Sound symbolism  

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Extreme close-up in the movie "The Big Swallow" (1901) by James Williamson (1855-1933)
Extreme close-up in the movie "The Big Swallow" (1901) by James Williamson (1855-1933)

"It were exceedingly desirable that the names of things might consist of such sounds as should bear in them some analogy to their natures; and the figure and character of their names should bear some proper resemblance to those sounds that men might easily guess at the sense or meaning of any name or word, upon the first hearing or sight of it. But how this can be done in all the particular species of things I understand not, and therefore shall take it for granted that this character must be by institution".--An Essay Towards a Real Character, and a Philosophical Language (1668) by John Wilkins

"Cratylus and Hermogenes illuminate the two positions [in the sound symbolism debate]. On the one hand the naturalists, i.e. believers in what is nowadays known as sound symbolism, on the other the conventionalists, the non-believers of said theory. The extreme of their arguments go something like this: if sound symbolism were true, if ‘the sound of a word affects its meaning, then you should be able to tell what a word means just by hearing it. There should be only one language.’ (Magnus, 2013). Because this is manifestly not the case, naturalists are believed to be wrong. The naturalists’ evidence has been scarcer and it has been the poets who have come to their aid making for convincing but always anecdotal evidence. As Anatoly Liberman (born 1937) notes: ‘Consider the English words “glow, gleam, glimmer, glare, glisten, glitter, glacier, and glide.” They suggest that in English the combination gl- conveys the idea of sheen and smoothness. Against this background, glory, glee and glib emanate brightness by their very form, glance and glimpse reinforce our conclusion (because eyesight is inseparable from light), and glib has no other choice than to denote specious luster, and, indeed, in the sixteenth century, when it became known in English, it meant “smooth and slippery.”’"--"Meaning, Sound and Vision" by J.-W. Geerinck

The Bouba/kiki effect (1929)

Related e



In linguistics, sound symbolism or phonosemantics is the idea that vocal sounds or phonemes carry meaning in and of themselves. It is persuasively defended in The Natural Origin of Language (2012) a book by Robin Allott.



In the 18th century, Mikhail Lomonosov propagated a theory that words containing the front vowel sounds E, I, YU should be used when depicting tender subjects and those with back vowel sounds O, U, Y when describing things that may cause fear ("like anger, envy, pain, and sorrow").

However, it is Ferdinand de Saussure (1857–1913) who is considered to be the founder of modern 'scientific' linguistics. Central to what de Saussure says about words are two related statements: First, he says that "the sign is arbitrary". He considers the words that we use to indicate things and concepts could be any words — they are essentially just a consensus agreed upon by the speakers of a language and have no discernible pattern or relationship to the thing. (This was not an entirely new concept. As early as 1595 Shakespeare included the line "a rose by any other name would smell as sweet" in his play Romeo and Juliet.) Thus, the sounds themselves have no linguistic meaning. Second, he says that, because words are arbitrary, they have meaning only in relation to other words. A dog is a dog because it is not a cat or a mouse or a horse, etc. These ideas have permeated the study of words since the 19th century.

Saussure himself is said to have collected examples where sounds and referents were related. Ancient traditions link sounds and meaning, and some modern linguistic research does also.

Types of sound symbolism

Margaret Magnus is the author of a comprehensive book designed to explain phonosemantics to the lay reader: Gods in the Word. This work describes three types of sound symbols using a model first proposed by Wilhelm von Humboldt (see below):


This is the least significant type of symbolism. It is simply imitative of sounds or suggests something that makes a sound. Some examples are crash, bang, whoosh.


Words that share a sound sometimes have something in common. If we take, for example, words that have no prefix or suffix and group them according to meaning, some of them will fall into a number of categories. So we find that there is a group of words beginning with /b/ that are about barriers, bulges and bursting, and some other group of /b/ words that are about being banged, beaten, battered, bruised, blistered and bashed. This proportion is, according to Magnus, above the average for other letters.

Another hypothesis states that if a word begins with a particular phoneme, then there is likely to be a number of other words starting with that phoneme that refer to the same thing. An example given by Magnus is if the basic word for 'house' in a given language starts with a /h/, then by clustering, disproportionately many words containing /h/ can be expected to concern housing: hut, home, hovel, habitat...

Clustering is language dependent, although closely related languages will have similar clustering relationships.


Iconism, according to Magnus, becomes apparent when comparing words which have the same sort of referent. One way is to look at a group of words that all refer to the same thing and that differ only in their sound, such as 'stamp', 'stomp', 'tamp', 'tromp', 'tramp', and 'step'. An /m/ before the /p/ in some words makes the action more forceful; compare 'stamp' with 'step' or 'tamp' with 'tap'. According to Magnus, the /r/ sets the word in motion, especially after a /t/ so a 'tamp' is in one place, but a 'tramp' goes for a walk. The /p/ in all those words would be what emphasizes the individual steps.

