The Phonosemantics of Nasal-Stop Clusters
Copyright 1997 by Ralph H. Emerson

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Note: This is an encore appearance for this article: Margaret posted an earlier version on her website in early 1998. The article in its present form was published under the title "The Most Lively Consonants in the World" in the Summer 2000 issue of Verbatim: The Language Quarterly, and it is written in that magazine's thoroughly non-technical style. For readers of Linguistic Iconicity, however, I have added a brand-new afterword to address some of the questions you may have about the article's claims. The article is reprinted here by permission of Verbatim (4907 N. Washtenaw Ave., Chicago, IL 60625; <>).

The most lively of all consonants are not single letters but the two-consonant clusters like mp and nt at the ends of words like bump and jaunt and in the middle of banter and rumpus. I call them "nasal-stops," and there are eight important ones: MB, MP; ND, NT, NG, NK; and the NCH and NGE of bunch and lunge. These are all pairings of a "nasal" consonant m or n plus one of the plain or affricated "stop" consonants b, p, d, t, g, k, ch, jóor at least relics of such pairings, like final -mb and -ng in words like climb and sing, whose concluding stops have not been articulated since Shakespeare's day.

The point is, nasal-stops are the party animals of the consonant world. They typically make the words containing them seem noisy (bang!) or big (humongous!) or insulting (chump!), and they appear again and again throughout our language in central words from those three semantic categories. Each category is discussed in its own section below. The most typical and versatile nasal-stop word is bump, which is cited in all three sections. Many others like pound are cited in at least two. Watch for them.


'Impact' or 'Sound'

First and foremost, English uses nasal-stops onomatopoeically to represent 'hitting' and 'noise'. So closely related are those two ideas that some words fail to distinguish them: one can both bang on a drum and hear the bang it makes. Nasal-stops fit these percussive sounds nicely: ping, clink, clank, clunk, bump, thump, kerchunk. From there, nasal-stop words start branching out and specializing. A few refer to noise alone, like sound itself and the rumbles of thunder. Ancient India's thunder god was called Indra, and Greek for 'thunder' was bronte. Some other noisy things are bangles, boomboxes, bombs, jamborees, shindigs, tempests, temper tantrums, rumpuses, cranked-up music, rambunctious children, and pandemonium.

Other nasal-stop words concentrate on the impact rather than the noise: punch, pound, tumble, stamp, stomp, trample, whomp, conks on the head, punts and bunts and slam-dunks, spanking and pillow-plumping. Sexual intercourse is represented too: humping and bonking and boinking, jumping each other's bones and pumping and banging away. Such agitation and impact leave their traces: rumpled surfaces, crumples, crinkles, jumbles, and dimples. The cluster -nch specializes in one particular kind of agitation, 'squeezing' or 'grasping', as in cinch, bunch, munch, scrunch, pinch, wrench, and clench. It even includes Dr. Seuss's miserly Grinch (whose name cleverly begins with the gr- of grasping itself).

Some kinds of agitation are more subjective, like the pangs of hunger and conscience, tingles of anticipation, and the rankling of anger. A little further down this path is the whole realm of sentiment and mental activity, for just as we are "struck" by ideas and "kick" them around, we find 'impact' nasal-stops invigorating words like mind, intellect, think, remember, contemplate, wonder, ponder, fantasize, long, and want. We experience sympathy and angst, have hunches and inklings, are impressed and astounded.

When impact is repeated like a drumbeat, it establishes a tempo or 'rhythm' for everything from iambic pentameter to mantras and pinball and ping-pong. Walking or running is rhythmic too: we can saunter, amble, scramble, ramble, sprint, canter, gambol, slink, lumber along, pound the pavement, stump for votes, go on jaunts and junkets. More elaborately rhythmic are dances, from the basic Bump to a stripper's bump and grind to the dazzling intricacies of Latin dances and their music: mambo, samba, limbo, rumba, conga, flamenco, charanga, tarantella, tango, fandango, merengue, mangue, timba, banda, and lambada!

