LINGUIST List 9.1106

Wed Aug 5 1998

Sum: re: 9.1050 Phonological Clusters

Editor for this issue: Brett Churchill <>


  • Philip Grew, re: 9.1050 "Phonological Clusters of Semantically Similar Words"

    Message 1: re: 9.1050 "Phonological Clusters of Semantically Similar Words"

    Date: Sun, 26 Jul 1998 12:29:10 -0400
    From: Philip Grew <>
    Subject: re: 9.1050 "Phonological Clusters of Semantically Similar Words"

    Last week, Gareth Gaskell (9.1050 "Phonological Clusters of Semantically Similar Words") posted a question that I believe merits a general answer to the list. It was as follows:

    There are fairly well known clusters of similar sounding words that also mean similar things, such as glimmer, glisten and glint or sneeze, snort and snore. Does anyone know of any work carried out on these clusters?

    Clusters of similar-sounding words with semantic affinities are the basis of phonaesthesia. In this phenomenon, associations arise among groups of words, which may have close, distant or no etymological relations. These associations may then transfer to a sequence of phonemes shared by the words with some perceived common element of meaning, creating phonaesthemes. The presence of that same string of phonemes may then in turn lend a shade of the meaning felt to characterize the phonaestheme to another expression, simply because the latter contains that string.

    I personally group phonaesthesia into three manifestations of the phenomenon, two simple and one complex: alliterative phonaesthemes, homeoteleutic phonaesthemes (usually but not always rhyming), and combinatory phonaesthesia. Combinatory phonaesthesia tends to be associated with other phenomena, such as reduplication, assonant couplets, and frequentative or iterative 'suffixes' (verbal diminutives). One particularly interesting example might be termed ablaut (or apophonic) phonaesthesia.

    Both the phonaesthemes Gareth refers to in the question, /#gl-/ for visibility and /#sn-/ for nasal activity (in a narrow interpretation) or for slime and stealth (in a broader view), are of the alliterative variety. These are also two of the most noted phonaesthemes. Words that may have contributed to the creation of the association of initial "gl" with visibility and luminosity include the following (with date of first appearance as recorded in _Merriam Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, Tenth Edition_): glad ante XII glass ante XII glisten ante XII glow ante XII glare XIII glaire XIII glaze XIV glint XIV glitter XIV gloom XIV glory XIV gleam XV glimmer XV glade 1529 gloss 1538 glum 1547 glabrous 1640 gloat 1676

    The influence of this phonaestheme becomes apparent in the shift of meaning in the word "glance," whose sixteenth-century meaning, "strike obliquely," seems to have taken a backseat to the meaning "look obliquely." However, the presence of the same initial phoneme string in "glacier," "glide," and "glove" does not appear to have had such impact on perceived meaning. We may have to consider whether there is a homophonic phonaestheme evoking lumpiness at work on words like "glitch," "glue," "glob," "globe," etc. The word "glib" may once have been felt part of a now obsolete /#gl-/ phonaesthetic grouping for slipping and sliding (along with "glance," "glide" and French "glisser") and later been influenced by the visibility idea. The verb "glean" appears to be showing the influence of the visibility series in our time. Discussion of the role of the /#gl-/ phonaestheme in "gloom" would take up too much space, but a sort of ~lucus a non lucendi~ reasoning can combine with the word's other phonaesthetic associations and with the sound symbolism of the vowel in placing this word within the visibility phonaestheme.

    A parallel to the phonaesthetic influence on the meaning of "glance" can be seen in the influence of the rhyming phonaestheme /-aes<#/ (i.e., "-ash") in what Bolinger called the "family of words, including crash, mash, bash, lash, slash, gnash e splash ... [on] dash, rash and hash (the edible kind)." Other rhyming phonaesthemes can be found in words with "-ish," "-ack, "-unch," "-ip," and "-inge," to name just a few. The single word-final phoneme /-c<#/, usually spelled "-tch," seems to exert a sort of homeoteleutic phonaesthetic pressure associating, say, "catch" and "glitch" (though I am glossing over a discussion of their rhymes to keep this posting brief).

