We’re all familiar with onomatopoeia: bang, woof, moo. But we may not spend much time thinking about how it’s generally regularized and standardized: a dog can go woof, for instance, but whoosh is a fast-moving thing, whir is a spinning, vibrating thing, and whoop is an expression of delight or discomfiture. And we seldom if ever think about other kinds of sound symbolism that aren’t necessarily directly imitative of sound. But our language is full of them.
For example, there’s what is sometimes called a “frequency code.” We associate higher sounds – or higher-seeming sounds – with smaller and lighter things: teeny is typically smaller than tiny, for example. We also associate some sounds more with some shapes: words with crisp-seeming consonants such as “k” and “high” vowels like “i” and “ee,” such as kinky, are more likely to be associated with angles and sharp edges, and ones with blunter-seeming consonants such as “b” and “lower” vowels, such as bulbous, are more likely to be associated with round things.
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But there’s more to it than that. We tend to associate some clusters of sounds with areas of meaning that they don’t have any obvious imitative relation to. For instance, words starting with gl– tend much more often than chance to be associated with light: glint, glass, gleam, glaze, glow… If all of those words were related to the same root historically, that would explain it. But not all of them are. At the same time, not all words starting with gl– have to do with light. Globe and glen don’t.
In the minds of many linguists, this isn’t how it’s supposed to work. It’s an article of faith that the relation between sound and sense is arbitrary, except when it’s clearly imitative, and that words are made of meaning-carrying parts that are either present or absent – no maybes – and that don’t operate by probability.
But we all know that people tend to guess meanings of unfamiliar words on the basis of what other words they sound like. For this reason, too, the meanings of words tend to gravitate towards other better-established words they sound or look like. French outrage, referring to something out of the norm (outre plus the suffix –age), came into English, where it looks like it’s made of out and rage and is treated as such. Hierarchy is often thought of as being a question of who’s higher rather than of leadership by priests, which is what it originally meant. And, in a similar vein, many people say and write renumeration instead of remuneration because the mun root for money is not as near the front of the mind as the numer root associating numbers with money.
And so if a few words tend to have some details of sense and sound in common, it can become an attractor. Words starting with gl– increasingly get associated with light; words starting with sn– tend have to do with the nose – snort, snore, sneeze, snout, snot; words ending with –irl or –url often relate to circular or spiral motion or shape – curl, swirl, whirl, twirl; words ending with –ump tend to be associated with roundness or heaviness – lump, clump, hump, rump.
A frenzy, a struggle, a splatter, a thump, a squelch
These sound clusters, groups of two or three sounds at the beginnings or ends of words that have a greater-than-chance association with a particular sense, have a name: phonaesthemes. Here are some well-known ones and the senses they’re associated with:
An important thing to remember is that as striking as this may seem with the examples I’ve given you, none of these have the sense in question for all of the words containing that sound, and few of them have it even for the majority of the words with the sound. Some have the sense in common for as few as one in seven words. But that’s still well above chance. When I was analyzing these for my master’s thesis in linguistics, for the sake of comparison I also chose two sets of words at random and identified the most common area of meaning among them, and even when I made the area of meaning quite loose, they didn’t come close to the frequency of sense association of common phonaesthemes.
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But wait, there’s more. Words that have sound symbolism are seen as more expressive, even if they’re not directly imitative. We expect this with onomatopoeic words – splat, boom, clunk, moo – but it’s also true with other words that have some element of sound symbolism. That includes words containing phonaesthemes… if they have the area of meaning the phonaestheme conveys. If they’re unrelated in sense, they don’t seem to have any extra expressive force.
The thing about expressiveness is that it’s, well, unrestrained. Personal. Partial. Less dignified. More involved. Less abstract. And, as a result, more suited to some kinds of text than others.
Now, it’s known that some genres of writing such as scholarly essays tend to try to be more abstract and informational, and as a result they use more features that depersonalize the writing – noun-heavy constructions, abstract nouns, impersonal verbs, passive voice – and they avoid things that are too involved, such as anything that represents the perspective of the author. It happens that they also avoid expressive things such as onomatopoeia and other sound symbolism.
