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Sound Symbolisms

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English

Within phonetics, phonology and prosodics, we look at the sounds produced in human speech. These sounds can be analysed concerning their production and reception (i.e. the physical acts of speaking and listening) or their relationship with meaning.

In this article, we'll be focussing on the relationship between sounds and meaning, specifically looking at sound symbolism. We'll start by establishing what sound symbolism is and then look at some key concepts and the different types of sound symbolism with examples to help us understand throughout.

Sound Symbolism Meaning

Sound symbolism is a concept in linguistics that refers to the association between sounds and their meanings.

Sound symbolism is a type of linguistic iconicity and semiotics, meaning there is a link between the icons or signs (letters or words in this instance) and their meaning.

For example, the word 'ding' sounds like a bell's ring.

Semiotics is a field of study that looks at signs (e.g. text, images, colours) and their meanings. We use semiotics to look at how different signs work together to create meaning in context. The American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce and the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure pioneered semiotics.

Ferdinand de Saussure suggested each sign comprises two parts, the signifier and the signified.

  • Signifier = The word, image, sound, or gesture representing a concept or meaning.
  • Signified = The interpretation of the meaning of the signifier.

E.g. A red traffic light is a signifier. Its signified meaning is 'stop.

Linguistic iconicity is similar to semiotics in that it looks at the relationship between linguistic signs (letters and words) and their meanings. However, unlike semiotics, linguistic iconicity suggests an associated resemblance between the signifier and the signified.

For example, repeating the word 'bounce' almost creates the sound of a bouncing ball. Try saying it aloud yourself... can you hear it?

Historically, the relationship between sounds and symbols is thought to be arbitrary, meaning there is no intuitive or natural relationship between a sound, sign or word form and its meaning. However, linguistic iconicity exists because this statement is not always true and some words represent their meanings.

The general basis of sound symbolism is that some words or sounds sound as if they represent certain concepts. For example, some sounds sound small, some big, some bouncy, some spikey, some soft, or some hard. These are just some characteristics that can be attached to particular sounds.

The following quote is from linguist David Crystal; it briefly explains our association between sounds and meanings.

'Here's an experiment. You're in a spaceship approaching a planet. You've been told there are two races on it, one beautiful and friendly to humans, the other unfriendly, ugly and mean-spirited. You also know that one of these groups is called the Lamonians; the other is called the Grataks. Which is which?

'Most people assume that the Lamonians are the nice guys. It's all a matter of sound symbolism. Words with soft sounds such as 'l,' 'm,' and 'n,' and long vowels or diphthongs, reinforced by a gentle polysyllabic rhythm, are interpreted as 'nicer' than words with hard sounds such as 'g' and 'k,' short vowels and an abrupt rhythm.'—The Guardian, David Crystal, 2009.

Useful to know: sound symbolism is also known as sound meaningfulness or phonetic symbolism.

Let's look at the concept of sound-symbol correspondence to ensure we understand sounds and symbols before we look at the different types of sound symbolism.

Sound Symbol Correspondence

A key concept for learning to read, write and speak is sound-symbol correspondence.

Sound-symbol correspondence refers to how each sound has a representative symbol.

For example, the /f/ sound can be represented with the graphemes 'f' 'ph' or 'gh'.

Sound-symbol correspondence is the very first step of sound symbolism. Before we can use a language, we have to learn the sounds and the symbols used to represent them.

As Ferdinand de Saussure states, most symbols and sounds have an utterly arbitrary connection (meaning there is no connection between them). Because of this, we have to learn graphemes (written letters), letter clusters (e.g. 'igh' and 'ph') and whole words and subconsciously commit them to our long-term memory.

However, the sound-symbol correspondence isn't always arbitrary, and several theorists suggest some sounds have a resemblance or familiarity with the concepts they represent, which is sound symbolism.

Let's now take a look at some examples of sound symbolism.

Example of Sound Symbolism

Let's take a look at the word 'bouncy' as an example.

