Sound symbolism or phonosemantics is an obscure branch of linguistics and refers to the idea that vocal sounds have meaning. An important concept for understanding this idea is phoneme: Phonemes are written between slashes like this /b/.

Table of contents
1 Reference
2 Types of Sound Symbolism
3 History of Phonosemantics
4 Applications of Phonosemantics
5 Relationship with Neuroscience
6 External Links
7 Sources


Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913) is considered to be the founder of modern 'scientific' linguistics. Central to what de Saussure says about words are two related statements: firstly he says that "the sign is arbitrary". This means that he considers the words that we use to indicate things and concepts could be any old words - they are essentially just a consensus agreed upon by the speakers of a language, and have no discernible pattern or relationship to the thing. Secondly he says that because words are arbitrary they have meaning only in relation to other words. A dog is a dog, because it is not a cat, or a mouse or a horse etc. These ideas have permeated the study of words since the 19th century.

However Saussure himself is said to have collected examples where sounds and referents were related. Ancient traditions link sounds and meaning, and some modern linguistic research does also.

Types of Sound Symbolism

Magaret Magnus is the author of probably the only popular book on phonosemantics - Gods of the Word. She describes three types of sound symbol using a model first proposed by Wilhelm von Humboldt (see below):

This is the least significant type of symbolism. It is simply imitative of sounds, or suggests something that makes a sound.

Words that share a sound have something in common. This can be clearly seen by looking at words that start with the same letter. If we take for example all of the words that have no prefix or suffix and group them according to meaning they will fall into a small number of broad categories. So we find that many words beginning with /b/ are about barriers, bulges, bursting, and many about being banged, beaten, battered, bruised, blistered and bashed - if we compare the statistics we find that the proportion is way above average for other letters.

Another way of thinking about this is to say that if a word begins with a particular phoneme, then there is likely to be a number of other words starting with that phoneme that refer to the same thing. An example given by Magnus is If the basic word for 'house' in a given language starts with a /h/, then by clustering, you expect disproportionately many words containing /h/ to concern housing: hut, home, hacienda, hovel,...

Clustering is language dependent, although closely related languages will have similar clustering relationships.

This is noticeable when you compare words which have the same sort of referent. One way is to look at a group of words that all refer to the same thing, and that differ only in their sound, like 'stamp', stomp', 'tamp', 'tromp', 'tramp', 'step'. An /m/ before the /p/ makes the action more forceful - compare 'stamp' with 'step' or 'tamp'. The /r/ sets the word in motion, especially after a /t/ so a 'tamp' is in one place, but a 'tramp' goes for a walk. The /p/ in all those words is what emphasizes the individual steps.

Iconism is universal across langauages. Magnus suggests that whether a lot of light words will begin with /fl/ will vary from language to language. But if the light word begins with /fl/, it will be direct light.

History of Phonosemantics

Several ancient traditions exist which talk about an archetypal relationship between sounds and ideas. Some of these are discussed below, but there are others as well. If we include a link between letters and ideas then the list includes the Viking Runes, the Hebrew Kabbalah, the Arab Abjad, etc.. References of this kind are very common in The Upanishads, The Nag Hammadi Library, the Celtic Book of Teliesin, as well as early Christian works, the Shinto Kototama, and Shingon Buddhism.

Plato and the Cratylus Dialogue

In this dialogue Plato has Socrates commenting on the origins of various names and words. However Hermogenes asks where these definitions come from, and Socrates replies that they arise from the qualities of the letters of the alphabet - or more precisely the sounds of the letters.

"Now the letter rho, as I was saying, appeared to the imposer of names an excellent instrument for the expression of motion; and he frequently uses the letter for this purpose: for example, in the actual words rein and roe he represents motion by rho; also in the words tromos (trembling), trachus (rugged); and again, in words such as krouein (strike), thrauein (crush), ereikein (bruise), thruptein (break), kermatixein (crumble), rumbein (whirl): of all these sorts of movements he generally finds an expression in the letter R, because, as I imagine, he had observed that the tongue was most agitated and least at rest in the pronunciation of this letter, which he therefore used in order to express motion" - Cratylus.
(note this is an open source translation available at Internet Classics Archive)


The Upanishads contain a lot of material about sound symbolism, for instance:

"The mute consonants represent the earth, the sibilants the sky, the vowels heaven. The mute consonants represent fire, the sibilants air, the vowels the sun… The mute consonants represent the eye, the sibilants the ear, the vowels the mind" - Aitrareya-Aranya-Upanishad

Shingon Buddhism

Kukai, the founder of Shingon wrote his Sound, word, reality in the 9th_century which relates all sounds to the voice of the Dharmakaya Buddha. (more to come: in the meantime see: Mantra)

Early Western Phonosemantics

The idea of phonosemantics was sporadically discussed during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. In 1698, Locke wrote against the idea in an essay called An Essay on Human Understanding. His argument was that if there were any connection between sounds and ideas, then we would all be speaking the same language, but this is an over-generalisation. In 1676 Leibniz published his book New Essays on Human Understanding which contains a point by point critique of Locke's essay. Leibnez picks up on the generalization used by Locke and adopts a less rigid approach: clearly there is no perfect correspondance between words and things, but neither is the relationship completely arbitrary, although he seems vague about what that relationship might be.