I did a study of this for my master’s thesis, and I found that the usage of words with phonaesthemes – even ones you might think not especially undignified – was less in genres of text that try to be more abstract and informational, such as academic papers (which seem to avoid them by reflex), and more in genres that are more vivid, such as fiction (some kinds of fiction more than others). This holds up even when I compare them only with other words with the same meaning and length and origin (we can expect that longer words derived from Latin and Greek will show up more often in more formal and technical contexts, so I also did a comparison that eliminated those). I also found that the usage has changed over time: fiction has come to use more and more words with phonaesthemes over the past two centuries, as have newspaper articles and political speeches, while academic essays have come to use even fewer.
Improved in the telling?
Let me give you a few examples. Here’s a short passage from a novel you may not have read:
When we were summoned to dinner, a young gentleman in a clerical dress offered his hand, and led me to a table furnished with an elegant, and sumptuous repast, with more gallantry, and address than commonly fall to the share of students. He sat opposite me at the table; and whenever I raised my eye, it caught his.
That’s from The Coquette by Hannah Webster Foster, published in the US in 1797. You might have read this one:
a warm pink mounted to the girl’s cheek, mantled her brow to the roots of her fair braids, and suffused the young slope of her breast to the line where it met a modest tulle tucker fastened with a single gardenia. She dropped her eyes to the immense bouquet of lilies-of-the-valley on her knee, and Newland Archer saw her white-gloved finger-tips touch the flowers softly.
That’s from The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton, published in 1920. And here’s a much more recent one:
She was a flow of color. Her hair trapped the sun and seemed to radiate light. It moved in the wind at the nape of her neck and where it had come loose, but was otherwise gloriously up in a way that suggested self-possession and formality and yet also exposed most informally the beauty of her shoulders. She wore a blouse with a low collar that even across the gap he could see was embroidered in pearl on white, and the glow of the blouse came not only from its nearly transparent linen but from the woman herself.
That’s from In Sunlight and in Shadow by Mark Helprin, published in 2012.
Let’s have a look at the number of words with phonaesthemes in each.
In the passage from The Coquette, there aren’t any.
In the passage from The Age of Innocence, we see the following possible candidates: suffused (mildly sound symbolic but not using an established phonaestheme), slope (sl can be a phonaestheme, but the phonaesthematic use of it has to do more with smoothness and wetness), dropped (there is some case for a phonaestheme in drop, but I don’t have data to support it), gloved (gl is a phonaestheme when it refers to light but not to gloves), and flowers (fl is phonaesthematic when it has to do with liquids, but not flowers).
In the passage from In Sunlight and in Shadow, we get some real phonaesthemes: flow (fluid fl), trapped (trap may or may not have something in the tr but it does have the ap of snap, clap, flap, and so on), gloriously (the gl is debatably phonaesthematic in this instance), and glow (gl for light). Note that the bl in blouse is seen in some expressive words like blow and blast, but blouses don’t have anything to do with that (normally).
Now let’s see what we get when we change a few words to make the passages more – or less – phonaesthematic. First let’s add a couple of phonaesthematic words to The Coquette without changing anything else.
When we were summoned to dinner, a young gentleman in a clerical dress offered his hand, and led me to a table spread with an elegant, and sumptuous repast, with more gallantry, and flair than commonly fall to the share of students. He sat opposite me at the table; and whenever I raised my eye, it caught his.
That’s just spread and flair swapped in for furnished and address, but it makes a subtle but present difference in tone.
Now to The Age of Innocence:
a warm pink spread to the girl’s cheek, mantled her brow to the roots of her fair braids, and flushed the young slope of her breast to the line where it met a modest tulle tucker clasped with a single gardenia. She dropped her eyes to the immense bouquet of lilies-of-the-valley on her knee, and Newland Archer saw her white-gloved finger-tips touch the flowers softly.