Sharing tempos with dances are styles of music like swing and country, oom-pah marches, Bahamian goombay (which was named for a kind of drum), Cajun chanky-chank, African-American funk and "ar-um-bee," and several kinds of rock: punk, grunge, industrial, and jungle. Playing this music are bands and combos, whose very instruments pay homage to nasal-stops with names from all over the map: gong from Malay, banjo and marimba from Africa, tom-tom from India, cymbal and tympani from Greek, bongo from American Spanish, trombone and mandolin from Italian, tambourine and trumpet from French. Many words for 'bell' pay homage too: Latin tintinnabulum, Spanish and Italian campana, and Chinese ling and zhong. And what do bells do? They ring, ding-dong, and ding-a-ling. Groups of them jingle, tiny ones tinkle, and big ones go clang or bong. In much the same way, a stringed harp displays its timbre in a twang, and the human voice can chant or sing, a gift which was the basis of all our songs and musical numbers in the first place.

If music's tempo dances long enough, it becomes Time itself, Latin tempus. Time is flying: even -ing, our suffix for durative action, contains a nasal-stop, just like its equivalents in Latin and German, -ent- and -end. Multiplying the effect, the newly popular durative adjective ongoing has two nasal-stops, and longstanding has three. 'For a very long time' in British slang is "for yonks," and time's farthest reaches are called the Big Bang and the Big Crunch, since even physicists instinctively grope for nasal-stops to describe time's beginning and its end. So do poets. T. S. Eliot's world vanishes "not with a bang but a whimper," while Faulkner's somehow survives even after "the last ding-dong of doom has clanged and faded." For eventually all clangs do fade. How long the fading takes depends on how much space there was to resound in: the bigger the space, the more impressive the resonance. That is the connection between 'sound' and the second nasal-stop specialty 'size'.


'Big' or 'Round'

Among our words for 'big' are long, grand, gigantic, gigundo, gargantuan, humongous, and tremendous. Abstract size is evoked with ample, bounty, plenty, abundant, and such idioms as "honkin' big" and the British thumping and swingeing (rhymes with bingeing). Sizes are measured by pound with its 'weight' and 'money' senses; denoted by amount, extent, range, and quantity; and specified with the help of counting and numbers, including the important decimal multiples twenty, hundred, thousand, and indeed umpteenth. Even the nasal-stop conjunction and implies a heaping up of things.

One kind of heap is a mound, which is 'round' as well as big, just like a bump, pimple, carbuncle, bunch, pumpkin, dumpling, clump, hump, bundle, tent, blimp, or mountain. Some famously big and round animals are bumblebees, pandas, humpback whales, elephants, and brontosauruses. Of course, round itself is a nasal-stop word, and there are many kinds of roundness other than 'convexity'. For one, concavity, as in sink, tank, sump, trench, empty, and chamber. For another, curving motion, which can 'rotate' around like crank, winch, wind; 'twist' like kink, wring, wander, undulate; or 'arc' like pendulum, swing, jump, bound, slump, and bend. Arc-shaped surfaces are cambered. Geometrically round objects include not only 'circles' like mandala, ring, and wedding band; but also cylinders like wand, candle, thimble, spindle, cucumber, banger 'sausage', and the tree parts trunk, stump, branch, and limb.

People have trunks and limbs too. Indeed, we have many nasal-stop body parts, mostly cylindrical. From the ground up, we have curvy ankles, shanks, haunches, rumps, and flanks; and at the ends of our arms (which correspond to the curving wings of birds) we have rounded hands and fingers: namely thumbs, index or pointing fingers, ring fingers, and pinkies! Male bodies furthermore sport a round member called a whang, dong, schlong, or lingam.

Besides naming the body with nasal-stops, we also appraise it with them. Convex bodies are plump, rotund, chunky, paunchy, and thunder-thighed; cylindrical bodies are slender and lanky. Gorgeous men are hunks and dreamboats, and gorgeous women are blondes, bombshells, and bimbosó"volumptuous" creatures, as a friend of mine says. Nasal-stops can even reflect body imagery through names. When Lewis Carroll's Alice asked Humpty Dumpty if a name must mean something, he laughed: "Of course it must; my name means the shape I amóand a good handsome shape it is, too." Big and round! Just like King Kong, Rambo, Santa, Eddie Murphy's obese Professor Klump, Walt Disney's elephant Dumbo, and indeed P. T. Barnum's real-life elephant Jumbo, whose name has actually become a synonym for 'big'.

