Phonosemantics, also known as phonaesthesia or sound-symbolism, is the study of the meaning that certain sounds or combination of sounds carry in a particular language. It started in the 18th century, with Mikhail Lomonosov, a Russian polymath who proposed a highly idiosyncratic hypothesis that stated that words containing vowel sounds made in the front of the palate (in Russian, E, I, YU) should be used when depicting tender subjects, and that those made with the back of the palate (the vowel sounds O, U, Y) to describe things that may cause fear (“like anger, envy, pain, and sorrow”).
In the late 19th century, Ferdinand de Saussure (1857–1913) postulated the idea that sounds are arbitrary and that the words that we use to indicate objects and concepts are agreed on by consensus by the speakers of a language. He put forward the idea that words have no discernible pattern or relationship to the object. Many of us are familiar with this concept through the Shakespeare line “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet” in Romeo and Juliet. However, as native speakers of our own languages, we find it very hard to accept that words and sounds have no linguistic meaning as the connection between the two is so strong in our minds. Indeed research has found that sound combinations do carry an enormous baggage of significance.
In 1929, German-American psychologist Wolfgang Köhler conducted a series of psychological experiments on the Spanish island of Tenerife in which he showed two shapes and asked volunteers to label one as a ‘takete’ and the other as a ‘baluba’ (which he renamed to “maluma” in 1947).
In 2001, the two linguists Vilayanur S. Ramachandran and Edward Hubbard repeated Köhler’s experiment using the words “kiki” and “bouba” and asked Tamil speakers in India and American university undergraduates “Which of these shapes is a bouba and which is a kiki?” In both groups, between 95% to 98% chose the rounded shape as the “bouba” and the sharp, jagged one as the “kiki”. Because of the vast differences in the culture and languages of the two groups asked, the data suggests that the human brain somehow attached abstract linguistic meaning to the shapes and sounds in a highly consistent way. This kiki/bouba effect was claimed to have been important in the evolution of human language, because it suggests that the naming of objects is not totally arbitrary. The rounded shape might be labelled the “bouba” because the mouth makes a more rounded shape to produce the sound while a more angular mouth shape is needed to make the sound “kiki”. In addition, the sounds of a K are sharper and more fricative than those of a B.
The effect is found in all real languages too: In English, words bearing an image of surfaces in tight contact tend to begin with “cl” (clasp, clamp, clam, clench, clad, clog, close, clot, cleft, cloven, clump, cluster, clutch, club, cling, clinch, clap), words denoting emission of light begin with “gl” (glare, glimmer, glass, glaze, gleam, glimpse, glint, glisten, gloss, glow, glamour, glitz, glory), words associated with the nose or looking down you nose at someone tend to begin with “sn” (snorkel, snort, sniff, snivel, snore, snot, snuff, Snuffleupagus, sneer, snide, snob, snooty) and words associated with small pieces or marks have a tendency to end in “-le“, (bubble, crumble, dapple, freckle, mottle, pebble, pimple, riddled, rubble, nipple, spangle, speckle, sprinkle, stubble, wrinkle).
The same trick is found in other languages too. In German, nouns starting with “kno-” and “knö-” are often 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)”. Out of the Mandarin words “qīng” (flat tone) and “zhòng” (falling tone), which do you think means “light” and which means”heavy“? (Answer found below the image)*.
Phonosemantics was used extensively in Lewis Carroll’s nonsense poem The Jabberwocky. Although the content words have no meaning, we all feel as if we understand the meaning of the poem when it says:
‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.
We “know” that the ‘toves’ were somehow slippery, slimy and slithery, we “know” that the ‘borogroves’ were somehow flimsy and whimsical and that the ‘mome raths’ were doing something like grasping, grabbing or gripping outwards. So comprehensible was the poem, that words like “galumphing” and “chortle”, which were originally meaningless sounds made up of vaguely semantophoric morphomes have entered the English language with very specific meanings.
The poem has been translated several times into scores of different languages, most notably French, which has churned out several versions, each with differing levels of phonosemantic flair. The last one by André Bay is definitely my favourite as it strays much more from English norms of sound symbolism found in the original and has a generally more Gallic phonosemantic and onomatopoeic feel:
Le Jaseroque – Frank L. Warrin
Il brilgue: les tôves lubricilleux
Se gyrent en vrillant dans le guave.