    Combinatory phonaesthesia of the reduplicative type clearly plays a role in expressions like "spick and span," while the homeoteleutic type is at work in "willy-nilly." Both come into play in "wishy-washy," where we see the beginnings of ablaut phonaesthesia at work. This can mimic the paradigm of a strong verb to create a series like flip : flap : flop : flub (with the vowels of sing : sang : song : sung). A word like "flip" thus has phonaesthetic relations of all three types. Its alliterative group, /#fl-/, evokes the volatility of fly, flow, flee, fleet, flash, flake, and flick. Its rhymes, dip, sip, quip, drip, pip, tip, slip, and so forth, add to its connotation of minor labile action. It also belongs to an ablaut series where vowel alternation has a semantic value (think of a politician "flip-flopping" on the issues), much as it does in couplets like "pitter-patter," "chit-chat," "tip-top," or "tip-tap." In the discussion of these phenomena where he coined the term "phonaesthesia," Firth was already aware of the ablaut implied in a series like drip : drop : droop : drape. Proportional analogy also comes into play here. Thus clip : clasp :: grip : grasp, crash : crush :: mash : mush, and munch : crunch :: mash : crash.

    Because the essence of phonaesthesia lies in a grouping of relationships that are not always clear, cataloguing phonaesthemes becomes a daunting task. I know of no attempt more complete than that of Marchand. Identifying the role of an associative process in word formation leads to the slippery slope of speculation about cognitive processes that we do not fully understand. In addition, the dependence of these phenomena on the naive speaker's intuitive refusal of arbitrariness might make the study of such 'nonarbitrary' influence in word formation seem unscientific. However, the refusal of arbitrariness also underlies folk etymology, and poetry has little need of scientific method.

    It is all too easy to dismiss a vague associative process as mere onomatopoeia with a marginal role in contributing to the lexicon. Words bearing the signs of past phonaesthesia often present us with unresolved etymologies. When the humorist Dave Barry writes (International Herald Tribune, June 27, 1998) that a barbecue should be partly made up of "hardened black grill scunge from food cooked as far back as 1987," we have little need to question the nonce formation. The term "scunge" is immediately recognizable because of what we can associate it with. We can dismiss it as a blend of "scum" and "grunge" or we can look further and ask if there isn't a phenomenon worthy of study here, an associative process that encouraged Barry to extract the /#sk-/ not simply from "scum" alone but from what Mencken might have termed its 'congeners' (i.e., scuzzy, skin, scurf, skim, scuff, scam, skunk, and a host of others) and to tack that onset onto the rhyme not so much of "grunge" per se as of whatever lies at the basis of 'expressive coinages' like "grunge" itself and the earlier "gunge" and of 'blends' like "blunge." Barry is not Shakespeare, or course, and "scunge" may remain a hapax legomenon. But the coinages of the past were no doubt similarly influenced by the phonaesthetic sensibilities of the Zeitgeist of the coiners, just as our own shared sensibilities enable Barry to elicit a laugh by creating an expression we consider so apt. Obviously there is a *reason* we find it apt.

    Perhaps newer discussion in the fields of mimetics, synaesthesia, and sound symbolism in general will shed more light on phonaesthesia. I fear that since Firth published his insights in 1930 phonaesthesia has been given short shrift because of the heretical nature of any investigation pairing phonological parallels with semantic affinities. Thus I know of no better place to begin seeking answers to Gareth's question than the works of Firth, Marchand, and Bolinger. Perhaps someone has taken a more recent, sweeping, swooping swipe at phonaesthesia that I have missed. If so, please let me know. I will look forward to Gareth's summary.

    Philip Grew

    - - references --- Bolinger, Dwight L., 1980, _Language -- The Loaded Weapon: The Use and Abuse of Language Today_, New York: Longman.

    Firth, J. R., 1930, _Speech_ (reprinted in _The Tongues of Men & Speech_, 1964), London: Oxford University Press.

    Marchand, Hans, 1959, "Phonetic symbolism in English word-formation" in _Indogermanische Forschungen_ LXIV. - ----