by Murray Denofsky


(Part II of this paper, UP-DOWN AND THE DENSITY SUPER-DIMENSION, is yet to appear.)



The initial versions of these papers were written in the period 1985-87, but have been revised for this publication. They represent work begun at MIT in 1966, continued in the Psychology Department of Brandeis University in 1969-70, and ongoing since the fall of 1984. As the following 'fable' suggests, the author's love of words extends to art as well as science.

I would like to thank Marvin Minsky, Roger Brown, John Ross, Allan Bomhard, Kenneth Hale, Samuel Jay Keyser, Roger Wescott (unfortunately posthumously), Margaret Magnus and my friends Arthur Shurcliffe, Ray Solomonoff and Charles Zapata for their early interest in my work and encouragement of it over the years.

(Note to reader: A CLAYMORE is a Highlander's two-edged broadsword; before you come to the end of this tale, you will have some idea of why it is called that.)

Little Johnny was fascinated with words, and wanted to know where they came from, but nobody could tell him. His mother advised, "Why bother your head about it?"

His sister taunted, "You'll never figure it out!"

His teacher said, "Don't worry, you're not responsible for it!"

"But I want to know!" said Johnny."Why are words what they are? Why do we use one word for one thing, and another for another, and not the other way around? Why do words have the sounds that they do and not some other sound?" He wouldn't let people alone and they didn't know what to do with him.

Finally his sister had an idea. "Maybe if you go somewhere far away- real far away- and sit down and think a long time- a real long time- you'll come up with the answer. In fact, come to think of it, I've heard that just at the far edge of the city there lives a hermit who loves to answer questions from pesky little boys. It's about ten miles from here." And she smiled a wicked little smile.

So Johnny went off to find the hermit and ask him why words have the sounds that they do. After three trolley rides and a long, long walk, he finally reached the hermit, who was raking leaves in front of his cave in Edge-of-the-City Park.

"Why have you come to me?" asked the hermit. "I came here to be away from people, so as not to have to talk to them. I particularly hate answering dumb questions from pesky little boys."

"I have only one question, Mr. Hermit. Please help me. You're my only chance. My mother said not to bother my head about it, my sister taunted me that I'd never figure it out, and my teacher told me I was not responsible for it."

"Now just wait one minute!" shouted the hermit, interrupting Johnny and cupping his hands over his ears to protect his brain and his sense of tranquillity from the unaccustomed racket. "Just one question and that's all! Come on, let's have it, can't you see I'm raking leaves?"

The hermit looked pretty busy, so Johnny asked his question. "Why do words have the sounds that they have?" he said eagerly. The hermit put down his rake and stroked his beard. It looked like he hadn't shaved in several months. "OK, I'll give you a clue. But you must promise now to go away and not come back till you've figured out the answer yourself. At LEAST not till then."

"OK," said Johnny.

The hermit thought deeply. "Every sound has a meaning," he said finally. To understand why a sound is in a word, you have to figure out the meaning of that sound. Just look at a lot of words that have the same sound, and see what meaning they have in common." It always surprised the hermit to see how fast he could think when he was in a bind.

Little Johnny was fascinated and he said good-bye, promising not to return until he had solved the problem. The hermit had a warm smile on his face as they parted. On his way home, Johnny thought and thought and thought and thought about the clue. He tried to think of a sound he could investigate the way the hermit had told him. As he walked along, he saw a horse pulling a wagon. The horse's feet went "CLOP, CLOP, CLOPPITY-CLOP" on the road. He wondered if there was something in common between a CLUE and the sound a horse's hooves make when they hit the ground. But he could think of nothing. There were empty Coke bottles on the ground, and every time his foot hit one, it would go CLINK, roll off the edge of the sidewalk, and hit the gutter with a CLUNK. Suddenly he saw a couple of fire engines rounding the corner, and their bells went "CLANG! CLANG! CLANG!" Something heavy fell off one of them and hit the ground with a CLANK. The CLAMOR and CLANGOR frightened some chickens in a nearby yard, and they got up from their eggs and began running around, saying "CLUCK, CLUCK, CLUCK."

Suddenly something CLICKed in Johnny's brain, as if an alarm CLOCK had gone off. "Eureka I've got it!" he exCLAIMED. "I know what the sound CL means! ProCLAIMing it to the world, he shouted the following CLAIM: "CL means noise, sound! What acCLAIM I'll get for this! I'd better CALL everybody!" He could hear CLARIONS and CLARINETS filling the air with praise of his discovery, even CLAVICHORDS. By this time, he had completely forgotten about the word CLUE and how it might fit in.