Sometimes size is impressive and roundness comforting; but in many contexts, big things seem clunky and cumbersome, like the proverbial clumsy ox, and rounded things seem stupid or ineffectiveódumb or blunt when we want them to be sharp. In other words, sometimes 'big and round' loosely implies contemptible, which is the third nasal-stop specialty.


'Contemptible' or 'Silly'

Like the famous "bump on a log," inert and clumsy people often draw scorn despite themselves: bumbling, blundering fools, lunkheads and dunderheads, chumps and zombies, social bombs and blunderbusses, frumpy women, fumbling drunks, numbskulls and stumblebums, bumpkins and simpletons. Even their names are funny: Archie Bunker and Al Bundy, England's arch-fogey Colonel Blimp, poor well-meaning Forrest Gump, and P. G. Wodehouse's exuberantly brainless young men like Pongo Twistleton, Gussie Fink-Nottle, and Bingo Little. The humorousness of nasal-stops also makes them one of the secrets of nonsense poets. The flora and fauna in Lewis Carroll's "Jabberwocky" include a "Tumtum tree" and a "frumious Bandersnatch." Edward Lear's little Jumblies set sail for "the hills of the Chankly Bore" with "forty bottles of ring-bo-ree." And Spike Milligan writes of a very "noisy place to belong" called the "Ning Nang Ning Nang Nong!"

The subjects of nasal-stop coinages need not even be big, just graceless: ants and finks and other runts, mosquito-bitten grunts soldiering along, punks and tramps, flunkies and henchmen. Some are pathetic: spongers who cringe and whinge, greasy grinds, underdogs jinxed even in rinky-dink ventures, penny-pinchers gloating over their stingy hoards, and pompous popinjays. Some are insincere, unctuous hypocrites simpering their trumped-up flatteries, and still others merely annoying: wimps and wonks, imps and scamps and scoundrels, hounds and skunks, cranks and mugwumps, and legions of pinkos and Bible-thumpers awash in mumbo-jumbo, bunk, and humbug!

Nor is nasal-stop real estate the best. Junky and gunky, dingy and grungy, reeking of stinks and stenches and other pongs 'awful smells', it is a wasteland of dungeons, jungles, swamps, and shantytowns. Its boondocks are dotted with Podunk villages, its suburbs are bland and humdrum, and its cities are sinks of sin where honky-tonkers dodge bunco squads and seek high jinks in dumps and dives with campy shows and plonky wine. Nasal-stoppers are a raunchy crowd, fond of hanky-panky: junkies and gamblers, pimps and panders, swingers and philanderers, randy men eyeing wanton womenówenches, minxes, tramps, and strumpets. Casualties are many, lost in blue funks, bonkers and hauled off to shrinks; blind, hunchbacked, limping, gimpy. Others sting under epithets like Chink, Bohunk, Sambo, Uncle Tom, honky, Yank, and gringo.

Such terms may be scandalous, but they should be no surprise, for nasal-stop 'contemptible' words are like weeds, an ancient species fresh in the ground every week. Wimp is only a few decades old, for instance, yet wrong goes back a thousand years, and the humble stinkóif really traceable to primeval Nostratic *stunga, as new research claimsóhas been around for a cool twelve thousand. We have been raiding the nasal-stop weed-patch for a very long time.

That concludes our tour of the salient uses of nasal-stops in English, although tours in other languages would be just as interesting. As the few foreign words cited above might suggest, nasal-stops often do the same semantic work elsewhere as they do in English. For example, in one study of native roots in Indonesian, a language totally unrelated to English, I notice that of 33 common root-fragments containing nasal-stops or plain velar nasals, 24 percent frequently appear in words meaning 'impact' or 'sound', 39 percent in words meaning 'round', 'curved', 'convex', or 'concave', and 6 percent in words meaning 'flawed or damaged' (Keith McCune, The Internal Structure of Indonesian Roots, Ph.D. diss., Univ. of Michigan, 1983, appendices 15 and 16). Such similarity results not from coincidence but instinct. Linkages of nasal-stops to these meanings seem to be hard-wired into human brains, and you will most likely meet them anywhere you look.


Afterthoughts (March 3, 2001)

Anywhere you look? Well, that's poetic license. But certainly throughout the European languages I'm familiar with; and the fact that the linkages work in far-flung Indonesian as well suggests that they might be a linguistic universal, available anywhere even if not everywhere activated. Anyone want to investigate?

