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Is it true that the way languages develop causes the tonal qualities of the words to have a tendency to match the nature of the thing the word stands for?

I am not talking just about obviously onomatopoieaic words such as "splash" or "murmur". I mean very general everyday words. For example the word "book" has a sort of hard quality to it, whereas the word "water" seems to almost flow like the actual substance itself.

Is there any truth in this theory?

Edit: They discuss this topic on QI. They claim a pointy spiky object is far more likely to be named a "kiki" than a "booba".

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Be careful not to read too much into the "bouba"/"kiki" type experiment (as both Stephen Fry and a Horizon documentary that mentions it seem to): it's not clear that these types of experiment tell us much about the nomenclature of 'ordinary' objects/concepts as opposed to onomatopoeia, and as @ESultanik mentions below, the phonology and general situation of onomatopoeia are probably quite different to the rest of the language. –  Neil Coffey Jun 23 '11 at 14:46
Also worth considering: if sound symbolism is so influential, why is it that languages have the variation that they do in their phoneme inventories? –  Neil Coffey Jun 23 '11 at 14:56

6 Answers 6

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This is an ancient question with much attendant scholarship rejoicing in the name of 'phonosemantics', qv http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sound_symbolism

Friendly introdution with bouba and kiki here: http://www.visiblemantra.org/phonosemantics.html

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This is a very difficult (if not impossible) question to answer, since testing whether a word "sounds" like a concept is largely subjective. It is further complicated by the fact that humans will tend to "chunk" the memory of an auditory stimulus of a word with its associated visual stimuli. In other words, when one hears the word "book", one is very likely to simultaneously, automatically, recall the memory of the sight of a book. Therefore, one might be biased to think a word is onomatopoeic simply because one subconsciously already has an association between the sound of the word and its associated concept.

The easiest way I can think of to non-subjectively test the theory you propose is to take a group of non-English speakers (preferably those who don't even speak an Indo-European language), present them with English words and pictures of the concepts the words represent, and then ask them to match the English words with their associated concepts. I am not aware of any such experiment that has actually been performed, however.

This is further complicated if we accept that language evolution exists on a continuum: The current meaning of a word in modern English can have little or nothing to do with its earlier meanings. For example, about 1000 years ago, the word "book" (bóc) had a meaning more similar to "writing tablet" or "single sheet of paper", the latter of which doesn't have a "hard quality" at all.

Włodzimierz Sobkowiak did some research on this in the 1990s, studying English onomatopoeia's phonostatistics (the paper is available here). He took the words in Kloe's dictionary on onomotopoeia and statistically compared their phonetics to the rest of the English lexicon. Sobkowiak concluded that the words in the dictionary (that were specifically identified as being onomatopoetic) had statistically significanty different phonetic patterns than the rest of English, suggesting that not all English words are onomatopoetic.

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Nice bit of research! –  user1579 Jun 23 '11 at 12:15
Another interesting experiment would be to compare the words for the same thing from languages with very different histories, like compare the English word for various objects with the Japanese word and the Swahili word and the Navajo word, etc. If, say, you found that words for, say, "dirt" in every language all had "d" and "r" sounds in them, but were otherwise different enough to make common origin unlikely, that would be interesting. –  Jay Feb 11 '13 at 18:30

Once you exclude onomatopoeia, the theory makes little sense.

Do the sounds things make influence the words that are used for them? Clearly this happens to some extent, as the cuckoo demonstrates, but this is onomatopoeia and we must discard it from discussion. Adjectives that sound like the sounds they describe? Again, we must discard them.

With what remains, you are asking if the tonal qualities of the words have a tendency to match the nature of the thing the word stands for. That relies heavily on the meaning that you attach to tonal qualities, and I would suggest that those meanings are likely to have formed the other way around; for example, lethargic has a heavy, slow feeling to it because of its meaning, instead of meaning something slothful because of the way it "feels".

Synonyms are another good way of testing the theory past breaking point. "Amanuensis" has a very rounded, flowing sound to it; "Secretary" is full of stops and sharp edges. The emotional quality of the tones are very different, but the words mean the same.

In short, I don't think this theory holds much water.