Reaching home, he spied his sister, who was surprised to see him back so soon. He shouted, "Eureka! Eureka! I've got it! CL means sound!" and rapidly explained his reasoning.

"You dumbCLUCK!" bawled his sister. "Why don't you CLAM up? See how easy it is to disprove your theory!" and she let her case rest with these two counterexamples. "You'd better go back to the hermit or I'll CLOBBER you!"

Johnny wandered off in deep distress and disappointment. His system didn't work. Then, as he worried about his sister's threat, and wondered whether she would wield a CLUB, he heard the dishes CLATTERING in the kitchen. "I get it! I get it!" he shouted. "CL doesn't exactly mean SOUND- it means COLLISION!! When one thing collides with another, it makes a sound, like wooden CLOGS hitting the ground. He CLAPPED his hands in glee, as if to illustrate his point. With this new insight, the meanings no longer CLUMSILY CLASHED with each other.

But just as he was about to share the good news with his sister, he remembered a couple of her other insulting rejoinders, and suddenly clammed up. Then his eyes brightened as yet another brainstorm hit him. "Not necessarily colliding, just coming together! Sticking together! When a clam CLOSES his shell, the two halves come together, they CLAMP shut. They don't have to make a noise!"

He CLENCHED his fist and CLUTCHED at the air in defiance of his sister, for he believed he had CLINCHED the solution, as if with a CLEEK (large hook). In his mind's eye he could see her CLASP his hands in congratulations, and CLING to him lovingly, like a CLEMATIS vine. She could clobber, but his brains carried a lot of CLOUT as well. With his CLEVERNESS, he could CATCH ON to anything. He no longer felt like CLIMBING the walls with his CLAWS and CLEATS, and his hands no longer felt sticky and CLAMMY. There was no CLOYING feeling. He didn't feel any more that his CLOTHES were too CLOSE to him, CLOISTERING him CLAUSTROPHOBICALLY like a CLOAK or like some CLANDESTINE meeting in a CLOSET.

Proudly he called his sister, in full expectation of her running and CLEAVING to him as if they were one, which he knew they had always both felt. But to his surprise she entered wielding a meat CLEAVER like a CLAYMORE, and threatened to CLEAVE him in two! As she chased him, all sorts of horrible thoughts collided with his fantasy of success. Far from bringing them together, his research had driven his sister and him further apart, had created a CLEFT between them. They stood as far apart now as opposing CLIFFS in a CLOUGH (canyon), into which the CLOVEN-footed buffalo might stampede to their deaths, carrying the validity of his hypothesis with them. His only consolation would be that the CLOVER, whose leaves stood CLOVEN into three parts in mockery of his conjecture, would be trampled beneath those equally doomed cloven hooves. Where had he gone wrong? He suddenly realized he had developed a splitting headache.

Now that his theory lay in ruins, hordes of useless supporting examples crowded in on him, as if to mock him further. When things come together, they form a CLUMP, a CLUSTER, a CLASS, a COLLECTION, a CLOUD, or a COAGULATING CLOT that can CLOG the arteries. People coming together form a CLAN, a CLUB, a CLIQUE. He thought of the hen and her CLUTCH of eggs. Alas, it was all so much CLUTTER! He felt like a CLOD of earth, a CLOWN (from N Frisian klnj 'clod' -OED). His theory had been CLIPPED in two. He had been too eager to CLIP things together that could not be joined.

Wait a minute, that's funny! There's another word that means both to separate and to come together. Maybe there's some reason to this. A set of CLIPPERS for cutting things apart works by having two blades that come together. A KLEPTOMANIAC has sticky fingers, yet this enables him to rip things off, to CLIP them. He's a CLIP-tomaniac in both senses of the word. A CLASS is a collection, but also something apart from other classes. A CLAUSE is a group of words that stick together, but which can also stand alone. Because CLAY is soft and wet, it is at once sticky and easy to tear apart. A key (clef in French) both opens and closes doors. CLERK and CLERIC are derived from Greek kleros 'lot, heritage' -a collection of goods or duties which are divided up among siblings (OED). CLEVERNESS, in addition to helping one catch on, also allows one to discriminate. (OED: CLEVER once had the sense 'sharp to seize'.) A CLAW is divided, but catches hold of things. And CLOSING produces both contact and separation. CL is a two-edged sword, a true CLAYMORE! I have learnt that opposites are not always exCLUSIVE, they may harmonize. They may be as closely related as Tweedle-Dum and Tweedle-Dee. When he recounted all this to his sister, she didn't think it was CLEAR at all, thought in fact that he had CLEAN lost his mind. But this time he didn't care. Even these two words suggest openness or separation.