Besides, I keep finding new examples that fit. Silly names? Old and new. The novelist J.K. Rowling, an admitted name collector, calls Harry Potter's headmaster Dumbledore, which is something like Dickens's Mr. Bumble. Outside English, we find a foolish German nobleman in Voltaire's Candide (1759) called Thunder-ten-Tronckh, a name marvelously and unwittingly echoed two centuries later when Thomas Mann snickered at "the noble race of von Mylendonk" in The Magic Mountain (1924). Bigness? I forgot to list momentous, mountainous, and monumental. Ample bodies? The first page of King Lear (1608) describes a pregnant woman as "round-womb'd," and the comic strip Baldo in this morning's newspaper (Feb. 7, 2001) features a luscious bikini model named Bambi Vasquez. International music and dance styles? Here are some more Latin ones: south-Texan conjunto and huapango, Colombian cumbia, and its Peruvian variant cumbia andina. In Africa, Zimbabwean rock based on traditional Shona music is called chimurenga, and Guinea-Bissau's national music is called gumbe. Drums? Armenia has the dumbeg, and the Little Drummer Boy in the song goes "pa-rum-pa-pum-pum." Bells? Annoying ones jangle (whence jangled nerves), and the sound of a cash register bell is conventionalized as ka-ching!


Ka-ching brings up the one major criticism I've received on this article: namely, how can I justify including -mb and -ng words like bomb and ka-ching as nasal-stop words when they really don't end in the true clusters [-mb] and [-hg] that their spellings suggest, but in nasals alone, bo[m] and ka-chi[h]? Isn't that cheating?

No. The final stops [b] and [g] in such words are not really gone. They're "inert," to borrow a term from the orthographer Edward Carney (A Survey of English Spelling, 1994). "[N]ow you hear them, now you don't," he says of such letters. A good example is the g which is silent in sign but spoken in signify and signature. Well, in the same way, the [-h] in bang becomes [-hg-] in bangle, and the [-m] in crumb becomes [-mb-] crumble. So too in bomb:bombard, dumb:Dumbo, clang:clangor, and the classic New Yorkism long:Long Guyland (sc. Island). The stops' ghost-presence is historically legitimate: the spellings -mb and -ng retain final letters that really were pronounced as stops in Middle English. Medieval cli[mb] and lo[hg] eventually simplified into modern cli[m] and lo[h]. (Long's medieval absolute-final [-hg]ówhich is still found in a few modern British dialects, by the wayówas phonemically /ng/, so its [h] was originally just a velarized allophone of /n/, as is arguably still the case in standard modern jingle, etc.)

The ghost-stops in such words also draw strength from the spellings, which present themselves to the eye as stop-ful. And people treat them so, juxtaposing them with true nasal-stop words. For instance, Julie Burchill of The Guardian described the British monarchy as "a dum(b), num(b) dinosaur, lumbering along." John Updike wrote in Rabbit, Run of picking up a sleeping child and feeling "the responsive fumbling protest of the tumbled limp lim(b)s." And think of the bell words we've seen, the way ka-chin(g) coexists with jangle, rin(g) with jingle, din(g)-a-lin(g) with tinkle.

Yet the proof of the phonosemantics is in the semantics: the silent-stop nasal-stop words don't just look like regular nasal-stop wordsóthey also act like them. They marched side-by-side through this whole essay, matching each other meaning for meaning. And no surprise, since etymologically they once truly were nasal-stop words, and they retain their old nasal-stop semantics even though a sound shift has cost them their final stops. Something comparable has happened in French, except that in French it's the nasals that have been lost, by absorbing themselves into the vowels. Take the 'impact, sound' word bomb. It's from Spanish or Italian bomba, pronounced as spelled (cf. bombard). Bomba is simplified in English to bomb [bam] and in French to bombe [bõb]. Or consider the similar-looking French word bombé 'convex.' Its pronunciation [bõbe] is not quite nasal-stoppy, but its spelling and its 'big, round' semantics certainly are. Once a nasal-stop, always a nasal stop. Old meanings, like old spellings, can hang on long after a sound shift.

Or the process can go backwards. Non-nasal-stop words with nasal-stoppy meanings can attract new consonants to create appropriate-sounding clusters. Latin camera 'room' became the hollow English chamber. Latin sonare 'to make a noise' became English sound. The Old English lim and the Middle English wool-spinning implement spinil became the cylindrical modern limb and spindle.

