My Dissertation

What's in a Word?
Studies in Phonosemantics

by Margaret Magnus


The notion that there is a regular correlation between the form of a word and its meaning is, of course, controversial. In this dissertation my intention has been to shed light on that controversy by conducting a variety of tests -- for the most part on a fairly large scale -- which quantify the extent of the correspondence between sound and meaning in words. I found in the course of this project that phonosemantic correlations were much more pervasive than I initially anticipated and certainly greater than is generally supposed in the linguistics literature. Furthermore, I cannot but see that these tests show that quite general natural laws are productively operative in language which account for most of the correlations observed. If further research indeed corroborates my findings, then it follows that the meaning of every word in every language is in part (only in part!) inherent in its form. The sign is therefore not wholly arbitrary, and it is not possible to devise an abstract representation of language which is entirely unrelated to the form of language itself. The most important results of the experiments in this dissertation seem to me to be these:

* I find that much confusion regarding linguistic iconism can be attributed to the assumption that 'word semantics' is best understood as 'word reference'. I believe these tests show this presumption to be unhelpful. If a word's meaning is analyzed into components -- only one of which is its referent -- it can be shown that some aspects of a word's meaning are arbitrary and others are not. It's therefore not the case that in some words or languages iconism holds more sway than in others. Rather since all words must have these requisite semantic components in order to function at all, the semantics of any word must be in part predictable from its form and in part not.
* Reference is essentially arbitrary. One cannot predict the referent of a word just by hearing it. In words with more concrete reference, the component of reference is more salient, and the iconic sound-meaning is consequently less salient. Therefore, the apparent effect of the sound-meaning is inversely proportional on the concreteness of the referent.
* Individual phonemes and phonetic features are meaning-bearing. They each have a unique semantics which can be identified by first measuring the semantic disproportions within phonologically defined classes of words and then the converse -- measuring the phonological disproportions within semantic classes. One finds in this way that every word which contains a given phoneme bears an element of meaning which is absent in words not containing this phoneme. One finds further than the effect of the phoneme-meaning varies with the position that the phoneme bears within the syllable. In addition, one finds that all phonemes which have a common phonetic feature also have a common element of meaning.
* It is important to distinguish types of sound-meaning correlations:
- The least fundamental kind of sound-meaning correlation is onomatopoeia. It does not concern me in this dissertation.
- The type of correlation which accounts for the 'phonesthemes' or disproportions between semantic classes and phonological form is most commonly called 'Clustering'. I refer to it also as Phonosemantic Association in order to emphasize that it is a side-effect of a natural and productive tendency in human psychology to associate any form with a coherent referent.
- The most fundamental and least salient type of linguistic iconism I will refer to as 'True Iconism', or the level on which form and content are one. This type of correlation is universal, productive in every word, non-arbitrary, and blind to all higher level linguistic distinctions such as referent, part of speech, semantic class and argument structure.

Alternative Abstract

There is a general psychological tendency that I call Semantic Association that is the tendency to try to attribute to any linguistic form a unique and coherent semantic domain. When one is actually learning language, this shows up as a range of assumptions one makes about the strings of phonemes one is hearing. So when a child hears the word 'pillow', s/he assumes 1) that it refers to something, 2) that the things it refers to resemble one another in some way. 3) that the referent won't change tomorrow afternoon, in other words s/he assumes a certain constancy of reference.

We accept that a child is assuming this about words and morphemes, in other words that words and morphemes are meaning-bearing. If you assume the same thing is happening subconsciously on the level of the phoneme, then this would account for much of the clustering data you observe, for the phonesthemes.

In the process of talking, this Semantic Association manifests as word formation by analogy. For example, if I am crumpling up a piece of paper, my daughter might say, 'Smish it down really tight'. That word smish has not come into being my regular sound change from some Old English root. Rather, she has created it on the fly by analogy with words like squish and mash and smash. She chooses /i/ as the vowel for a couple of reasons. One is that the oral cavity is smallest during the articulation of /i/ (of all the vowels) and also because of all the vowels, the largest percentage of words concerning smallness contain an /i/. She doesn't know this consciously, of course, but she knows it subconsciously.

There are certain vocabularies that are more susceptible to this type of word formation than others. The primary factor that runs interference with this type of word formation is non-abiguity of reference. For example, if you consider the word 'robin'. If I say, "That is a robin" while pointing to a robin, everyone will agree with me. If I say, "That is a robin" while pointing to a pickle, everyone will disagree with me... it is very clear what objects in the word do and don't constitute the set of robins. This is not the case with smush and smash and squish and mash and squash... and smish. The set of activities referred to by each of these words is not clearly delineated.

Dissertation in html Format

(please read)

Literature Review
Theoretical Preliminaries
Theory and Review

Thesis Committee Recommendation

PDF Download

Dissertation Text - 488K
Appendix II-VII - 137K
Appendix VIII-X 137K
Appendix XI-XIV 234K

Link to Bibliography

And If You Want Appendix I
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My Dictionary

I think it's the longest list of phonesthemes available anywhere and the first commercial dictionary of phonesthemes.
Over 900 pages of dictionary.
For more information click here.

What's it good for?
Each of the consonants has a meaning that is based in how it's pronounced. It's a fundamental and much overlooked fact of language. More than anything, these letter meanings influence how we feel about words, how we react to personal names and brand names, what subliminal effect the sounds in slang and jargon terms have on us. This reference allows you to see what the emotional, mythological and intellectual content of words is.

Who needs it?
Writers, poets, linguists, psychologists, psychiatrists, English teachers, English learners, anthropologists; NLP, mythology, symbology, linguistics, English language acquisition. Use it to learn what connotations your personal name or your brand name evoke... or what the subtle distinctions are between English words

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