Letters or phonemes.

Letters, like runes according to this article: https://sonsofvikings.com/apps/fireamp/blogs/history/viking-runes-guide-runic-alphabet-meanings-nordic-celtic-letters

At least that's what they say...

I'm Hungarian and I find that the Magyar language works like as if the phonemes would have their own meaning - at least the older, short, base words seem to build up this way (and actually quite a few similar words in English as well). I would like to google for this phenomenon, but I don't know the keywords... I only get irrelevant search results.

Thank You in advance!

  • 3
    If you mean that almost every little bit of Hungarian words seems to have a meaning, you're describing what's called agglutinative morphology, which is the kind Hungarian has. So does Turkish, Tamil, and Japanese. But it's not about "letters"; this is sounds and syllables. In Hungarian the spelling follows (most of) the pronunciation, but that's not true in most languages.
    – jlawler
    Mar 30, 2022 at 19:57
  • 1
    it's worth noting that whilst the names of the runes definitely did have meaning, scholarly consensus is that this was essentially just a mnemonic device, and not indicative of the letters having any symbolic meaning such as those the article linked ascribes them. There is also no real evidence of runes being thought of as being intrinsically magical in the Viking age, only that they could be used for magical purposes. Both these claims come from 19th century romanticism rather than genuine scholarship and sources that continue to parrot them are unlikely to provide much accurate information
    – Tristan
    Mar 31, 2022 at 8:52

2 Answers 2


As user6726 mentions, acrophony (and the related rebus principle) appear commonly when developing writing systems in the first place. If the word for "mouth" is pronounced /ka/, then people might use a drawing of a mouth to mean /ka/ (rebus), or simply /k/ (acrophony). On the flipside, letters may be named after words starting with that sound, as a sort of mnemonic; this is also called acrophony.

Beyond that, though, the question of "what do the components of this writing system mean to a particular culture" tends to be more anthropological than linguistic. There's a bit of linguistic work on the topic of "phonesthetics", the idea that certain sounds are fundamentally linked to certain broad categories in the mind, but the majority of words and word roots in natural languages are arbitrary—empirically speaking, there's no evidence of a fundamental connection between the sounds /k/, /æ/, and /t/, and a cat. It's just a historical coincidence that we use that combination of sounds to refer to that creature, because our ancestors used a similar combination of sounds, and their ancestors used a similar combination of sounds, and so on.

There are also various philosophical and religious traditions that assign meaning to different components of a writing system, such as gematria. These are, likewise, not generally considered to be a part of linguistics. The point of these systems isn't generally to be scientific or falsifiable, so the tools of linguistics aren't very useful for analyzing them.


The term that is most related to what you are asking about is "acrophony", which is a property that characterizes the developmental origin of Semitic writing. The English name of the letter "b" [bi] derives from the Greek name for the antecedent letter β which is "beta" which derives from a Semitic word bet, which means "house" and the letter in early forms looks like a drawing of a house (this may be an adaptation of an Egyptian hieroglyph for "house"). The letter "d", delta in Greek, derives from Semitic dalet which means door, and early versions of the letter look like a door. The principle here is that the sound value of the letter is the first segment of the mnemonic word that is the name of the letter, which may be a drawing of the thing. Ogham letters have a similar naming system, where names of letters are names of trees. The case of Futhark names is a bit more complicated, since the letters are largely versions of the Italic alphabet, but the names such as "raidō" = "trip" are Germanic, not descended from earlier Semitic letter names.

As far as I know, the names of letters as used in Hungarian are transparently derived from Latin letter names. A more specific term may be appropriate, depending on how you thing Hungarian is relevant. In English, there is also a "spelling alphabet" which is a convention (set of conventions, or a behavioral pattern) where you don't say the name of letters "bee see dee eff" (which are error-prone on radio and telephone communication), you use unambiguous words that begin with the letter. Thus "z" would be "zebra", "t" would be "tango", and so on. Such use is standard in military communications, and many people use some such names in case the conventional names are going to be unclear, however, most people probably don't know the current standard name for "q" ("Quebec" probably pronounces [kwʌbɛk]) so they may pick another word beginning with "q"). The main problem with spelling alphabets is that they are about as standardized as letters for phonetic writing – multiple standards which change over time.

  • Acrophony is about the naming of letters, which is not what the question asks about, about meaning being inherent in single letters.
    – curiousdannii
    Mar 31, 2022 at 7:15
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    Yes, well, but that's silly, while this is useful information.
    – jlawler
    Mar 31, 2022 at 21:07

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