LINGUIST List 5.606

Tue 24 May 1994

Disc: Sound symbolism

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  • Dan Alford, Klang association, Whorf & Fetzer Dialogues
  • Penny Lee, Re: 5.590 Sum: Klang association

    Message 1: Klang association, Whorf & Fetzer Dialogues

    Date: Sun, 22 May 1994 11:50:28 Klang association, Whorf & Fetzer Dialogues
    From: Dan Alford <>
    Subject: Klang association, Whorf & Fetzer Dialogues

    The summary to Klang Association awakened some thoughts in me that the original appeal did not, about the role of sound symbolism in languages, and how the importance of that role is a function of culture, and how our self-evident arbitrariness of fit between word and world is equally culture-bound.

    For the last three years I have been one of three linguists invited to a series of dialogues sponsored by the Fetzer Institute (Dialogues Between Indigenous and Western Scientists), bringing together field-experienced linguists, quantum physicists, Native American intellectuals and other systems thinkers to compare worldviews. David Bohm, a co-worker with Einstein, was the sparkplug for these meetings, and (as he told me in a private conversation) what gave him the idea to do it was his reading long ago of Benjamin Whorf, who suggested that the subatomic problem Heisenberg talked about (we must talk in nouns but there are no things in the subatomic world, only processes) could be overcome by certain Native American languages that do not need to use nouns in order to be grammatical. In the three public days of the first meeting during 1992, the main daily topics were Time, Space, and finally Language to tie everything together.

    The Native American group, led by Leroy Little Bear, Sakej Youngblood Henderson and Peter Kelly (all with Algonquian language backgrounds: Blackfoot, Mikmaq, Ojibwa), after leading the scientists through a Pipe Ceremony (to bring them into the center of their universe and ways of knowing), talked very openly about their knowledge of the subatomic world, which they call the realm of spirits. Physicists and Native Americans agreed that there were many points of similarity between their worldviews: flux is the only constant; everything that exists vibrates; there is an implicate order beyond the explicate in which the part enfolds the whole, etc.

    One important description of Algonquian languages emerging from the conversation is that sound symbolism (as Kimberly Soto defined it in her reply to Banner, a direct relationship between some property of the thing named and the phonetic shape of the name) -- or let us extend it to a larger notion of sensory symbolism so as not to exclude other senses -- is a fundamental source of their naming. This is not, as in English, an insignificant oddity against a backdrop of arbitrariness, but a nearly exclusive principle of naming.

    In Mikmaq, said Sakej, trees are/were named for the sound the wind makes when it blows through the trees during the autumn, about an hour after sunset when the wind always comes from a certain direction. And more astoundingly, these names are not fixed but change as the sound changes. So if an elder remembers that a stand (tribe) of trees over there used to be called such and such 75 years ago but are now called so-and-so, these terms can be seen as scientific markers for the effects of acid rain over 75 years, something we can't do with our terms oak, pine and mahogany.

    Thus, Klang association is a topic which has become crucial for some on-going world-class leading-edge discussions of linguistic relativity today. American Sign Language, from what I understand, also shares verb-orientation and sensory symbolism. So perhaps our introductory linguistics textbooks of the future will reflect that arbitrariness, once thought to be universal, was in the 1990s realized to be yet another culture-bound notion once mistakenly imposed on other languages of the world by the Western European linguistic mindset -- such as the noun notion of God NOT shared by Native Americans, the subject of a recent talk I gave to the Society for the Anthropology of Consciousness; but maybe we should save that one for another posting.

    -- Moonhawk (%->)

    Message 2: Re: 5.590 Sum: Klang association

    Date: Tue, 24 May 1994 12:04:20 Re: 5.590 Sum: Klang association
    From: Penny Lee <>
    Subject: Re: 5.590 Sum: Klang association

    Sound symbolism is different from klang association. In the first case the association is between the sound of the word and the sound it represents or refers to. In the second case there is a response to the sound rather than meaning of the word, e.g. when a psychologist asks a child "Which are most similar, a car and a cart or a car and a truck". (Sorry to give such a non North American example; it's the first which came to mind - car means automobile and truck means lorry - or is the latter British?). A phonestheme is different again - it is an element of a word, smaller than a morpheme, which may nevertheless convey meaning. Hockett considers these in some detail within the notion of "resonances" in his Refurbishing Our Foundations (1987) and Whorf and Sapir and others also discussed the issue. I think I've got that right - didn't know Bloomfield wrote his thesis on the phenomenon.

    Dr P. Lee, School of Education (Soc Sci S), Flinders University, GPO Box 2100, Adelaide SA 5001. Australia.