When we English speakers say phrases like "King Kong" and "delicate daffodil," some of us can't help but think that the "k" sound is rough-and-tumble and the "d" sound is mild-mannered. Apparently there is a term for sounds or parts of words that the speakers of a given language associate with a mood or theme.

Apparently, there is a name for such sounds or parts of words--phonesthemes.

There's more information about phonesthemes on the Net, except, apparently, for the consensus among professional linguists about how seriously we should take the existence of phonesthemes.

  • 4
    I don't think professional linguists take terms seriously, but we might take an empirical claim seriously. I'm just not sure what the empirical claim would be. It probably is true that the "fascinate some linguists".
    – user6726
    Dec 28, 2017 at 5:52
  • I hadn't heard of the term before, but after reading the Wiki entry it seems to be related to onomatopoeia, as in words such as 'smack'. That's a concept we teach our students and it's widely accepted. As for /d/ sounding mild-mannered - never heard of that and erm I'm still to be convinced that's a thing ;)
    – robert
    Dec 28, 2017 at 15:46
  • 1
    English has a very large set of phonesthemes; they're organized into initial consonant clusters (technically, "Assonances") like kl- and st-, and vowel-plus-coda combinations ("Rimes"), like -ump and -ɪp. Of course every language is different; Indonesian, which uses disyllabic CVCVC roots, splits its roots into into CVC + VC phonosemantic units, instead of C(C)-VC(C) units like English stump.
    – jlawler
    Dec 30, 2017 at 4:06

3 Answers 3



The notion that sounds carry inherent meanings certainly figures in folk ideas about language; it somehow matches many people's intuitions. But a non-arbitrary connection between sound and sense obviously violates some principles of modern linguistics.

There is lots of research being done right now, but it often involves an acknowledgement that the phenomena are underdeveloped and/or not accepted in mainstream linguistics. Also, we should distinguish between a universal, interlinguistic sound-meaning connection and merely intralinguistic patterns. The former seems hard to defend, but ideas about synesthesia may be reopening the question. The latter seems to be cropping up in a large number of articles.

This answer may change further if curiosity leads me to keep prodding the subject...

Catalogue search

The article for phonesthetics (or "sound symbolism") indicates that it's a very old question. But in the "modern" part of that article, the story seems to peter out in the 1970s and '80s.

However, a simple search ("phonoesthetics", "phonestheme", "sound symbolism", "sound semantics" in scholarly articles, book reviews, and conference proceedings) using the University of Toronto catalogue suggests that the situation is the reverse. The research is accelerating:

U of T catalogue

Here are some of the article titles:

Ideophones, Interjections, and Sound Symbolism in Seediq (Lee 2017)

The Case for Sound Symbolism (Nuckolls 1999)

The Specificity of Sound Symbolic Correspondences in Spoken Language (Tzeng, Nygaard & Namy 2016)

Sound-symbolism: A Piece in the Puzzle of Word Learning (Parault & Schwanenflugel 2006)

Sound to meaning correspondences facilitate word learning (Nygaard, Cook & Lamy 2009)

Sound Symbolism in Basic Vocabulary (Wichmann, Holman & Brown 2010)

What is the link between synaesthesia and sound symbolism? (Bankieres & Simner 2015)

Several of the 20 or so articles that I checked have decent numbers of reads, downloads and citations for the field (ranging from a half-dozen to a few dozen). Tellingly, however, almost every abstract includes a line qualifying the phenomena as "not widely accepted", "contradictory to the principles of linguistics", or "not yet well understood or explained".

The abstract of Nuckolls' 1999 review says this:

The proposal that linguistic sounds such as phonemes, features, syllables, or tones can be meaningful, or sound-symbolic, contradicts the principles of arbitrariness and double articulation that are axiomatic to structural linguistics. Nevertheless, a considerable body of research that supports principles of sound symbolism has accumulated. This review discusses the most widely attested forms of sound symbolism and the research programs linked to sound symbolism that have influenced linguists and anthropologists most. Numerous reports of magnitude sound symbolism in the form of experimental studies and comparative surveys have been integrated into a biologically based theory of its motivation. Magnitude sound symbolism also catalyzed a number of experimental studies by psychologists and linguists in search of a universal sound-symbolic substrate underlying all languages. Although the search for a sound-symbolic substrate has been abandoned, the success rates of these studies have never been satisfactorily explained. Sound-symbolic processes have had a definitive impact on morphological analyses of phonesthemes and on historical linguists' understandings of diachronic processes. A typologically widespread form of sound symbolism occurs as a kind of lexical class known as the ideophone, which is conspicuously underdeveloped in standard average European languages, and highly perplexing for linguists and anthropologists. Although it has always been a respectable domain of inquiry in ethnopoetics and interpretive ethnography, the case for sound symbolism has of late been argued with renewed vigor on the part of psychological anthropologists and philosophers who see a paradigm shift under way.
(emphasis mine)

I find this telling: It's not necessarily linguists who are the most curious about sound symbolism nowadays, but anthropologists. And it's not so much digraphs that hold interest, but ideophones (more or less onomatopœia).