(adapted from a literature review by Magnus - see website below)

Modern Phonosemantics

In 1836 Wilhelm von Humboldt published Über die Verschiedenheit des menschlichen Sprachbaues und ihren Einfluß auf die geistige Entwicklung des Menschengeschlechts. It is here that he establishes the three kinds of relationship between sounds and ideas as discussed above under Types of Sound Symbolism. Below is a sample of researchers in the field of Phonosemantics.

Otto Jespersen suggests that: “Sound symbolism, we may say, makes some words more fit to survive.” Dwight Bolinger of Harvard University was the primary proponent of phonosemantics through the late 40’s and the 50’s. In 1949, he published The Sign is Not Arbitrary. He concluded that morphemes cannot be defined as the minimal meaning-bearing units, in part because ‘meaning’ is so ill-defined, and in part because there are obvious situations in which smaller units are meaning-bearing.

Ivan Fónagy (1963) correlates phonemes with metaphors. For example, nasal and velarized vowels are quite generally considered ‘dark’, front vowels as ‘fine’ and ‘high’. Unvoiced stops have been considered ‘thin’ by European linguists, whereas the fricatives were labelled ‘raw’ and ‘hairy’ by the Greeks.

Hans Marchand provided the first extensive list of English phonesthemes. He wrote, for example, that “/l/ at the end of a word symbolizes prolongation, continuation” or “nasals at the end of a word express continuous vibrating sounds.”

Gérard Genette published the only full length history of phonosemantics – Genette (1976). Fortunately it is also a magnificent work. In 450 pages, Genette colorfully details the evolution of the linguistic iconism both among linguists and poets, in syntax, morphology and phonology.

(adapted from a literature review by Magnus - see website below)

Applications of Phonosemantics

Marketing companies have known about phonosemantics for some time. Consumer products like drugs, cars, new PC games and gadgets etc, are named in such a way as to have a subconscious effect on us. The sounds of these words, evoke images, and images have an emotional impact, and every advertiser knows that emotions determine behaviour! Prozac was originally called Fluoxetine before the marketing guys got hold of it. Viagra makes one thing of vitality, and the force of ''Niagara Falls, adding in the hard, erect rigidity of the /g/ amd /r/ sounds.

Relationship with Neuroscience

In 2003, BBC Reith Lectures Prof. Vilayanur S. Ramachandran outlined his research into the links between brain structure and function. In the fourth lecture of the series he describes the phenomena of synesthesia in which people experience, for example sounds in terms of colours, or sounds in terms of tastes. One type of synesthesia has people seeing numbers, letters of the alphabet, or even musical notes, as having a distinct colour. Based on his research Ramachandran proposes a model for how language might have evolved. The theory is interesting because it may explain how we make metaphors and how sounds can be metaphors for images – why for example sounds can be described as bright or dull. In explaining how language might have evolved from cross activation of adjacent areas in the brain, Ramachandran notes 4 crucial factors, not all related to language, but which combined might well have resulted in the emergence of it. Two of these processes are of particular interest to us:

Synesthetic Cross modal abstraction: i.e. we recognise properties that sounds and images have in common and abstract them to store them independently. The sounds and shapes of the objects have characteristics in common that can be abstracted, say a sharp, cutting quality of a word, and the shape it describes - what Ramachandran called the 'Bouba/kiki effect' based on the results of an experiment with two abstract shapes and asking people to relate the nonsense words bouba and kiki to them. The effect is real and observable, and repeatable.

Built in prexisting cross activation. Ramachandran points out that areas of the brain which appear to be involved in the mix-ups in synesthesia are adjacent to each other physically, and that cross-wiring, or cross activation could explain synesthesia, and our ability to make metaphors. He notes that the areas that control the muscles around the mouth are also adjacent to the visual centres, and suggests that certain words appear to make our mouth imitate the thing we are describing. Examples of this might be words like teeny weeny, diminutive to describe small things; large or enormous to describe big things.

In these two factors we have some important clues as to how vocal sounds can function as metaphors, or symbols. The most obvious case of a sound representing something is onomatopoeia in which we seek to imitate the sound something makes – e.g. a dog goes woof woof . However this is simply simile, and metaphor making is a more profound process. We can see that it begins (from this point of view) with abstraction of similar qualities. So we might say that Juliet is the sun. But we don’t mean that Juliet is a enormous ball of fire in the sky. What we are doing when we say this is that like the sun Juliet is warm and, using yet another metaphor, she brings light into our lives.

/p/ has quite a similar symbolism because the process of making the sound /p/ is identical except that /b/ is voiced, and /p/ is unvoiced. Because it is unvoiced /p/ is more subtle: /b/ forms blunt bulges, whereas /p/ tends to precise points; /b/ blows up, whereas /p/ simply pops. Magnus’ writing is full of this type of language play which makes it delightful to read. She has investigated every consonant, and writes about several in depth including /s/ which turns out to have a very strong association with the serpentine – see if you can think of an adjective for a snake that does not contain /s/.

External Links


  • Magnus, M. Gods of the Word : Archetypes in the Consonants. (Truman State University Press, July 1999)