People tend to use a particular rhythm when saying the word 'bouncy', and their voices typically have a down-up rhythm. The rhythm goes down through the first syllable 'boun' and then goes up again through the second syllable 'cy.' This down-up rhythm you get when saying 'bouncy' is representative of the meaning of the word: a repetitive up-down motion.

This example shows how letters as individual symbols must be learned for sound-symbol correspondence and have an arbitrary relationship. However, the symbol as a whole (the whole word) elicits a different sound that has an associative (almost intuitive) meaning that corresponds with the sound.

Types of Sound Symbolism

Different types of sound symbolism exist. We're going to look at some of the most common examples.

Onomatopoeia

Onomatopoeia is the most common type of sound symbolism and is one you have probably come across before.

Onomatopoeic words are the ones that sound like the concept they represent.

For example, ‘meow’ sounds like a cat's noise, and ‘ding dong,’ ‘bong’, and ‘toll’ all sound like a large bell's noise when it’s struck.

Onomatopoeia is commonly used in comics, with words like ‘whoosh,’ ‘smack,’ and ‘kapow’ being used to describe the sound effects that the author imagines happening at specific points in the storyline.

Sound symbolism Image of comic books StudySmarterComic books often contain a lot of onomatopoeia, János Venczák, Unsplash

Ideophones

An ideophone is a word that gives the impression of something sensory, which means the word's meaning is associated with one of the five senses (e.g. sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch).

Let's have a look at some examples of sound symbolism in ideophones.

An example of an ideophone would be the word ‘smooth.’ The word 'smooth' means something that is even-surfaced without any lumps or bumps, and the word itself is smooth to say, as it is one syllable and all of the sounds slide into each other. 'Smooth' relates to the sensory notion of touch.

Another example can be seen in the words used in musical notation. For example, the words ‘staccato’ and ‘legato.’

Staccato’ means the notes are very short and detached.

Legato’ means the notes are played smoothly, without noticeable gaps.

Staccato’ is an ideophone as, when you say it, it has short, detached feeling syllables like the manner of music it represents. ‘Legato’, on the other hand, feels more flowing when you say it, representing smooth, flowing music. These words relate to hearing.

Phonesthemes

Phonestheme is when a sequence of sounds, such as a consonant cluster (e.g. 'fl', 'pr', and 'gl'), suggests a specific meaning.

An example of a phonaestheme is the consonant cluster ‘gl.’ This is usually in words that have a meaning related to light, such as:

  • Glow
  • Glitter
  • Gleam
  • Glimmer

These words come from the Germanic word 'gluoen' which means 'to shine.' The shared etymology of these words explains why they all have the same consonant cluster 'gl.'

A second example would be in the consonant cluster ‘sl’, which is often in words that relate to movement, such as:

  • Slip
  • Slide
  • Sluggish
  • Sledging
  • Slow
  • Slovenly
  • Slothful

Magnitude symbolism

Another type of sound symbolism is magnitude symbolism, which is the name given to the automatic size association we place on different vowels. Front or close vowels such as /i/ or /e/ are often associated with small size, while back or open vowels such as /u/ or /a/ are often related to something of a big size.

Front vowels are produced at the front of the mouth, and close vowels are produced with the tongue placed at the top of the mouth.

Back vowels are produced at the back of the mouth, with open vowels produced with the mouth and vocal organs in an open, non-contracted position.

The linguist Edward Sapir tested the magnitude symbolism theory in 1929. He conducted a test where he took two tables of the same size and called one table 'mil' and the other 'mal'. He then asked participants to state which table they thought was bigger. Even though the tables were the same size, the majority of the participants stated they thought 'mal' was the bigger table.

