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LINGUIST List 17.3500

Sun Nov 26 2006

Disc: New: Origin of Adjectives for Sonic Experiences

Editor for this issue: Ann Sawyer <sawyerlinguistlist.org>

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        1.    Barry Blesser, Origin of Adjectives for Sonic Experiences

Message 1: Origin of Adjectives for Sonic Experiences
Date: 25-Nov-2006
From: Barry Blesser <bblesseralum.mit.edu>
Subject: Origin of Adjectives for Sonic Experiences

During my 5 years of research into auditory spatial awareness, which is
discussed in my book ''Spaces Speak, Are You Listening? Experiencing Aural
Architecture,'' I notice that adjectives used to describe sound have an odd
properties. They are mostly borrowed from other senses, specifically vision
and touch. For example in the professional literature on audio, one finds
such expressions as a warm ambiance, a bright sound, a dark melody, a sweet
spot, a transparent loudspeaker, a crisp note, a penetrating siren,
enveloping reverberation, and so on. Or, sonic words remain linked to the
events that create them, such as the screeching of tires, thump of a
hammer, or the roar of the lion.

In his article, ''Sound in the Middle Ages,'' C Burnett states that the
''dominant impression that one gets from reading medieval philosopher's
account of sound is their fascination with the illusiveness of the
entity.'' Guy Deutscher, in his book The Unfolding of Language, suggests
that words evolve from concrete objects to higher levels of abstraction.
Yet many words for aural experience words remain concrete when they stay
linked to the events or objects that create sounds. To avoid some of these
difficulties, professionals in audio often create words as aliases for
variables in equations.

While I have notice unusual patterns with aural words, I do not have the
knowledge and experience to take the analysis to the next level. And I
certainly have no familiarity with aural words outside of English. I would
therefore like to open the discussion to the wider linguistic community in
the hope that I can better understand the nature of sonic words. This step
is critical for my research in aural architecture, which is the sonic
equivalent of visual architecture. The visual arts already have a rich
vocabulary. For one reason or another, I speculate that the common
vocabulary for sound is far less evolved than that for vision. Perhaps
there is a neurological reason, or perhaps sound is too ethereal and
temporary to acquire a high level of specificity and stability. There is no
evidence that the meaning of sonic words is consistent even within a
relatively homogeneous subculture.

Information about my book, where these issues are mention, can be found at
the MIT Press web at:


and I can provide copies of the Introduction and Table of Contents if you send me
an email requesting them.

For those that have a chance to read the book, I would welcome any insights
into the linguistic properties of the aural vocabulary, especially in other
languages. If you know of any articles that address these or similar
issues, I would appreciate references.

Barry Blesser (former MIT Prof)

Linguistic Field(s): Historical Linguistics
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