tale that posh is a seafaring acronym for "port in, starboard out," because rich people cruising in the tropics, in order to avoid the relentless sun, would get two cabins, starboard for one way, port for the other. A more sound-symbolic folk etymology is the tale of the origin of sirloin: supposedly, a king of England once knighted a delicious cut of meat and decreed that it be called henceforth "Sir Loin." There is a sound-symbolic, word-formational phenomenon that is also referred to as folk etymology: the substitution of an unfamiliar morpheme for a familiar. Because of folk etymology, kittycorner derives from catercorner.

The Universality of Sound Symbolism

Most sound symbols are bound to a specific language. However, philologists have proposed some universal sound symbols. The symbol /I/ is found suffixes across many languages to denote smallness. Examples are English -ling, -let, Old English -icel, Greek -lein, and L -icellum, -iculum. Abrubt sounds and acts are often represented by plosives. The sound of an object whizzing by in the air is often represented by fricatives. Nasal sounds are often used to represent ringing or reverberation. Related to /I/ is /i/ which is often used to represent high-frequency sound, small size, sharpness, or rapid movement. /U/ and /a/ are often used to low-frequency sound, large size, softness, and slow movement.

Exceptions to universal sound symbols abound. For example, big and small denote the opposite of what the universal sound symbols /I/ and /a/ predict. Universal sound symbols seem to be few in number and weak in potency; "universal," in this context, seems to mean only "occurs in more than one language."


Phonesthetics is the study of the aesthetic symbolism of sounds. As lexicology once might have been, phonesthetics is a nebulous and subjective field residing on the fringes of psychology, psycholinguistics, phonetics, and poetics. Nevertheless, the idea is fairly simple: if multiple words share both a similar meaning and a similar sound component, that sound component, called a phonestheme, can be identified and defined.

"Every word, in so far as it is semantically expressive, may establish, by hap-hazard favoritism, a union between its meaning and any of its sounds, and then send forth this sound (or sounds) upon predatory expeditions into domains where the sound is at first a stranger and a parasite. A slight emphasis punctures the placid function of a certain sound-element, and the ripple extends, no-one can say how far...

"The signification of any word is arbitrarily attached to some sound-element contained in it, and the cogeneric names are created by means of this infused, or we might say, irradiated, or inspired element." M. Bloomfield [Hinton, 5] Knowledge of phonesthemes can help one understand how the mind grapples with new and old words, how (and why) similar words fit together, how there is an underlying order to our seemingly arbitrary lexicon, and how new words are born and how meanings evolve.

The Origins of English Phonesthemes

It is important to note that phonesthemes seem to outlast languages and, just as a starry sky is a window into our cosmological past, so to are phonesthemes a window into our linguistic past. Phonesthemes are furthermore a glimpse into our linguistic future: English will not last forever, but it is highly likely that at least some of its phonesthemes will last until the end of human language itself.

The English lexicon contains more lexemes than that of any other language. Daunting at first though it may be, the lexicon actually has an underlying order: most English words, whether borrowed from Germanic, Old Norse, French, Greek, or Latin, ultimately derive from a single language, Indo-European. From our most common words to our most elaborate, our vocabulary seems to be an eerie reconstruction (or recapitulation) of Indo-European.

Phonesthesia is a phonetic, rather than etymological, phenomenon. Someone ignorant as to whether tip and top were cognate would nonetheless have no trouble psychologically associating the two words. From a phonesthetic perspective, the most important linguistic element is not vocabulary, it is sound, and the pedigreed sounds of Indo-European echo in virtually every utterance we make.

The following English words derive from the IE root *peuk (prick): impugn (to challenge the integrity or veracity of; attack; to assail by words or arguments, as statements, motives, or veracity; call in question; challenge as false), expunge (cancel; remove; to strike out, obliterate, or mark for deletion; annihilate; delete; edit; rub out), pugilist, pugilistic, pygmy, pungent (having a stiff and sharp point; sharply painful; poignant; caustic; stinging; pointed; telling; causing a sharp or irritated sensation; racy; savory; spicy), pounce (claw; to swoop upon and seize something with or as if with talons; a fine powder formerly used to prevent ink from spreading; a fine powder for making stenciled patterns; emboss; sprinkle), poignant (intense; penetrating; painful; pathetic; piercing; pungent), point, puncture, punctuate, fuck {hypothetical}.

From IE *peuk derives an English phonestheme, the initial cluster /p/ (explosive vocal sounds, energy, fighting, etc.) which is potent in the following words: pipe, peep, puff, poof, purr, purl (gentle murmuring or bubbling sound like the water of a shallow stream flowing over stones), pop, pash (dash, smash), pat (dab), patter (the quick talk or chatter of a comedian or entertainer, salesman, etc.; the slang or private language used by a particular group or class; to repeat mechanically without considering the meaning; to talk volubly but without much sense) {from paternoster}, pitter (make small sounds like a grasshopper), puke, etc. Patter is a good example of a word that doesn't relate etymologically to *peuk, that nonetheless conforms phonesthetically to the *peuk words.

Why a Phonestheme is not a Morpheme

There are many obvious similarities between a phonestheme and a morpheme. A morpheme, such as the prefix proto-, has both a characteristic sound and a meaning. A phonestheme, such as the initial cluster /gl/ also has a characteristic sound and a meaning. Indeed, some linguists consider phonesthemes to be nothing more than particular type of morpheme.

Confusing the issue is the word morpheme itself. A minimal sign is a linguistic sign that does not contain smaller elements. Properly, a morpheme is a set of minimal signs with identical content. For example, the /z/ of boys, the /Iz/ of stitches, and the /s/ of cats are minimal signs of the same morpheme. Unfortunately, a common definition of morpheme is "the smallest meaningful language unit" which seems to blur the distinction between morphemes and minimal signs. A phonestheme is a type of minimal sign: the same speaker always pronounces instances of the same phonestheme in the same way.

Morphemes are said to be segmentable: unlike phonesthemes, morphemes play a syntactic role in a word. Morphemes can change the part of speech of a word and, often, morphemes can be inserted only in certain locations within a word. Phonesthemes can appear anywhere in a word and they never play a syntactic role.

The semantic content of a morpheme, which is often directly present in dictionary denotations, is more potent than that of a phonestheme. For example, just about every proto- word has something to do with earliness but only a fraction of gl- words have anything to do with light or shining.

Virtually all instances of the same morpheme derive from the same etymon. As discussed in the section in the previous section, this need not be the case for phonesthemes.

Research on Sound Symbolism: Academic verses Private Sector

Various scientific studies have been proposed and conducted to prove or disprove claims about sound symbolism. Not surprisingly, many of these usually conclude that people associate certain sounds with certain sensations. I read one study of male names verses female names, and another study on noun vowels verses verb vowels. There are numerous of these sorts of studies, but I don't find them particularly interesting.

Most practical research on phonesthesia is being conducted outside the walls of academia. I need not mention how much corporations spend on advertising and advertising research. The private sector, by far, has conducted the most extensive research on the practical, if not Machiavellian, applications of phonesthesia. Sound has proven to be a profitable tool in the never-ending struggle to manipulate people. From the nomenclature of cars, to the "snap, crackle, and pop" of cereals, sound symbolism is ubiquitous in product names and slogans. If English were truly not a sound symbolic language, advertisers would be out of much of their current business.

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