Enmîmés sont les gougebosqueux
Et le mômerade horsgrave.
Jabberwocheux – Henri Parisot
Il e’tait grilheure; les slictueux toves
Gyraient sur l’alloinde et vriblaient:
Tout flivoreux allaient les borogoves;
Les verchons fourgus bourniflaient.
Le Berdouilleux – André Bay
Il était ardille et les glisseux torves
Gyraient et gamblaient sur la plade
Tout dodegoutants étaient les borororves
Les chonverts grougroussaient la nomade.
Each version brings something different to the table. I love how the ‘torves’ were ‘glisseux’ and the ‘borororves’ were ‘dodegoutants’ in Bay’s translation, but then again in Warrin’s version they are not ‘borororves’ at all, they are ‘gougebosqueux’ which somehow, inexplicably captures nicely the woody feel of Carroll’s ‘borogoves’ for Francophones.
Phonesthesia is utilised for the names of products and companies. Early companies named their products after their founders (Ford, Hoover, Edison) or with a simple description (General Motors, United Airlines, U.S. Steel). They later began to make portmanteaux to distinguish their brands (Microsoft, Instamatic, Polavision), but the most recent trend is to use ‘faux- Greek’ and ‘faux-Latin’ neologisms built of fragments of words which carry a certain phonosemantic feeling without meaning anything specific. Acura cars are accurate, Viagra give the user virility, vitality and vigour and Zeneca pharmaseuticals… well, I really have no idea.
I tend to feel a certain antipathy toward such invented corporate names as I feel they have no soul and they cast your company into an abyss of synthetic, corporate anonymity. It’s got to such a ridiculous point now that it’s hard to even know what a company does anymore. Try sorting these out: Actavis, Actos, Advaxis, Alimta, Amalthea, Anavex, Atripla – companies, drugs or the moons of Jupiter?*
According to linguist Steven Pinker, one particularly “egregious example” of this strange naming trend was when cigarette maker Philip Morris re-branded to Altria. Pinker claims that the name “Altria” is an attempt to “switch its image from bad people who sell addictive carcinogens to a place or state marked by altruism and other lofty values”. The company denies such duplicitous motives.
Naming your company can be a minefield, especially if you want your business to be successful internationally. Japanese car companies tend to have the worst luck in Spanish-speaking companies. The similar phonetic makeup of both languages with their equal balance between consoants and vowels (of which there are only 5 compared to the 12 of English and the 14 of French), cause regular coincidences of phonetic convergence. The most famous examples were the Mazda Laputa, (which turned out to mean “prostitute” in Spanish), the Mitsubishi Parjero (meaning “wanker” in Spanish) and the Nissan Moco (meaning “snot” in Spanish).
So all in all, Shakespeare was correct in saying that “a rose by any other name would smell just as sweet”, but if it did not smell as sweet, would we have called it a rose? Objects do not transmute their essences depending on the names we give them. However, it can be seen that the nature of objects, companies and people can, on the other hand, influence their nomenclature.
We also discover that universal connotations of certain sounds do exist; the bilabial b is recognised as soft and the velar k is c widely considered a ‘sharp’ sound, but then each language also has a plethora of other phonemes with very specific connotations which it has built up through use and that cannot necessarily be translated to other languages, which is why the Jabberwocky is such a difficult poem to translate.
Köhler, W (1947). Gestalt Psychology, 2nd Ed. New York: Liveright.
Pinker, Steven (2007). “The Stuff of Thought”. Penguin Books. p. 304.
Ramachandran, VS & Hubbard, EM (2001b). “Synaesthesia: A window into perception, thought and language”. Journal of Consciousness Studies 8 (12): 3–34.
Oberman LM & Ramachandran VS. (2008). “Preliminary evidence for deficits in multisensory integration in autism spectrum disorders: the mirror neuron hypothesis”. Social Neuroscience 3 (3-4): 348–55. doi:10.1080/17470910701563681. PMID 18979385