At LanguageHumanities, we're committed to delivering accurate, trustworthy information. Our expert-authored content is rigorously fact-checked and sourced from credible authorities. Discover how we uphold the highest standards in providing you with reliable knowledge.

Learn more...

What Is Sound Symbolism?

Dan Harkins
Dan Harkins

The study in linguistics of words that attempt to convey meaning through mimickry is called sound symbolism. Also known as iconism or phonosemantics, these types of words are scattered across many languages and cultures, often carrying many of the same characteristics. They are generally formed in a handful of distinct ways: through connection to primitive sounds like grunts and coughs, as clusters of letters that appear when certain kinds of words are used, and through onomatopoeia — a sound imitation widely used by illustrators.

A common type of sound symbolism involves sounds or short groupings of sounds that appear when certain types of words are used. Also known as phonesthetic or conventional sound symbolism, these are root word sections that may convey meaning just by their placement in a word. According to some scholars, such as renowned linguist Margaret Magnus in A Dictionary of English Sound, more than 900 types of phonesthetic constructions are evident just in English.

The onomatopoeia "woof," or the sound a dog makes, varies throughout the world.
The onomatopoeia "woof," or the sound a dog makes, varies throughout the world.

An exaggerated example of a phonestheme, or clustering, is the use of the letter grouping "gl," particularly at the beginning of a word, to show that a word has to do with an element of lighting. Examples of this include glare, gleam, glisten, gloss, glimmer and even some inverse terms like gloom and glum. Another example is the wide range of words beginning with "b" that all have to do with difficult obstacles, from barrier and beating to bruised and battered.

When a group of words with the same meaning are analyzed, an element called iconism can be observed. This other form of sound symbolism, running inverse to the belief that words are arbitrary historical constructs, involves the placement of a certain sound within words to drive the action. In general, they will not have much in common like words that start or end with the same letters. This driving action is present much more prevalently in other languages, but in English, many examples can still be found. Insert an "m" before a "p" in many words pertaining to forward movement, and more urgency can be denoted — a word like step or trip becomes more forceful as stomp or trample.

One of the most widespread appearances of sound symbolism in the 20th and 21st centuries is in the comic genre, through what is called onomatopoeia. This consists of non-verbal sounds being conveyed in verbal ways. Oomph, thwack, crash, pow and swoosh are part of the vernacular in 2011, because comic artists have written those sounds in order to convey the full nature of various scenes. These words are used to closely imitate the sound being symbolized, either in comics or even literature, for centuries.

Discuss this Article

Post your comments
Forgot password?
    • The onomatopoeia "woof," or the sound a dog makes, varies throughout the world.
      By: ra2 studio
      The onomatopoeia "woof," or the sound a dog makes, varies throughout the world.