He was happy. Now you are probably wondering whether he ever figured out why CLUE has a CL in it. Well, it occurred to him that a clue leads you closer to the answer. A detective is a gumshoe. Before you react to that the way his sister did, dear reader, I'd like to read the etymology of CLUE from Webster. CLUE originally meant a BALL OF THREAD, a collection of thread. You follow a trail of clues like a thread. Remember Ariadne's ball of thread provided Theseus the clues to escape the Labyrinth after killing the Minotaur.


PS: The Oxford says CLICH, originally a stereotype block, comes from the sound of a matrix falling on molten metal; a CLIENT is one who is at another's CALL (from Latin cluens 'listening', a word that pertains to sound); CLIMATE, CLIME, CLIMAX, INCLINE, etc., are from *klei 'to lean', possibly separation from the vertical and coming together with the object leant against. The ancients also associated CLEMENT with this root. CLOOTIE 'devil' is from CLOOT 'hoof' (generally cloven). If a word is merely derived from one that possesses the sound-meaning relationship in question, this still provides support for the link, since it shows the word's existence can be accounted for in terms of the link, if only indirectly, and in addition shows the earlier existence of yet another word that possesses the link.


Johnny shows that virtually all English /kl/- words have meanings related to 'together', 'apart', or 'sound', or derive from such words. Sounds are usually produced either when lips part, or on the collision of two objects. Of the CL- words in the Little Oxford Dictionary, the only ones nontrivially different from those he or I have already mentioned are CLINK2 'prison' (close enclosure; sound of metal), CLINKER 'mass of slag' (together), CLINKER-BUILT '(of boat) with external planks overlapping downwards' (close contact), CLOCHE 'cover for plants; close fitting hat' (close contact), CLONE (broken off from parent), CLEW 'lower corner of a sail' (where the yard fastens the sail); haul or let down sail (using the yard), CLERIHEW 'witty four-line verse (named after inventor; A Dictionary of Surnames (Oxford) says the origin of this name is uncertain) and CLITORIS, from Gk kleien 'shut'. CLEAR, in addition to suggesting that blocking matter has been removed or separated, derives from PIE kele-2 'shout' (the second e is a schwa). CLEAN derives from a gl- word expressing shining, yet still has at least some connection with separation.

These results are also true for by far most Indo-European /kl/- words (but not quite all, in contrast to the English words in the LOD; I have not checked foreign etymologies, however, which could increase compliance. I have checked German, French, Russian and Greek.), and at least 6 out of 10 PIE words, the remaining 4 PIE words meaning flat/wide, bend, and bald, which also each suggest both togetherness and separation in a certain sense (for flat/wide and bend, see OTHER SOUND COMBINATIONS later in this paper; for bald, consider that, as the word suggests, a bald head resembles a ball, which is a collection of matter). These results can be explained by the fact that this sound combination possesses three independent features that each support this connotation.

(1) & (2): Both sounds are occlusives, /k/ being a fortis occlusive. Occlusives are sounds formed by contact of the upper and lower surfaces of the vocal cavity, namely the stops, their affricates, the nasals, and /l/, although /l/ does not block the oral outlet completely like the others. Because contact is an all-or-none event, with distinct boundaries in time and space, fortis occlusives are likely to represent rigid solid objects. This idea is also suggested by the analogy between this contact and the contact of one's body with a solid object. Fricatives may be termed near-occlusives, and occupy an ambiguous position: the front fricatives are the most obviously aspirated, and hence more likely to suggest airiness, emptiness, lightness, or fuzziness than contact or solidity, viz.: faint, fatuous, fuzzy, vague, vapid, vain. Fortis sibilants have some tendency to represent loose contact, viz.: slide, slip, sip.

(3): Apart from the sounds themselves, the relationship between the two consonants k and l also suggests 'together'. These two consonants are close together (no vowel in between; vowels stand for open spaces because the vocal cavity is not obstructed), yet they can be heard separately and distinctly, with what sounds like a chink of space between them, in contrast to such pairs as kr-, qu-, ch- (tsh-), and st-, in which no chink is discernible. The two therefore resemble a pair of solid objects in close proximity.

Also, the separation connotation is supported by the chink between k and l, by the mouth being open with k, and by the sparsity of the tongue contact with l.