One thing I will suggest is that popular conceptions of phonesthetics are based on poorly defined criteria. One question is what happens when we find counterexamples. Take the notorious glitter, glisten, glow, gleam, etc. idea. How about glad, gland, glutton, glacier, glitch, globe, gloat, and glob, which have nothing to do with light or vision? Do they matter and if so to what degree?

Perhaps unclear questions like these are why practitioners of the increasingly scientific field of linguistics feel the need to apologize for their interest in the phenomena, even in the abstracts of papers studying them. (Incidentally, I don't think there are many ancient ideas about language that would still be studied today without an apologetic tone.)


One direction of possible interest for the cross-linguistic non-arbitrary hypothesis is psycholinguistic.

A well-known experiment involves the bouba/kiki effect. In short, speakers of many languages associate the nonsense word "bouba" with rounded, cloud-like figures but "kiki" with spiky ones. Synesthesia appears to be involved.1

In a similar vein, the Bankieris & Simner article above includes these highlights from the abstract:

  • We tested synaesthetes’ and controls’ ability to determine foreign word meanings.
  • All participants correctly identified some word meanings at above chance rates.
  • Grapheme-colour synaesthetes performed significantly better than nonsynaesthetes.
  • The same cross-sensory integration driving synaesthesia may underlie sound symbolism.
  • Synaesthesia endows/co-occurs with enhanced multisensory skills in unrelated domains.

The work on this question is recent and has potentially plausible mechanisms underlying it, so watch this space.

1 Though one could imagine that other factors are involved. For example, in English the shapes of the letters that make up these words could bias round/spiky associations. A person could visualize the letters even without seeing the word written.

Thoughts on inter- vs. intralinguistic patterns

My own thoughts: I find the subject interesting as regards sounds' perceptual value.

I always think of an anecdote of my mother's. She spent some time in India in her youth, and one day asked a man what he thought was the most beautiful word in Hindi. He immediately answered: "The word for 'lady': begum!" Savouring the word, he repeated: "Begum!"

The usual response to this story is laughter. Why? Because to a North American English speaker, no word that sounds like begum could mean "lady". This tells us two things: One, that intuitions about which sounds have which meanings are not universally shared interlinguistically. Two, that there is nevertheless some intralinguistic consistency.

To poke more holes in the interlinguistic hypothesis: Find someone who doesn't speak a language that you do. Ask them to guess the approximate meanings of ten words (not cognates of ones they know). The study on synesthesia I quoted mentions that people guess word meanings correctly at above-chance rates. My own anecdotal evidence suggests that they don't have a chance when the question is open-ended, testing between the utterly unrelated Hebrew and English.

But I do believe in the effects within a language. Even if people don't have intuitions about the meanings of digraphs like gl- or sn- (at least I don't), speakers of the same language do share vague affective perceptions like those about begum — or about bouba and kiki, for that matter. And you can create new words with fairly reliable categorizations, at least if you make the categories as extreme as opposites. How many English speakers would fail to categorize Galadriel and Mordor correctly into good and evil?2

The Wikipedia article mentions that phonesthetic phenomena may be due to priming, which makes sense to me. Even if there's no reason why a woman should be called a begum or a lady, once a language settles on one or the other, speakers may make similar judgements about other words using the same sound configurations. The first connection is arbitrary, but later words can be derived from or influenced by it. Over time, perhaps that could even account for a tendency — far from a scientifically predictable rule — for phonological clusters to form semantic patterns.

2 When the categories are arbitrary, opinions become unreliable. I wonder how many of us would disagree with Monty Python's sorting into "tinny" and "woody" of gone, newspaper, litterbin, sausage, antelope, seemly, prodding, vacuum, caribou, leap, and bound?

  • 1
    I anticipated your final paragraph, and I'm glad I did. There is a lot in language that can be explained by analogy, and there is no shame in that. Aug 12, 2018 at 23:13

The answer is a strong 'sort of, not really, but there are some very few examples.'

The phenomenon of sound symbolism](https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sound_symbolism) or ideophones is attested (within languages). But it's just not that common. All languages have some small handful of onomatopoeia.

The naive, folk-understanding of language is that words mean what they say. A dog is a dog is a dog, that's the way you say it and it means dog. But any study of languages beyond that shows that the sound sequences are arbitrary. After lots of study of these arbitrary sets, some of these sets seem not to be so entirely arbitrary and some languages seem to have a few more than others. Korea, Japanese, and Swahili have lexical classes of ideophones that have thousands of words. English seems to have mostly just barnyards words and 'gl-' seems like a weak example.

Cross-language ideophones are almost non-existent, and even the 'bilabial nasal for mom and dental stop for dad' universal isn't that reliable.

As to whether this is widely known by all linguists and accepted seriously as something beyond folk-linguistics, I don't know. But there do exist some articles by some serious linguists in some respected linguistics journals: Dingemanse, Mark; Schuerman, Will; Reinisch, Eva; Tufvesson, Sylvia; Mitterer, Holger (2016). "What sound symbolism can and cannot do: testing the iconicity of ideophones from five languages". Language. 92 (2): –117-e133. doi:10.1353/lan.2016.0034.