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Mmm. You're right. I could have been clearer. Do "the tonal qualities of the words have a tendency to match the nature of the thing the word stands for"? Precisely. That's the point I am making really trying to make. –  Urbycoz Jun 23 '11 at 12:06
@Urbycoz: yes, but we seem to disagree on which is cause and which is effect. –  user1579 Jun 23 '11 at 12:13
I don't disagree. I have no particular opinion. That's why I'm asking. You put forward a good argument. –  Urbycoz Jun 23 '11 at 12:16
I'd be interested to hear your view on the observation I mentioned above- If you had to name it, a pointy spiky object would be far more likely to be named a 'kiki' than a 'booba'. –  Urbycoz Jun 23 '11 at 12:43
@Urbycoz: more likely, yes. Far more like, not so sure. In practice I'm more likely to name it by similarity to something else, or by stapling together roots from other languages (usually Latin or Greek). The Sobkowiak research suggests that it isn't a strong tendency. –  user1579 Jun 23 '11 at 15:16

My friend in college actually did an undergrad linguistics capstone project on this exact topic. First, he found a bunch of proposed sound/meaning correspondences that had been put forth by people ranging from Aristotle (who claimed that a 't' sound symbolizes something standing still) to modern researchers (who have for example proposed that front vowels like the 'i' in "him" correspond to small things, while back vowels like the 'a' in "father" correspond to big things, reflecting the fact that the front vowels resonate in a smaller space in the mouth - and my friend sarcastically said "This is of course why we have the words 'big' and 'small'"). Then he used a program to make up a bunch of words that sounded nothing like any real (English) words, but exemplified some of the proposed sound/meaning correspondences. And then he had (natively English-speaking) people choose from among several possible definitions for the made-up words. One definition for each pseudoword was the target definition based on the sound/meaning correspondence.

His finding? People had no tendency whatsoever to pick the "right" definition for his made-up words. He concluded that ordinary words (as against onomatopoeias) are in fact pretty much completely arbitrary, as far as his data could allow him to say. He further posited that the reason this theory has stuck around for so long is just that it sounds so good to people, probably for the reasons mentioned by user1579. I was convinced, even though before his presentation I would've thought the opposite. (I had heard about kiki and bouba, but as Neil Coffey points out, it's important not to read too much into it.)

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Chuck, welcome to EL & U! Thanks for sharing your experiences. It's great to get the viewpoint from someone with some actual "hands-on" knowledge. –  Urbycoz Nov 9 '11 at 8:42

Contrived examples are contrived, and not exceptionally carefully thought through at that.

  1. Water literally has a stop right in the middle of it. War flows much better.
  2. If book has a "sort of hard quality to it", then so does e-book. Oh, and boob.
  3. Think of all the minimal pairs. Thought, sought, caught, taught, bought, brought don't make you think of pretty much the exact same thing, do they?
  4. Since you expressly mentioned all languages, let's have a quick look at the word for water in just a few of them:
    • 'wɔːtə
    • ˈʋaːtər
    • ˈvasɐ
    • vɐˈda
    • vɔˈda
    • ˈakːwa
    • o

Does eau flow better than aqua? Yes? No? Why would they flow differently to begin with? It's still the same H2O.

Onomatopoeias are onomatopoeic; non-onomatopoeias are not. If all words were onomatopoeias, there would be no need for the term onomatopoeia to begin with. We'd just refer to onomatopoeias as "words".

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I think you are missing the point. I wasn't putting it forward as a "hard and fast rule". Just suggesting the possibility of an influence. –  Urbycoz Jun 23 '11 at 12:13

I only need to say/song the A vowel as a drawn out note at what seems to be its natural resonance (ahhhhhhh) to experience there is a complexe connection between sound and our psyche. Just Increasing the frequency changes the whole tone. At times on the scale the sounds feel familiar. Feelings do change but an A always includes everything.

I found A's main emotive drivers to be; •Awe the sound of amazement. •Interpersonal agreement. -'ah ha'- •personal acceptance • positional anger aggro angst - it's all too much

I'm sure that this simple proposition will be swiftly stripped and reasoned far far away somewhere. I only ask that in doing so, please don't use any words starting with N or D. As there is no universal language symbology to worry about. Don't even think about it. The words will just come at random.

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I don't see how this relates to the question. –  Chenmunka Aug 13 at 18:19

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