What I am looking for is a word that describes words that are read with a sound representative of their connotation. To my understanding this would differ from an onomatopoeia in that onomatopoeia's deal with the denotation of a word. This is hard for me to explain (also hard to google) so I am going to give some examples:

  • Twinkle
  • Sludge
  • Bell
  • Splash (this might just be an onomatopoeia)

These words sound like the things they mean when spoken without explicitly meaning their sound.

Contrast this to onomatopoeias whos meaning is only their sound:

  • Bang
  • Boom
  • Tic

I am convinced that at some point I knew the answer to this question but I have since forgotten it.

Since I have tagged this as a single-word request here is a sample sentence:

"The word Twinkle is a ------- because it sounds sparkly and light when spoken which is appropriate to its meaning, but not directly connected"

Thanks in advance for the help, let me know if I can clarify this at all!

  • 1
    It's absolutely subjective. To me, twinkie sounds hard and heavy. Jul 18, 2018 at 19:04
  • You sometimes see it listed as imitative
    – Phil Sweet
    Jul 18, 2018 at 19:23
  • I have no idea what you mean because twinkle is a verb; sludge and bell are nouns. I don't think you can say that twinkle sounds sparkly. It doesn't have any sound at all....and bang, boom and tic are not necessarily onomatopoeic words, either.
    – Lambie
    Jul 18, 2018 at 19:34
  • @Lambie while I agree this is subjective I don't think that is contrary to the point? Even if you disagree about the sound, I am still looking for a word to describe the effect. Jul 18, 2018 at 20:19
  • 2
    Here's the complete set of simplex words with TW- assonance. As you can see, it's 100% coherent, which means all the words are associated with one or more semantic loci. Jul 18, 2018 at 22:55

5 Answers 5


I believe you could say that these words are phon(a)esthemic.1 Several2 of the words you are describing feature a phon(a)estheme3 which contributes to your sense that their meaning is somehow reflected in their sound. From Merriam-Webster:

Definition of phonestheme

the common feature of sound occurring in a group of symbolic words

  • He points to a 1929 experiment by Edward Sapir in which Sapir's subjects were asked to match nonsense words with small and large versions of the same object. The subjects tended to match words with a high vowel (such as ee) to the small object and those with a low vowel (such as the o in "cot") to the larger object. British linguist J.R. Firth later called these links between sound and meaning "phonesthemes." —Michael Erard

A ThoughtCo article by Richard Nordquist offers a more straightforward definition:

A phonestheme is a particular sound or sound sequence that (at least in a general way) suggests a certain meaning. The adjective form is phonesthemic.

So you could say

"The word Twinkle is phon(a)esthemic because [it contains sounds that are associated with sudden or repetitive motion and smallness, so it] sounds sparkly and light when spoken which is appropriate to its meaning, but not directly connected"

1 For those who still aren't sure about this phenomenon, Terry Pratchett explains it better than I can (though it seems he wasn't aware of any common word for it):

Glint, glisten, glitter, gleam...

Tiffany thought a lot about words, in the long hours of churning butter. 'Onomatopoeic', she'd discovered in the dictionary, meant words that sounded like the noise of the thing they were describing, like 'cuckoo'. But she thought there should be a word meaning 'a word that sounds like the noise a thing would make if that thing made a noise even though, actually, it doesn't, but would if it did.'

Glint, for example. If light made a noise as it reflected off a distant window, it'd go 'glint!' And the light of tinsel, all those little glints chiming together, would make a noise like 'glitterglitter'. 'Gleam' was a clean, smooth noise from a surface that intended to shine all day. And 'glisten' was the soft, almost greasy sound of something rich and oily.

2 Wikipedia includes sludge in its examples of phonesthemic words (sl- words are one of the classic English phonestheme examples, along with gl-; sl- words are often pejorative and/or slippery, and sludge fits both), and twinkle also appears on some lists (both for the tw- start and -le end). Splash does have onomatopoeic features, but it also appears on lists with other liquidy spl- words like splat and splutter. I'm not sure whether bell contains any phonesthemic features.

3 These sounds are also sometimes called sub-morphemes (because they seem to carry some meaning even though they don't reach the level of a morpheme) or word-affinities. They are related to ideophones and fall under the more general heading of sound symbolism/phon(a)esthesia/phonosemantics, an area of expertise for EL&U's own John Lawler. There seems to be a continuing debate about whether the "meaning" that attaches to the various sounds is always language-specific (some dictionaries specifically define the phenomenon as a result of having a large number of related words in a language that share the sound) or if there is some inherent, universal connection between some of the sounds and human perception of their connotations, but either way I believe this describes the experience described in the question.