The idea does have the taint of crackpottery (like trisecting an angle for mathematicians), but there is a reasonably studied phenomenon that is not particularly common.

  • 1
    I wouldn't say it's particularly uncommon, just maybe that the bulk of ideophone-heavy languages are either in East Asia or Africa. (I mean, other features can also be area-specific, e.g. classifier systems are most common in American languages and in East Asia, but people don't make the claim that classifiers are 'uncommon' based on that.) I'd say the phenomenon is pretty well known among linguists these days; there are entire conferences held on it. May 16, 2019 at 7:51
  • When people examine whether an iconic link is universal, the claim is usually not that the sound-meaning link exists in all languages, but that everyone will tend to associate the sound with the meaning regardless of whether their native language has words with that link. May 16, 2019 at 7:52

In response to the previous answer by @luke-sawczak

How about glad, gland, glutton, glacier, glitch, globe, gloat, and glob, which have nothing to do with light or vision?

  • glad: compare German glänzen, glatt. This is known.
  • gland: from a word meaning acorn. Sounds like folk etymology. With penis glans and Ger. Penis-Eichel taboo would likely obscure the origin. Acorns are yellow berries (cp. Ger. gelb, from same root as glad; compare jello, too?) and glans secretion may be shiny if healthy. The Penis glans may be smooth and shiny, too, not yellow, though.
  • glutton: I don't know, but compare Ger. "schmierig", "aalglatt" (smudgy, of a person); reconstructed as from gulat-, throat. related to glosse? cp gloss? Again difficult because of taboo.
  • glacier: obviously shiny and icy
  • glitch: compare Ger. glitschig (slippery, glibberish)
  • globe: a well polished pearl shines. the PIE root is comparable to the one for glad.
  • gloat: same root as glad.
  • glob: see glitch.

Then compare Ger. Glut, glühen, glow. Wiktionary has many reconstructions for Proto Indo European. But there it stops. Further back it's speculative. The question would be why these roots are so strong. There are many more gl- words, one has to wonder about their relation to this. Glück - luck; Glaube - believe; Gladiator; Glatze - bald-head; gleiten - glide; glib; glove; Further, copious amounts of words in German begin in gel-, but derivatives would be obscured by the prefix ge-, e.g. geliebt, Gelingen, Geländer, Gelage, geläutert, genau (gelle?!) ... the ablaut may differ actually, so Galgen, Gallien, Galiere, galant ... g can become y in English as in yell, yellow, (y)liver (choleric is indeed akin to yellow, though I'd expect cole, Glut in there) ... may also correspond to Ger. sch- in schlau, schländern, schlacke, Schelle, schlehe, schleichen, schlecken ... One PIE root for light is *lewk. For to lick it's * leygh, *lik. I'm heavily biased because I don't know languages outside of germanic, but link to PIE roots and I have often no idea how biased those are.

It's a very simple fact I observed: To produce the onset /l/ in lick an actually licking motion is made, of course highly reduced. This is not exactly new knowledge. Whereas for a shiny fire sense I would look further at Mongolian galt, sanskrit jvala, icelandic fjall. The later means mountain, recons. PIE *pels-, but I found all three from translations for volcano, literally compounds for fire mountain. For Icelandic I suppose a certain significance of those. Edit: And if that's from *pels, you should take note of Hawaiian lua pele - volcano. More directly, compare Pelz, Fell - pelt (fur); from *pel- (skin, hide; to cover, wrap) and fur *peh₂- (“to protect, guard, graze, feed”); Fließ.

PS: Did @luke pick the examples on purpose? If the words all come from the same root, that's a simple explanation requiring no Sound symbolism. But of course (in reply to the comment on synchronic analysis): The origin might still be an influence to this day. On the other hand, cognates in other languages changed the phonetics and one has to wonder why, whether symbolism can be gleamed from it (Rus. "xlat" - cold e.g. relating to harsh conditions, but that's just fantastic speculation).

  • 3
    Sound symbolism is in its very nature a synchronic thing. Mixing it up with historical linguistics and etymology leads to nothing. Aug 12, 2018 at 21:10
  • 1
    With regard to English gl-initial simplex words, see this list, which also mentions phonosemantic leakage from kl-initial and bl-initial. That's for assonances; for rimes (vowel + coda), see -ump words or -ip. There's a bibliography and other recent work on assonance/rime phonosemantics available here.
    – jlawler
    Aug 13, 2018 at 2:25
  • 1
    This does not answer the question. If you want to ask something based on a different answer, feel free to post this as a new question entry, and add a link to the answer.
    – prash
    May 13, 2019 at 12:33
  • @prash I don't think I was asking a question. If the common consensus, as outlined in the upvoted answer, rejects the idea, then it does not take the idea seriously enough, in face of the listed set of words. That's how serious. Since there's no consensus on the origin of those roots, or of language over all, I basically concurred with that point made by luke, about "poorly defined criteria". The question how can't yield a simple yes or no. Any yes answer would have to show something for it. Thus I tried to overturn Luke's premises. It does not matter at that how barely serious it is.
    – vectory
    May 13, 2019 at 16:34

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