LINGUIST List 5.590

Sat 21 May 1994

Sum: Klang association

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  • David Prager Branner, Summary: Klang association

    Message 1: Summary: Klang association

    Date: Thu, 19 May 1994 14:13:43 Summary: Klang association
    From: David Prager Branner <>
    Subject: Summary: Klang association

    I posted a message on 16 May asking for information about the term "klang association". I saw the term in Paul Dickson's _Words : a connoisseur's collection of old and new, weird and wonderful, useful and outlandish words_ (New York : Delacorte Press, 1982). The term refers to the rough phonetic likeness between words of similar meaning: smash/clash/crash/bash/thrash-thresh/mash, or swish/swoosh/whoosh/swash-buckler. I asked whether this is a real term, where it is actually used in the literature, under what other names it goes, and where it originated.

    At the request of one of the respondents I am posting a summary.

    From: Kimberly Soto <> I haven't heard the term klang association, but the phenomenon you are referring to is called sound symbolism. Symbolism in language is when there is a direct relationship between some property of the thing named and the phonetic shape of the name. English has symbolic words based on size (itty-bitty), and probably other properties as well. Symbolic words are common in Mesoamerican languages. In Nahua symbolic roots based on color, motion, and other properties are found.

    From: Karl Teeter <> ... Phonestheme is the term for this which has been kicking around since at least the fifties... Such classes of partial similarities are not only characteristic of English, but typical of Germanic languages in general; Leonard Bloomfield wrote his doctoral thesis on the subject, back around 1910 or so.

    From: Blaine Erickson <ericksonuhunix.uhcc.Hawaii.Edu> This sounds like phonesthemes to me. Although I don't have a reference in front of me, the author to look for is Dwight Bolinger.

    From: Achim Grabowski <grabclarity.Princeton.EDU> I strongly believe that the term is taken from German, where "Klang-Assoziation" means exactly what you've been describing: phonetic similarity. "Klang" simply means "characteristic of sounds". "Sounds" is in this context not restricted to verbal elements, but also to noises, music, etc. Another related term is the "Physiognomy of sounds" ("Laut-Physiognomie"), i.e. sounds appear to sound somewhat 'hard', or 'soft', or 'ugly' (which doesn't depend on the meaning of a word that sounds like that).

    From: Steve Chandler <> I first saw the word "klang" or "clang" in articles on how people respond to word association tests, articles back in the 50's and early 60's... The term was used to label a type of response given under very fast response time pressures: subjects would often respond with a phonetically similar word or nonsense form... [See] H.H. Clark (1970) "Word associations and linguistic theory" in J. Lyons (Ed.), _New Horizons in Linguistics_, (on p.273). I believe that the term was commonly used in that literature, but I don't know who coined it. By the way, I think that the analogical model described in R. Skousen's 1989 book, _Analogical Modeling of Language_ (Kluwer) provides a natural mechanism for understanding clang responses. Also, it might be interesting to look at what, if any, phonetic parts of the source word get retained preferentially.

    From: John E Limber <> ... The old behaviorist/associationist psychologists of the 1930-50s had a taxonomy of word associations (given A, respond X); "clang" was one of these terms for something like you described. Look at the Ervin-Tripp and Cofer & Foley reprints in Jakobovits & Miron (1967) _Readings in the psychology of language_. Ervin actually uses the "clang" term in her "Changes with age in the verbal determinants of word-association"--kids clang more than older speakers: "they are more likely to respond to the immediate sound properties of verbal stimuli...."

    From: Simon Williams <> Professor Gillian Brown, Cambridge University, gave the closing address at this year's IATEFL Conference, Brighton, England, on just this topic. It would be a good idea to contact her. Someone on the list may have her e-mail address.

    From: Caitlin Hines <> One person who has done some related work is Richard Rhodes at UC Berkeley--reference: Rhodes, Richard, and John Lawler, "Athematic metaphors," in _Papers from the seventeenth regional meeting, Chicago Linguistic Society_, (Chicago: Chicago Linguistic Society, 1981). This paper looks at "sn-", "fl-", "-ap" and so on. I'd be very interested in more recent references to the bete noire of Phonetic Symbolism.

    I heard from a number of people, to all of whom, thanks:

    Jon Hareide Aarbakke Steve Chandler Blaine Erickson Achim Grabowski Caitlin Hines John Limber Paul <> Maximilian Schulze Kimberly Soto Karl Teeter Simon Williams

    David Prager Branner Asian Languages and Literature University of Washington, DO-21 Seattle, WA 98195