Unlike arbitrary symbols, an icon usually has a number of features, providing foundations for several different connotations, some of which may be antonymous to each other. This will seem less mysterious when we consider a visual example, such as a straight line. Viewed lengthwise, it suggests motion or direction, as in an arrow; viewed crosswise, it suggests blockage of motion, as in a boundary. Similarly, a circle or ball suggests beauty and perfection because of its symmetry and simplicity (and beauty also because of its curvature), but its shape is also wide or bulky, and in the context of the human figure, this implies obesity, which has an ugly connotation.

I have chosen the term DENSITY to refer to the togetherness connotation (and its opposite) in its most general sense, and call this semantic dimension a super-dimension, since it comprises a number of concepts which could be the basis of dimensions themselves, and bear certain oppositional relationships between each other; the positive end of the super-dimension includes the cluster of connotations: mass, collection, contact, collision, joining, etc.


The above theories are confirmed by the fulfillment of certain predictions they suggest about other sounds and sound combinations. The English sound combination most comparable to initial cl- is initial pl-, since k and p are both fortis unvoiced stops. We should expect pl- words also to have, therefore, a large score on DENSITY, enhanced further by the lips, which suggest thickness. The adjacent face suggests a surface, a connotation which we shall see has an interesting interaction with DENSITY by way of the phenomena of contact and collision with a surface. It turns out that all PL- words in the LOD have either a DENSITY or surface connection, or both. In a few cases, it is figurative or etymological only.

Thus we have PLACE (when you place something somewhere, it comes together with that surface), PLAIN, PLANE, PLOT (of land), PLATEAU, PLATE, PLANK, PLATFORM, PLACID (all referring to solid or liquid surfaces on which feet or other things are likely to fall or rest), PLEASE, PLEAD & PLEASURE ('make emotionally placid', from the same root as that word, *pla(a)k- 'to be flat', but also 'to strike'), PLAQUE, PLACARD, PLAID, PLASTER (surfaces, a generalization of ground), PLACKET 'slit at top of skirt' (indicating a separation, but from PLACARD), PLEURISY (from pleura, a membrane, or surface), PLACENTA (a membrane in contact with the womb, and a place for the fetus), PLATINUM (from Sp plata 'silver', used to plate surfaces), and PLONK 'inferior wine' (quality is low, figuratively close to the ground). These surface words usually have the vowel A, in which the wide open mouth suggests the width of a surface. (Note the presence of A and labials in such words as PAT, SPATS, PAN, FAN, MAT, MAP, NAPKIN, SPLAT, etc.)

The DENSITY motifs of contact and collision occur more explicitly in PLANT (planting something involves placing it together with the ground), PLUG v, PLASTER v, PLOUGH, PLOP, PLUNK, PLUNGE, PLUMMET, PLUVIAL & PLUMB, PLAGUE & PLUNDER (falling on a population), PLOT & PLOD (putting pen or foot together with paper or ground, leading to the walking and other surface motion words:), PLANET (from Gk planan 'wander'), PLANKTON (from Gk plagktos 'wandering, drifting'), PLY (the waves), PLAY (from OE plega, plaega 'move briskly, dance, etc.'), and PLIMSOLL 'rubber-soled canvas shoe.

The same motifs, but involving mostly the hands, figure in PLASMA & PLASTIC (from Gk plassein 'fashion, form' by pressing with the hands), PLAINT & PLANGENT 'loud-sounding, orig. of waves breaking on the shore' (from Latin plangere 'beat the breast, strike noisily'), PLAUDIT (hands clapping), PLAUSIBLE & EXPLODE (from same Latin verb, plaudere 'clap', as the previous example), PLAN (putting ideas together), PLIERS (two prongs come together), PLUCK (your hand comes together with the thing plucked), PLUCKY (from PLUCKING oneself up spiritually), PLECTRUM (comes together with an instrument's strings).

Matter collected together figures in PLOVER 'gregarious, medium-sized wading bird (complies in three ways with DENSITY, not to mention its root *pleu- 'to flow' (along a surface)), PLENARY, PLENTY, PLETHORA, PLUMP, PLUM (plump, and plummets to the ground), PLUG n, PLURAL, PLUS, PLUSH, PLUTOCRACY, PLATOON, PLEIADES, PLEBEIAN, PLUMAGE, PLUME (perhaps 'mass' of smoke, but also cognate to PLUMAGE), PLAIT (hair joined together), and PLIMSOLL LINE 'marking on ship's side showing limit of legal submersion' (i.e., the fullest the ship can be loaded).

