Wednesday, 28 October 2009


Sound symbolism describes a ‘natural’ connection between sound and meaning. For example, it has been noted that many words which sound the same also have similar meanings (e.g. Point, poke, pike, peg, pierce, prick, prod, probe). The idea is that some meanings (like the pointyness of the example words) lend themselves more naturally to certain sounds (like the explosive 'p' of the example words). It's been a contravertial theory, especially when applied accross languages towards explaining the origins of language (e.g. Rammachandran and Hubbard's synaesthetic bootstrapping hypothesis). More recently, the topic of 'ideophones' has take over.

It's fun to think of more examples, but here's a study I did a little while ago:

Sound symbolism may be felt most with very visceral words. Hurford (2007) suggests that words for ‘urine’ and ‘faeces’ should sound different across languages. Specifically, 'urine' words should have higher vowels to match the high pitch of pissing, (e.g. 'pee') while 'faeces' words should have lower vowels to match the bass sounds of the behind (e.g. 'poo').

Who said Linguists were always high-minded?

I tested this theory by finding Words for ‘urine’ and 'faeces' in 29 languages, including ones from Europe, Africa, North America, South America, Asia, Austral Asia, Australia and the Pacific islands. There was a bias towards selecting 'childish' or child-directed words over clinical terms (e.g. 'poo' over 'faeces') following arguments for the primacy of childish language (Cytowic 1995). Here are the results:

Words With... Urine Faeces
High Front Vowels Only 26 5
No high front vowels 7 32
Mixed vowel types 12 5
Total 45 42

There were significantly more words for urine with high front vowels than for faeces (Chi-Squared = 33.07, df = 2, p <>

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