The English lesson everyone remembers from school is onomatopoeia. Or, at least, they remember the word but forget how to spell it.
Onomatopoeia is memorable, probably, because it is such an interesting concept. You will recall, of course, it is the process of creating a word that sounds like what it describes – sizzle, beep, burp, whizz. The resulting word is an onomatope.
But onomatopes are far from the only example of sound symbolism in the English language. When relating to the aesthetic values of sounds, this is called phonaesthesia.
A collection of letters can have a message. Many words that have to do with sagging, or going downwards, begin with the letters S and L. Sliding, slouching, sluggish, slack, slant, slump, slide. Many insults that denote laziness begin the same way: slovenly, sleazy, sloppy, slothful, sluggish, slob.
Words beginning SN often convey something unpleasant: sneak, sneer, snake, snide, sniff, snipe, snoop, snitch, snot. Words beginning SW, on the other hand, conjure images of expansive movement: swing, swingeing, swathe, swipe, swat, swish, swell, swoop.
Words that end RL give an idea of roundness: curl, furl, gnarl, twirl, whirl, whorl, purl. GL beginnings suggest brightness: glamour, glare, gleam, glimmer, glint, glisten, gloss, glow.
SH endings give swift or strong movement: gush, push, splash, whoosh, crash, rash, dash, flash. And forceful words have the same: brash, harsh, rush, mash, bash, crush.
A word with a short vowel sound, then a P, conveys suddenness: blip, clip, flip, hop, lop, nip, rip, slap, skip, quip, whip, yap, zap.
There is something aggressive about words that start with V: venomous, vicious, vile, vindictive, vitriolic, vanquish, vendetta.
Words with the vowels A, O, and U say something bigger than words with an I: slot is wider than slit. The same is true of chip and chop, wrinkled and rumpled, stripe and strata, slip and slop.
Authors and scriptwriters use sound symbolism to imbue their characters with personality. Would a person known as Bubba be heavy-set? Might a boy called Jack be nimble and quick? Might a gentle soul be named Hannah?
Dickens was the master of this. You can tell his characters’ traits by the sound of their names –violent schoolmaster Wackford Squeers, mean-spirited Ebenezer Scrooge, pompous Mr Pumblechook.
Now before you reach for your pen or emailing device, I know there are many exceptions. “Slick” starts with SL and is the opposite of slouching. “Gloom” starts GL and is the opposite of brightness. “Sweet” starts SW but is nothing to do with expansive movement.
You’re right. There isn’t a consistent pattern to sound symbolism, and much of it has to do with individual perception. This isn’t an exact science by any means, very few things in the English language are.
But anyone who wishes to write descriptively would do well to pay attention to the way words sound.
Word of the week
To hiss off the stage. EG: “I wish we could exsibilate some vexatious politicians.”
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