Bouba/kiki Effect

The bouba/kiki effect is a notable theory in sound symbolism, which aims to show how humans will naturally associate certain types of sounds with certain images. The theory was first introduced in 1929 by the psychologist Wolfgang Köhler. Köhler began his experiments by asking participants to match nonsense words with images. He found that words with front and close vowels and harder sounding consonants, such as 'takete', were matched with spikey shapes. In contrast, words with back and open vowels and softer sounding consonants, such as 'baluba', were matched with rounded shapes.1

In 2001, the researchers Vilayanur S. Ramachandran and Edward Hubbard repeated Köhler's study, this time using the words 'bouba' and 'kiki' and the following two images:

Sound symbolism Image of bouba/kiki effect StudySmarterThe Bouba/Kiki effect associates sounds with shapes. - Wikimedia Commons

They asked the participants, both English and Tamil (a South Asian language) speakers, to match the words 'bouba' and 'kiki' to an image. Over 95% of the participants matched the spikey image to the word 'kiki' and the more-rounded shape to the word 'bouba'.2

This experiment suggests that, across languages, the human brain associates certain sounds with certain images.

Sound Symbolisms - Key Takeaways

  • Sound symbolism is a concept in linguistics that refers to the association between sounds and their meanings.
  • Sound symbolism is a type of linguistic iconicity and semiotics.
  • Sound-symbol correspondence refers to how each sound is represented by a symbol.
  • An example of sound symbolism is the word 'bouncy', which has a rhythm that resembles the up-and-down nature of a bounce.
  • A common type of sound symbolism is onomatopoeia, where words sound like the sounds they represent.
  • The bouba/kiki effect is a notable experiment in sound symbolism. The experiment found that most participants associated harder sounding words with a spikey shape and softer sounding words with a rounded shape.

References

  1. W. Kohler. Gestalt Psychology: an introduction to new concepts in modern psychology. 1970
  2. V. S. Ramachandran & E. M. Hubbard. Synaesthesia - A window into perception, thought and language. Journal of Consciousness Studies, 2001

Sound Symbolisms

Sound-symbol correspondence refers to how each speech sound has a representative symbol.

The general basis of sound symbolism is that some words or sounds sound as if they represent certain concepts. For example, some sounds sound small, some big, some bouncy, some spikey, some soft, or some hard.

Sound symbolism explains why we can intuitively guess the associated meanings of some words based on how they sound, even if we've never heard them before.

Arbitrariness in linguistics is the lack of any connection between a speech sound (or word) and its meaning. Sound symbolism, however, suggests that there are instances where sounds and their meanings have a natural or intuitive connection.

An example of sound symbolism is onomatopoeia, where the words sound like the noises they mean, e.g. 'thwack,' 'bang,' and 'meow.' 


Another example of sound symbolism is the Bouba-Kiki effect, where certain sounds can be associated with particular shapes. For example, 'bouba' sounds like a rounded shape while 'kiki' sounds like a spikey shape.

Final Sound Symbolisms Quiz

Question

Is this excerpt from Katy Perry's song ‘Roar’ an example of onomatopoeia?


'Cause I am a champion, and you're gonna hear me roar.’

Show answer

Answer

Yes

Show question

Question

What type of onomatopoeia is 'vroom'?


Show answer

Answer

An object sound

Show question

Question

What form of writing is this example of onomatopoeia from?


‘To the rolling of the bells -

Of the bells, bells, bells – ’

Show answer

Answer

Poetry.

This example of onomatopoeia is from the poem ‘The Bells’ (1849) by Edgar Allan Poe.

Show question

Question

Does this phrase from Emily Dickinson's 'I heard a Fly buzz - when I died-' contain onomatopoeia?


'While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping'. 

Show answer

Answer

 Yes


Show question

Question

How can you identify the onomatopoeic word in the following sentence?


‘Hurry up or they'll hear us and catch us!’, I whispered.

Show answer

Answer

The onomatopoeic word is ‘whispered.’ You can identify it by spotting that it is the only word in the sentence that describes a sound (to whisper is to speak softly using one's breath).

‘Hurry up or they'll hear us and catch us!’, I whispered.



Show question

Question

Is this an example of onomatopoeia?


'Jingle bells, jingle bells,

Jingle all the way.'

Show answer

Answer

Yes

Show question

Question

Which of the words in the following excerpt from Kesha's song 'Tik-Tok' are examples of onomatopoeia?


