The secrets of phonosemantics (part I)

April 11, 2017 10:02 am

The question of how things are named has been raised and discussed since the Ancient Times. In this post we explore what are the secrets hidden behind one of the most enigmatic fields within linguistics: phonosemantics.

The secrets phonosemantics 1

Twas brillig, and the slithy toves

Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:

All mimsy were the borogoves,

And the mome raths outgrabe

Alice in wonderlandThis is the extract from the well-known nonsense poem “Jabberwocky” written by L. Carroll for his novel Alice in Wonderland.  Although most of the words don’t exist in the English language, the reader can vaguely imagine what is described in this stanza. It happens partly due to some function words that indicate the different parts of speech, and partly due to the phonetic structure of these made-up words that draw the pictures of the funny creatures in our minds. We can guess that “brillig” describes the weather condition and that “toves” must be small and slippery because they are called “slithy”, and that “mimsy” could be something flimsy and noisy. The novel Alice in Wonderland was translated into 174 languages and the translators from all over the world managed to convey the original “meaning” of the poem into their native language. Was it just pure imagination that lead the translators in their work or sounds may have a semantic meaning, just like every word has? The theory of phonosemantics or onomatopoeia suggests some answers to these questions.


The question of how things are named was first raised in Ancient Times. Some ancient philosophers thought that things are named by people’s agreement and that there is no connection between the meaning and the “sounding” of the word. Other thinkers supposed that the name of a thing can somehow imply its essence. Plato believed that people are free to choose the name for things but their choice is not random at all but dependent on the features of the thing as well as on the features of the sounds. Then in the epoch of Renaissance the idea of phonosemantics was highly criticised by J. Lock who saw no connection between sounds and ideas and described his arguments in An Essay of Human Understanding. In the 18th century, Leibniz disagreed with J. Lock in some points and admitted that the connection between the sounds and the meaning is not completely arbitrary.

Book3In the meantime, Russian scientist and poet Mikhail Lomonosov made a hypothesis in which he stated that the repetition of the vowels i, e, yu may be used to create the effect of something tender, pleasant and soft, and the words with the repeated sounds o, u, y may be used to depict something terrifying, dark and cold. In 1836 Wilhelm von Humboldt distinguished between different relationship of sounds and meaning: onomatopoeia (the imitation of natural sounds and other sounds) and sound symbolism.  In the 20th century phonosemantics was recognized as a branch of linguistics by most linguists and its ideas gave the inspiration for tons of different researches and experiments in developing and young branches of linguistics, such as psycholinguistics, neurolinguistics, cognitive linguistics and others. In 1930 John Rupert Firth studied certain combination of sounds in different words and proposed the term “phonestheme” to refer to a sound sequence and a meaning with which it is frequently associated. For example, the English /gl/ in initial position is contained in the words which relate to something shiny, radiant, connected with light: glear, glim, glimmer, glint, glister, glitter, glamour, glory, gloss. The same relation between the combination of sounds and the meaning can be found in other languages. In German, for example, the combinations kno/knö denote something small and round: Knoblauch (garlic), Knopf (button), Knospe (bud of a plant), Knoten (knot), Knöchel (ankle), Knödel (dumpling). Margaret Magnus, after analysing the results of a test for sound-meaning correlation, came to the conclusion that phonemes may be meaning-bearing. For example, many words that contain /k/ quite often refer to containers (carton, box, crate, can, etc.), and words that contain a consonant /t/ followed by /p/ often relate to something that is off balance (topple, stoop, tipple, tipsy,etc.).

Book6Phonosemantic studies were addressed from a different perspective in Russia. In the late 60s, Russian linguist Victor Levitsky started analysing the correlation between subjective symbolism (how the sounds affect the psyche) and objective symbolism (the connection between the sounds and the meaning of the words) and ended up obtaining results with regards to the international nature of subjective symbolism, finding out the correlation between the differential features of the phoneme and its meaning (e.g. “slow”- sonoric, fricative; “fast” – plosive, obstruent, etc.). In 1970-1980s Alexander Zhuravlev wrote the book Phonetic Meaning, which contains the results of the symbolic meaning of all the sounds of Russian language which were found using a psychometric method based on 25 distinctive-feature scales: big-small, good-bad, light-dark, etc. He proved that the word is an entity of meaning and sound, and developed the patterns which help to define the phonetic meaning of the word automatically, taking into account that the first sound of the word is 4 times more informative than the others and that the vowel under stress is two times more informative. Based on his results, an automatic system for defining the phonetic meaning of the words – Vaal project  – was developed. The Vaal project analyses the phonetic meaning of single words and even of texts, and is frequently used not only for some linguistic researches but also as a tool which helps to find the more attractive name for a company or product.

So all in all, the sounds we use to name objects are not wholly arbitrary and sometimes the phonetic shape of the word can add some value to its meaning. The raised interest towards this branch of linguistics and its important connections to literature, marketing and cultural affection prove that the phonosemantic side of language deserves to continue being studied.

Coming soon: The secrets of phonosemantics (part II), where Olga Smirnova will share the results of a phonosemantic experiment carried out with the staff of the Terminology Coordination Unit of the European Parliament.

Smirnova Olga

Written by Olga Smirnova. Olga was a Study Visitor at the Terminology and Coordination Unit. She holds a BA in Linguistics from Tambov State University in Russia and she is currently doing MA in Learning and Communication in Multilingual and Multicultural Contexts at the University of Luxembourg. Native Russian speaker, speaks English and German and is currently learning French and Chinese. Her research interests include cognitive linguistic studies, multiculturalism and translation.




  • Firth, John Rupert (1935)The Use and Distribution of Certain English Sounds”, English Studies, 17: 8-18.
  • Levitsky, V.V. (2008) Semantic and Phonetic Links in the Indo-European Lexicon, Chernovtsi: Ruta.
  • Magnus, Margaret (1998) The Gods of the Word: Archetypes in the Consonants. Kirksville: Truman State University Press.
  • Zhuravlev, A.P. (1974) Phonetic Meaning. Leningrad: Leningrad University Press.
  • Carroll, Lewis (1962) Alice in Wonderland, Through the Looking Glass. England: Puffin Books
  • Voronin S.V. (1990) Phonosemantic ideas in foreign linguistic studies. Leningrad: Leningrad University Press
  • Science and life (1974) “Hot” and “cold” words. Available at: (Accessed 29 March, 2017)

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