Magnus suggests that this kind of iconism is universal across languages.

Phenomimes and psychomimes

Some languages possess a category of words midway between onomatopoeia and usual words. Whereas onomatopoeia refers to the use of words to imitate actual sounds, there are languages known for having a special class of words that "imitate" soundless states or events, called phenomimes (when they describe external phenomena) and psychomimes (when they describe psychological states). On a scale that orders all words according to the correlation between their meaning and their sound, with the sound-imitating words like meow and whack at one end, and with the conventional words like water and blue at the other end, the phenomimes and the psychomimes would be somewhere in the middle. They are not found only in children's vocabulary but are widely used in daily conversation among adults and even in more formal writing. Like Japanese, the Korean language has a relatively high proportion of phenomimes and psychomimes.

History of Phonosemantics

Several ancient traditions exist which talk about an archetypal relationship between sounds and ideas. Some of these are discussed below, but there are others as well. If we include a link between letters and ideas then the list includes the Viking Runes, the Hebrew Kabbalah, the Arab Abjad, etc.. References of this kind are very common in The Upanishads, The Nag Hammadi Library, the Celtic Book of Taliesin, as well as early Christian works, the Shinto Kototama, and Shingon Buddhism.

Old Chinese

Sinologist Axel Schuessler avers that in Old Chinese, "Occasionally, certain meanings are associated with certain sounds." Concerning initials, he suggests that words with meanings such as "dark, black, covered" etc. tend begin with *m-, while those indicating "soft, subtle, flexible" begin with *n-. Taking a broader perspective, he also notes that "Roots and stems meaning 'round, turn, return' have an initial *w- not only in Chinese, but generally in the languages of the area."

As for finals in Old Chinese, Schuessler points out, "Words that signify movement with an abrupt endpoint often end in *-k," and "Words with the meaning 'shutting, closing' [...] tend to end in final *-p." He also notes an overlap between the significations of initial *m- and final *-m: "Words that imply 'keeping in a closed mouth' tend to end in a final *-m".

Plato and the Cratylus Dialogue

In Cratylus, Plato has Socrates commenting on the origins and correctness of various names and words. When Hermogenes asks if he can provide another hypothesis on how signs come into being (his own is simply 'convention'), Socrates initially suggests that they fit their referents in virtue of the sounds they are made of:

"Now the letter rho, as I was saying, appeared to the imposer of names an excellent instrument for the expression of motion; and he frequently uses the letter for this purpose: for example, in the actual words rein and roe he represents motion by rho; also in the words tromos (trembling), trachus (rugged); and again, in words such as krouein (strike), thrauein (crush), ereikein (bruise), thruptein (break), kermatixein (crumble), rumbein (whirl): of all these sorts of movements he generally finds an expression in the letter R, because, as I imagine, he had observed that the tongue was most agitated and least at rest in the pronunciation of this letter, which he therefore used in order to express motion" - Cratylus.
(note this is an open source translation available at Internet Classics Archive)

However, faced by an overwhelming number of counterexamples given by Hermogenes, Socrates has to admit that "my first notions of original names are truly wild and ridiculous".


The Upanishads contain a lot of material about sound symbolism, for instance:

"The mute consonants represent the earth, the sibilants the sky, the vowels heaven. The mute consonants represent fire, the sibilants air, the vowels the sun… The mute consonants represent the eye, the sibilants the ear, the vowels the mind". Aitareya Aranyaka III.2.6.2. --The Upanishads, translated by Max Müller, 1879.

Shingon Buddhism

Kūkai, the founder of Shingon wrote his Sound, word, reality in the 9th century which relates all sounds to the voice of the Dharmakaya Buddha.

Early Western phonosemantics

The idea of phonosemantics was sporadically discussed during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. In 1690, Locke wrote against the idea in an essay called "An Essay on Human Understanding". His argument was that if there were any connection between sounds and ideas, then we would all be speaking the same language, but this is an over-generalisation. Leibniz's book New Essays on Human Understanding published in 1765 contains a point by point critique of Locke's essay. Leibniz picks up on the generalization used by Locke and adopts a less rigid approach: clearly there is no perfect correspondence between words and things, but neither is the relationship completely arbitrary, although he seems vague about what that relationship might be.

Modern phonosemantics

In 1836 Wilhelm von Humboldt published Über die Verschiedenheit des menschlichen Sprachbaues und ihren Einfluß auf die geistige Entwicklung des Menschengeschlechts. It is here that he establishes the three kinds of relationship between sounds and ideas as discussed above under Types of Sound Symbolism. Below is a sample of researchers in the field of phonosemantics.