‘Don't stop, make it pop

DJ, blow my speakers up

Tonight, I'ma fight.’

‘Til we see the sunlight

Tick-tock on the clock.’

Show answer

Answer

The words 'pop' and 'tick-tock' are onomatopoeic words. 'Pop' represents a light explosive sound. 'Tick-tock' conveys the sound that a clock makes.

'Don't stop, make it pop

DJ, blow my speakers up

Tonight, I'ma fight

'Til we see the sunlight

Tick-tock  on the clock'.

Show question

Question

What form of writing is this example of onomatopoeia from?


'I was just beginning to yawn with nerves thinking he was trying to make a fool of me when I knew his tattarrattat at the door.'

Show answer

Answer

Prose.

This example of onomatopoeia is from the novel Ulysses (1920) by James Joyce.



Show question

Question

What type of onomatopoeia is 'hachoo'?

Show answer

Answer

A human sound

Show question

Question

Does this sentence contain onomatopoeia?

'It was so cold Sarah couldn't help but shiver.'

Show answer

Answer

No

Show question

Question

What type of onomatopoeia is 'zap'?

Show answer

Answer

A sound made in fictional works

Show question

Question

Which of the words in the following excerpt from the song 'Firework' by Katy Perry is an example of onomatopoeia?


'Boom, boom, boom

Even brighter than the moon, moon, moon.’

Show answer

Answer

The word 'boom' is an onomatopoeia that evokes a loud, resonant sound.

‘Boom, boom, boom

Even brighter than the moon, moon, moon.’

Show question

Question

Does this phrase contain onomatopoeia?


'Ka-ching! I just got paid!'

Show answer

Answer

Yes


Show question

Question

Which of the words in this excerpt from Emily Dickenson's poem: 'I heard a Fly buzz - When I died-' is an example of onomatopoeia?


‘I heard a fly buzz - when I died-'

the stillness in the room

was like the stillness in the air.’ 

Show answer

Answer

'Buzz'


Show question

Question

What is sound symbolism?

Show answer

Answer

Sound symbolism is a linguistic concept referring to the connection between speech sounds and their meanings.

Show question

Question

Is sound symbolism a type of linguistic iconicity or semiotics?

Show answer

Answer

Trick question - its a type of both.

Show question

Question

What is semiotics and which American philosopher is associated with it?

Show answer

Answer

  • Semiotics is a field of study that looks at signs and their meanings.
  • The American philosopher associated with semiotics is Charles Sanders Peirce.

Show question

Question

According to Peirce, what are the three types of sign?

Show answer

Answer

  • Icons
  • Indexes
  • Symbols

Show question

Question

Which type of sign, according to Peirce, so letters and words come under?

Show answer

Answer

Symbols

Show question

Question

What is linguistic iconicity?

Show answer

Answer

Linguistic iconicity looks at the relationship or connection between linguistic signs and their meanings.

Show question

Question

How does linguistic iconicity differ to semiotics?

Show answer

Answer

Linguistic iconicity suggests that symbols (letters and words) can have associative meanings while semiotics argues that they don't.

Show question

Question

What did Ferdinand de Saussure say about signs in linguistics and what did he mean?

Show answer

Answer

De Saussure stated that the sign is arbitrary, meaning that there is no connection between linguistic signs, word forms or sounds and their meanings.

Show question

Question

What can sound symbolism also be known as?

Show answer

Answer

Sound meaningfulness or phonetic symbolism.

Show question

Question

What is sound-symbol correspondence?

Show answer

Answer

Sound-symbol correspondence refers to how each sound has a representative symbol.

Show question

Question

What are three types of sound symbolism?

Show answer

Answer

Name any three from the following:

  • Onomatopoeia
  • Ideophones
  • Phonaesthemes
  • Magnitude symbolism
  • Bouba-Kiki effect
  • Tactile sound symbolism
  • Deictic sound symbolism
  • Pronominal sound symbolism

Show question

Question

What is onomatopoeia?

Show answer

Answer

Onomatopoeia is when a word sounds like the noise it represents, such as 'thwack,' 'woof' and 'ding dong.'

