Sound symbolism From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Sound symbolism or phonosemantics is a branch of linguistics and refers to the idea that vocal sounds have meaning. In particular, sound symbolism is the idea that phonemes (the written representations of sounds, transcribed between slashes like this: /b/) carry meaning in and of themselves.
In the 18th century, Mikhail Lomonosov propagated an idiosyncratic 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 - to 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:
- firstly, he says that "the sign is arbitrary". This means that 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. Thus, the sounds themselves have no linguistic meaning.
- Secondly, 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.
Types of sound symbolism
Margaret Magnus is the author of a comprehensive book designed to explain phonosemantics to the lay reader - Gods of the Word. This work describes three types of sound symbol using a model first proposed by Wilhelm von Humboldt ...
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.
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" - Aitrareya-Aranya-Upanishad 
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.
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 colours, or sounds in terms of tastes. One type of synesthesia has people seeing numbers, letters of the alphabet, or even musical notes, as having a distinct colour. Based on his research Ramachandran proposes a model for how language might have evolved. The theory is interesting because it may explain how we make 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 well have resulted in the emergence of it. Two of these processes are of particular interest here.
Synesthetic cross modal abstraction: i.e. we recognise 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, say a sharp, cutting quality of a word, and the shape it describes - what Ramachandran called the 'Bouba/kiki effect' based on the results of an experiment with two abstract shapes, one blobby and the other spiky, and asking people to relate the nonsense words bouba and kiki to them. The effect is real and observable, and repeatable.
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 centres, 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)".