Otto Jespersen suggests that: "Sound symbolism, we may say, makes some words more fit to survive." Dwight Bolinger of Harvard University was the primary proponent of phonosemantics through the late 1940s and the 1950s. In 1949, he published The Sign is Not Arbitrary. He concluded that morphemes cannot be defined as the minimal meaning-bearing units, in part because linguistic meaning is so ill-defined, and in part because there are obvious situations in which smaller units are meaning-bearing.

Ivan Fónagy (1963) correlates phonemes with metaphors. For example, nasal and velarized vowels are quite generally considered ‘dark’, front vowels as ‘fine’ and ‘high’. Unvoiced stops have been considered ‘thin’ by European linguists, whereas the fricatives were labelled ‘raw’ and ‘hairy’ by the Greeks.

Hans Marchand provided the first extensive list of English phonesthemes. He wrote, for example, that "/l/ at the end of a word symbolizes prolongation, continuation" or "nasals at the end of a word express continuous vibrating sounds."

Gérard Genette published the only full length history of phonosemantics, Mimologics (1976). In 450 pages, Genette details the evolution of the linguistic iconism among linguists and poets, in syntax, morphology and phonology.

Linguist Keith McCune demonstrated in his doctoral thesis that virtually every word in the Indonesian language has an iconic (phonosemantic) component. His two-volume doctoral thesis "The Internal Structure of Indonesian Roots" was completed at the University of Michigan in 1983 and published in Jakarta in 1985.

Relationship with neuroscience

In the 2003 BBC Reith Lectures, Vilayanur S. Ramachandran outlined his research into the links between brain structure and function. In the fourth lecture of the series he describes the phenomena of synesthesia in which people experience, for example, sounds in terms of colors, or sounds in terms of tastes. In one type of synesthesia, people see numbers, letters of the alphabet, or even musical notes as having a distinct color. Ramachandran proposes a model for how language might have evolved. The theory may explain how humans create metaphors and how sounds can be metaphors for images – why for example sounds can be described as "bright" or "dull". In explaining how language might have evolved from cross activation of adjacent areas in the brain, Ramachandran notes four crucial factors, not all related to language, but which combined might have resulted in the emergence of language. Two of these four processes are of particular interest here.

Synesthetic cross modal abstraction: i.e. we recognize properties that sounds and images have in common and abstract them to store them independently. The sounds and shapes of the objects have characteristics in common that can be abstracted; for example, a "sharp", "cutting" quality of a word, and the shape it describes. Ramachandran calls this the 'Bouba/kiki effect', based on the results of an experiment with two abstract shapes, one blob-like and the other spiky, that asked people to relate the nonsense words bouba and kiki to them. The effect is real and observable, repeatable across linguistic groups, and evident even in the description of the experiment (with the bouba shape usually described using similar-sounding words like bulbous or blobby while the kiki shape is prickly or spiky).

Built in preexisting cross activation. Ramachandran points out that areas of the brain which appear to be involved in the mix-ups in synesthesia are adjacent to each other physically, and that cross-wiring, or cross activation, could explain synesthesia and our ability to make metaphors. He notes that the areas that control the muscles around the mouth are also adjacent to the visual centers, and suggests that certain words appear to make our mouth imitate the thing we are describing. Examples of this might be words like "teeny weeny", "diminutive" to describe small things; "large" or "enormous" to describe big things.

Relationship with poetry

The sound of words is important in the field of poetry, and rhetoric more generally. Tools such as euphony, alliteration, and rhyme all depend on the speaker or writer confidently choosing the best-sounding word.

John Mitchell's book Euphonics: A Poet's Dictionary of Enchantments collects lists of words of similar meaning and similar sounds. For example, the entry for V begins:

Vital and vigorous but vain and vicious.
Vitality is in words which relate to the Latin vita (life), vis (force) and vigor. In English are vim and vigour, vitality and velocity. The effect of V can be described as very vivacious. Like several other sounds V has a second, opposite meaning. In accordance with its relationship to the sounds W and F it is sometimes weak and flustured (German verwirrt), as in the words vain, vacuous, vapid, vague, vacillate, vagrant, vaporous, vertigo, veer, and vary.

Likewise, "gl-" words for shiny things: glisten, gleam, glint, glare, glam, glimmer, glaze, glass, glitz, gloss, glory, glow, and glitter. In German, nouns starting with "kno-" and "knö-" are mostly small and round: Knoblauch "garlic", Knöchel "ankle", Knödel "dumpling", Knolle "tuber", Knopf "button", Knorren "knot (in a tree)", Knospe "bud (of a plant)", Knoten "knot (in string or rope)".

See also

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