Do you see the replacements? They’re spread for mounted, flushed for suffused, and clasped for fastened.
Now let’s go the opposite direction with Mark Helprin and take out the phonaesthemes:
She was a river of color. Her hair caught the sun and seemed to radiate light. It moved in the wind at the nape of her neck and where it had come loose, but was otherwise beautifully up in a way that suggested self-possession and formality and yet also exposed most informally the beauty of her shoulders. She wore a blouse with a low collar that even across the gap he could see was embroidered in pearl on white, and the radiance of the blouse came not only from its nearly transparent linen but from the woman herself.
That’s river in place of flow, caught in place of trapped, beautifully in place of gloriously, and radiance in place of glow.
Does all that seem too subtle for you? How about this, from the directions in the script for the movie Juno:
We push in over Bleeker sleeping in his car-bed towards the window. We look out onto the lawn to find Juno and Leah running back to the Previa, hopping in, and screeching off.
Try it without anything possibly phonaesthematic:
We come in over Bleeker sleeping in his car-bed towards the window. We look out onto the lawn to find Juno and Leah running back to the Previa, leaping in, and racing off.
Here’s the rest of the story
But wait. I said fiction has gotten more phonaesthematic over the past two centuries, but that’s not the whole story. Two hundred years ago, fiction in America shied away from vivid words, but fiction in England wasn’t as shy. The colonials were insecure about their literature and had more to prove; the literate set in England were more generally of higher classes and were more secure, and so were less worried about using more expressive words. However, as a broader section of the British population became literate, there was more aversion to turns of phrase that might seem too undignified – they were insecure in their status and trying to be upwardly mobile – so British writing of a century or so ago was about the same level of expressiveness on average as American writing. And we have all allowed ourselves to be more and more expressive over the course of the last century. Here’s a representative sample from a novel you may have read from two centuries ago in England:
I was so vexed to see him stand up with her! But, however, he did not admire her at all; indeed, nobody can, you know; and he seemed quite struck with Jane as she was going down the dance.
That’s from Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. Look for the phonaesthemes: vexed is arguably phonaesthematic, and struck has str as well as uck. Now let’s replace the phonaesthemes in that to see what we get.
I was so upset to see him stand up with her! But, however, he did not admire her at all; indeed, nobody can, you know; and he seemed quite taken with Jane as she was going down the dance.
Don’t tell me you don’t see any difference.
But that’s all fiction. I did mention that it’s a differentiator in non-fiction too. Let me give you a couple of examples – one from an essay and one from the news. Can you tell which is the original – and can you sense a slight shift in tone?
Each of these passages has faults of its own, but, quite apart from avoidable ugliness, two qualities are common to all of them. The first is staleness of imagery; the other is lack of precision.
Each of these passages has flaws of its own, but, quite apart from avoidable ugliness, two qualities are common to all of them. The first is flatness of imagery; the other is sloppiness.
The Tory truce over Europe began to fall apart on Saturday as David Cameron faced an angry response from MPs over his attitude to his party in the referendum campaign.
The Tory truce over Europe began to crumble on Saturday as David Cameron faced an angry backlash from MPs over his attitude to his party in the referendum campaign.
The first is from George Orwell’s popular rant, “Politics and the English Language,” and the first version is the original. The second is from a 2016 article in The Telegraph, and the second version is the original.
Phonaesthemes are just one factor in the tone and taste of writing, of course. There are many others, including sentence length, average word length, relative frequency of verbs versus nouns, relative frequency of forms of to be, frequency of prepositions, tense of verbs, use of contractions, use of first- and second-person pronouns… They’re the details that make the difference between, for example, “The cooking of the food is evidently being performed” and “I think you’ll see they’re cooking it.” A linguist named Douglas Biber has done extensive work on this, including several books and articles that are worth looking up.
Editors and writers should pay attention to all these aspects… and phonaesthemes are one more to keep an eye on and to use for effect.
Header photo by Jason Leung on Unsplash