Show question

Question

What genre of fiction often uses onomatopoeia?

Show answer

Answer

Comic books.

Show question

Question

What is an ideophone?

Show answer

Answer

An ideophone is a word that gives the impression of something sensory (touch, sight, sound, colour, shape, smell or movement). Ideophones sound like the sensory concept they represent such as 'smooth.'

Show question

Question

What are phonaesthemes?

Show answer

Answer

Phonaesthemes are sequences of sounds or phonemes that are associated with a particular meaning or set of meanings.

Show question

Question

What is an example of a phonaestheme?

Show answer

Answer

The consonant cluster 'sl' is an example of a phonaestheme as it is often present in words that relate to liquids such as 'slippy,' 'sloppy,' 'slimy' and 'slidey.'

Show question

Question

What is magnitude symbolism?

Show answer

Answer

Magnitude symbolism refers to the size association placed on different vowels.

Show question

Question

According to magnitude symbolism, which vowels are associated with the concept of 'bigness,' and which are associated with the concept of 'smallness?'

Show answer

Answer

  • Back open vowels such as /a/ or /u/ are associated with the concept of 'bigness.'
  • Front close vowels such as /i/ or /e/ are associated with the concept of 'smallness.'

Show question

Question

Which linguist carried out a study in 1929 that proved magnitude symbolism?

Show answer

Answer

Sapir

Show question

Question

What is the Bouba-Kiki effect?

Show answer

Answer

The bouba-kiki effect is the phenomenon where particular sounds are associated with shapes. For example, 'bouba' would be a rounded shape and 'kiki' would be a spikey shape.

Show question

Question

How do we know that the bouba-kiki effect is present across different languages and cultures?

Show answer

Answer

We know the bouba-kiki effect is present across different languages and cultures because it works with psuedo-words.

Show question

Question

What is tactile sound symbolism?

Show answer

Answer

Tactile sound symbolism refers to the meanings associated with sounds depending on the tactile element of their production.

Show question

Question

What is an example of tactile sound symbolism?

Show answer

Answer

Bilabial consonants such as 'p,' 'b,' and 'm' are associated with softness due to them being produced with the lips which are also soft.

Show question

Question

What is deictic sound symbolism?

Show answer

Answer

Deictic sound symbolism refers to the meaning associated with vowels in demonstrative pronouns ('this' and 'that'). 

Across a range of languages, 'this' usually has high front vowels such as /i/ while 'that' usually has low back vowels such as /a/.

Show question

Question

What is an example of deictic sound symbolism in other languages?

Show answer

Answer

  • English = 'this' and 'that'
  • Dutch = 'deze' and 'dat'
  • German = 'diese' and 'das'
  • Maori = 'tenei' and 'tera'
  • Or any other language where the vowels for the translations of 'this' and 'that' follow the same pattern.

Show question

Question

What is pronominal sound symbolism?

Show answer

Answer

Pronominal sound symbolism suggests that first-person pronouns across different languages usually contain nasal sounds such as 'm' and 'n.'

Show question

Question

What did the linguist Joo deem as being the reason for nasal sounds often being present in first-person pronouns?

Show answer

Answer

Joo suggested this was due to infants producing nasal sounds early on in their speech development and using these sounds to attract the attention of their care-givers or to get something - using 'me' and 'you' often.

Show question

Question

What is onomatopoeia?

Show answer

Answer

Onomatopoeia is when a word corresponds to the sound it represents.

Show question

Question

What is onomatopoeia a type of?

Show answer

Answer

Sound symbolism

Show question

Question

How is onomatopoeia used as a poetry technique?

Show answer

Answer

It is used to create auditory imagery in literature.

Show question

Question

Which of these words is not onomatopoeic?

Show answer

Answer

Speak

Show question

Question

Which of these onomatopoeic words represents feeling cold?

Show answer

Answer

Brr

Show question

Question

If a word sounds like the noise it represents, how would it be described?

Show answer

Answer

It is onomatopoeic

Show question

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