'Convexity' Inside-Out: Hollows and Openings

Cylinders and hollow, echoey places: a number of nasal-stop words huddle around these ideas; and I would have included them in the preceding article except that they seemed uncomfortably abstract. Chimneys and wells: fire tubes and water tubes, ancient and archetypal. "Chimbleys," as children say, and around their fireplaces are a bevy of nasal-stop nouns: flints, tinder and kindling to start the fire, andirons to hold the logs, tongs to move them, a fender to contain them, and cinders and embers produced when they burn. (The embers are banked at night so they'll stay hot without actually burning up.) Furthermore, a damper closes a fireplace, a lintel holds it up, a mantel decorates it, and beside it is an inglenook to sit inóingle being a North British word for the 'hearth-fire' itself.

If fireplaces collect nouns, water-wells collect verbs. A small but important set of nasal-stop verbs clusters around the image of a bucket that can raised and lowered by rope inside a well-shaft: hang, dangle, swing, sink, plunge, tumble, climb, mount. Latinate synonyms for two of these words offer good examples of nasal-stop parallelism: many nasal-stop roots from one language family have nasal-stop counterparts elsewhere (like Germanic sing and Latinate chant). With the 'well' words, Germanic hang corresponds to Latin pend- (pendulum, suspend, depend) and climb to scand- (ascend, descend). And look at these even eerier matches with the Niger-Congo language Tiv: 'to climb' is kondo and 'to descend' is hungwa [-hgw-]. In fact, R.C. Abraham's 1940 Tiv dictionary offers the example a hungwa shin ijor, 'he descended into the well'!

Yet after writing the last two paragraphs, I suddenly wonder if maybe the salient image uniting chimneys and wells is not 'cylinder' or 'tube' but rather 'opening' or entrance: a well (or spring or fountain) is an opening into the ground and a fireplace is an opening in a house's wall. The other important wall-openings are the window and the door, both framed, like a fireplace, on top by a lintel and on the sides by jambs (from the French jambe 'leg', another nasal-stop cylinder). Water-well, hearth, and home: iconic female territory. And what is the physiological female opening? The cunt, which leads to the swellable womb. Phonosemantics always leads back to the body in the end.


Why Nasal-Stops?

I think we must also return to the body to guess why nasal-stops seem to mean what they do. As I've suggested, their semantics probably begin with the onomatopoeia of impact: bump, clang, bonk. The mouth does its best to recreate what the ears hear. How well nasal-stops actually reproduce the sounds of impact is a question for someone with a spectrograph; but it's pretty clear that nasal-stops make use of two phonosemantic relationships that are already well established in English onomatopoeia. The "meanings" reflect the way the sounds are articulated.

Nasal consonants by definition resonate in the nasal cavity, so unadorned final nasals often connote 'resonant or sustained sound'. Final -n suggests 'wailing', as in moan, groan, keen, whine, croon, loon. Final -m suggests 'low-frequency vibration', as inhum, strum, chime, zoom, boom, vroom. (Final -m can also connote 'sudden impact', especially in the key word drum and the -am of bam, slam, wham, and ram.) As for stop consonants, by definition they fleetingly "stop" the airflow through the mouth, so unadorned final stops, especially voiceless stops after short vowels, often connote 'suddenness of noise or movement', as in hit, flit, flick, pop, blip, quick, and even the word stop itself.

Nasal-stop clusters seem to me to mix these two ideas: to use stops' sudden 'pulling-back' to give shape and limits to the huge echo-chamber of the nasals' 'sustained sound'. Punctuation plus echo equals 'impact,' and size bounded by limits equals 'bigness'. Or so I see it. The combination is greater than the sum of its parts. You'll look in vain for plain-final-stop or plain-final-nasal synonyms and equivalents for all the categories of words we've discussed in this article. It's chemical magic: ethereal oxygen and ethereal hydrogen combine to make something entirely different from either, a new substance that is delicious and touchable and useful. Nasals and stops apart are boring; together they rock.

And they're fun. As the great radio comedian Jimmy Durante used to growl in his signature song, "ink a-dink a-dink, ink a-dink a-doo!" And adieu to you too. Good night, Mrs. Calabash, wherever you are!



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