Further contact words include PLINTH 'slab between ground and pedestal' (sandwiched in, and near the ground), PLY (one of several layers together), PLEAT (folds two parts of a surface together), PLIANT (from Latin plicare 'fold'), PLEACH 'entwine, interlace', and PLEDGE (sticking to your word).

Even the two entries derived from the surname Plimsoll work this time! Unlike CL-, there are only a few words connoting separation: PLACKET, PLIERS, PLUCK, and these also fit the other connotations, either themselves or etymologically. This is because the mouth is closed with p, unlike with k.

In contrast, doublets with a lenis occlusive, gl- and bl-, connote separation at least as often as DENSITY; half of gl- words relate to light, which is associated with open spaces, and the other half refer to masses and sticking together (GLOB, GLOBE, GLUE, GLUTEN, etc.). Half of bl- words refer to coming out, a form of separation (BLEAT, BLARE, BLOOM, BLAST, BLEED) and more than half the others, given that b is a labial, refer to a surface, usually with a connotation of flatness (BLANK, BLACK, BLANCHE (colors describe a surface; also, these are 'flat' colors), BLOT, BLANKET, BLADE, BLUNT (as in 'the blunt end of an axblade'), BLOCK). Some (BLOCK, BLOB, BLOTCH, BLOAT, BLUBBER) describe a collection of matter.

Non-initial kl, pl and tl are also likely to connote DENSITY, e.g. BUCKLE, COUPLE, SETTLE. We should also expect that k and p individually, and, in fact, all other fortis occlusives, namely t, m, n, ng, should connote DENSITY to a somewhat lesser degree. Some appropriate forms are: CON-, CO-, CONTRA- (against implies contact), COME, KISS, KICK, LICK, SUCK, TUCK, STICK & MUCK (adhere), PICK, PAT, PUT, PUSH, PRESS, STAMP, TAMP, TOUCH, MEET, MATE, MATCH, MUNCH, MAKE (usually involves putting things together), NAIL, KNOB, NAB, NIP, NIBBLE, BANG, RING v, TONGS.

Isolated l does not show the connotation much except in final position (BALL, HILL, MILL FULL, ALL, STILL adv), where, as a continuant, it has the effect of stretching out the word, thus suggesting quantity, and is not followed by a vowel, thus emphasizing the contact. This lack of the connotation is due to the region of tongue contact being small compared to the large region of lack of contact, or openness. Isolated l instead usually represents lack of matter, connection, or, interestingly, activity, as in LIGHT, LACK, LOSS, LAKE, LOCH, LEAK, LOOSE, LAZY, LAX, LIE, LOCATION, although there a few words suggesting contact with a tongue-like object (LIGAMENT, LINK, LOCK, LATCH). LUMP, more typical of the M and P words, is practically an isolate among the L- words.


Through an exhaustive dictionary compilation, it is often possible to show that virtually every single word containing a given consonant combination possesses at least one of a small set of connotations falling into just one or two clusters of closely related variants, or is derived from a word of similar sound possessing such a connotation. We shall see in later papers that, in the case of individual phones, there are usually closer to a half dozen such clusters of closely related connotations, one or more of which always appears. I.e., the larger the form, the more specific the meaning, in line with what we know about morphemes, words, and sentences.

We shall also see that while individual phone connotations show substantial universality, the combination phonesthemes are less likely to generalize to unrelated language families, again in line with the characteristics of larger, semantically more specific linguistic units. This suggests that the first, simplest words may have been more universal than presentday words.

The connotations found can be explained iconically in terms of the phonetic features of the sounds, but all aspects of the situation must be considered: the acoustic effect, the physical sound production process, adjacent anatomy, and phonotactic considerations. An icon may possess antonymous connotations when they are each justified by different features.


Bolinger, D. (1965) five reprints in Forms of English, ed. by Isamu Abe & Tetsuya Kanekiyo. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press

Bowles, Hugo (1998) "The Phonetic Structure of the Phonaestheme", Studi Italiani di Linguistica Teorica e Applicata, 27, 2, pp. 351-368

Crystal, David (1995) "Phonaesthetically Speaking", English Today, 11:2 (42) Apr. pp. 8-12

Magnus, Margaret (1998) Gods of the Word, Archetypes in the Consonants, Truman State University Press, Kirksville, MO.

Reid, David (1967) Sound Symbolism, Gordon Terrace, Edinburgh

Rhodes, Richard A. & Lawler, John M. (1981) "Athematic Metaphors", Papers from the Regional Meetings, Chicago Linguistic Society, 17, Apr.-May, pp. 318-342