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Korean has an interesting feature, in that mimetic words and colours can be altered by changing their vowels from one vowel harmony grouping to the other. The two groupings are called yin vowels and yang vowels, and in mimetic words, the yin vowels (ㅓ[ʌ], ㅜ[u], etc.) carry semantic shades of "dark/impure/big", while yang vowels carry shades of "bright/clean/small". By switching from one to another, you can change the meaning slightly.

For example, "꿀꺽" (ggulggeok) and "꼴깍" (ggolggak) both mean "the sound of gulping" (they are mimetic adverbs), but the first indicates larger gulping than the second one.

Are there any other languages where vowel harmony can be used semantically like this, rather than just phonologically?

(I should note that vowel harmony isn't restricted to this in Korean; it is also used in the usual way, with some suffixes harmonizing with the vowel of the last syllable of the root).

  • In English there's a tendency for onomatopoeic words to correlate front vowels (i, e) with small movements and back vowels (o,a). But they don't tend to occur in contrasting pairs like your Korean examples. – Colin Fine May 16 '16 at 23:15
  • Japanese has tons of interested onomatopeia (sp?) words like this, but I don't know that "vowel harmony" is the correct term for them. Arabic also has a long tradition of asking whether consonantal groups (e.g "gutterals") carry semantic weight. – mobileink May 19 '16 at 20:05
  • I do not see why are you referring to vowel harmony? If there is a vowel harmony, this phenomenon is secondary, what you are presenting is a classical apophony or, more broadly, nonconcatenative morphology. – amegnunsen Sep 25 '18 at 19:06
  • @amegnunsen Because it's a remnant of the old Korean vowel harmony; there are only a few vestiges of it left and this is one; however, it fits into the paradigm perfectly. The mimetic words usually have either all yin vowels or all yang vowels; as in the example above, ggulggeok has all yin vowels; when you change the "u" to its yang equivalent "o", you also change the "eo" to its yang equivalent "a". – gaeguri Sep 25 '18 at 23:08
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It's difficult to find modern sources on it but the Manchu language of the Qing Dynasty had elements of this.

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There is some sound symbolism in the German language (e.g., small bells make "ding", large bells "dong"; little clocks make "tick" and larger ones "tack") but this is not used systematically.

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