  • Please mention that this word is also commonly spelled phonaestheme for aesthetic reasons. :)
    – tchrist
    Jul 19, 2018 at 2:11
  • @tchrist Is that enough?
    – 1006a
    Jul 19, 2018 at 2:14
  • Thanks. The OED text for the word reads: “A phoneme or group of phonemes having recognizable semantic associations, as a result of appearing in a number of words of similar meaning.”
    – tchrist
    Jul 19, 2018 at 2:14
  • I looked at that definition, and some others that are very similar, but I feel like there's enough scholarly debate about causality that I wanted to stay away from that second clause (it might be right, but it isn't clear to me that everyone who uses the term would agree with it).
    – 1006a
    Jul 19, 2018 at 2:16
  • In Letters 176, Tolkien mentions how he took ‘phonaesthetic pleasure’ in inventing his own names and verse in his created languages.
    – tchrist
    Jul 19, 2018 at 2:18

The area of linguistics that studies these associations is called


de Saussure was the first to really explicitly remark on the arbitrariness of the connection between sound and meaning. And this arbitrariness is a hallmark of language. But language is so large that there is room enough for some very small piece of non-arbitrariness (?). In many languages there are sound clusters that are not full words or even affixes, but they still appear in a number of words giving those words some vague common meaning.

For example

glitter, gleam, glow,

all have something to do with light.

This is related to the

Bouba-kiki effect

where across many very unrelated languages, there seems to be an association with particular sounds common to those languages and non-linguistic shapes. For example, experimentally it has been shown that the nonsense word 'bouba' is more often associated with a smooth round object and 'kiki' with a spiky object.

  • I think what is arbitrary with Saussure are signs.
    – Lambie
    Jul 18, 2018 at 19:36
  • According to Douglas Harper's Online Etymology Dictionary, the words "glitter", "gleam" and "glow" all derive from a common Proto-Indo-European root meaning "to shine", so that explains the similarity there. (The family contains lots of words, actually, including: glare, glass, glimmer, glimpse, glint, glisten, gloss, gold.) Jul 18, 2018 at 19:49
  • This is some really cool information that I will check out. I think you make a good point of cross-language application. I am not going to accept this answer for now because I am still hoping for a one word answer. Cheers Jul 18, 2018 at 20:22
  • 1
    Here's the analysis for simplex GL- words. Etymology, however, is a weak reed to lean on, as the case of Style shows. More information about phonosemantic research can be found on my web page. Jul 18, 2018 at 22:49
  • @BenjaminShaffer Hmm, "phonosemantics" is a one-word answer.
    – Lawrence
    Jul 18, 2018 at 23:54

I was going to leave a comment saying I got what you were saying, and also felt I'd run into a word for this but couldn't think of it either (I wouldn't leave such a comment normally except that so many others were disagreeing with the very premise of your question). Then what do you know, the Wikipedia page for "Phonosemantics" has this among the "See also" links:


I'm not 100% certain it's the word I was thinking of but it could be. It seems to apply to clusters of sounds, not just words, and a lot of their examples are basically onomatopoeia, but they literally include the English verb "twinkle" as an example.

  • Ideophones are systemic phenomena that have a number of characteristics that English assonance-rime phonosemantic phenomena don't. Jul 18, 2018 at 23:02
  • @JohnLawler, Your note about ideophones in another answer is ambiguous ("often associated with", "strictly speaking not"), summing up in the end, that ""Ideophone" is not a well-defined term". Wiktionary attributes the term to a certain treatment of the Yoruba language; That hardly compares to English. However the surface analysis ide-*+*phone, and the definition in WT do fit what we mean with Onomatopoea. In effect, I think all words express ideas and are phonetic, so it's a leaky abstraction. Maybe the original coinage was imprecise.
    – vectory
    Apr 28, 2019 at 14:53

The word echoism is sometimes used as the noun form of echoic.

Oxford English Dictionary gives this definition of echoic:

Of the nature of an echo: a term proposed by J. A. H. Murray and used in this Dictionary to describe formations which echo the sound which they are intended to denote or symbolize.

Having said that, it is worth noting that there is not really a strong distinction between echoic and onomatopoeic. The latter word is cross-referenced to echoic in the OED, and echoism is a rare term.

Here is an example of the OED using "echoic" to describe the origin of the word clock, which meant "bell" before it meant the thing that tells time.

Wherever it actually arose, it was probably echoic, imitating the rattling made by the early handbells of sheet-iron and quadrilateral shape, rather than the ringing of the cast circular bell of later date. The relation of the rare Old English cluc(c)ge to the other forms, which agree generally with the types klok , klokka , is obscure.

In this sense, "echoic" might be said to have some relevant distinction from the term onomatopoeia in that a word can have an echoic origin without being termed an onomatopoeia itself, like the word "clock," or, likely, "bell."

The origin of "sludge" appears to be unknown, and "twinkle" is traced to Old English twinclian. Other senses of the word "twinkle" that refer to sound are described as echoic.

  • Interesting but ultimately felt the accepted answer is closer to what I was looking for. An important distinction is that echoic words explicitly originated from the sounds (to my understanding) whereas the phonestheme describes the sound independent of it's origin. Thanks for the answer :) Jul 23, 2018 at 18:43

Maybe autological?

"An autological word is a word that expresses a property that it also possesses. The opposite is a heterological word, one that does not apply to itself. It is not to be confused with autonym, which means one's own name, or a name by which a people or ethnic group refers to itself." -wikipedia

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.