LINGUIST List 5.606

Tue 24 May 1994

Disc: Sound symbolism

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  1. Dan Alford, Klang association, Whorf & Fetzer Dialogues
  2. Penny Lee, Re: 5.590 Sum: Klang association

Message 1: Klang association, Whorf & Fetzer Dialogues

Date: Sun, 22 May 1994 11:50:28 Klang association, Whorf & Fetzer Dialogues
From: Dan Alford <>
Subject: Klang association, Whorf & Fetzer Dialogues

The summary to Klang Association awakened some thoughts in me
that the original appeal did not, about the role of sound symbolism
in languages, and how the importance of that role is a function of
culture, and how our self-evident arbitrariness of fit between
word and world is equally culture-bound.

For the last three years I have been one of three linguists invited
to a series of dialogues sponsored by the Fetzer Institute
(Dialogues Between Indigenous and Western Scientists), bringing
together field-experienced linguists, quantum physicists, Native
American intellectuals and other systems thinkers to compare
worldviews. David Bohm, a co-worker with Einstein, was the
sparkplug for these meetings, and (as he told me in a private
conversation) what gave him the idea to do it was his reading long
ago of Benjamin Whorf, who suggested that the subatomic problem
Heisenberg talked about (we must talk in nouns but there are no
things in the subatomic world, only processes) could be overcome
by certain Native American languages that do not need to use nouns
in order to be grammatical. In the three public days of the first
meeting during 1992, the main daily topics were Time, Space, and
finally Language to tie everything together.

The Native American group, led by Leroy Little Bear, Sakej
Youngblood Henderson and Peter Kelly (all with Algonquian
language backgrounds: Blackfoot, Mikmaq, Ojibwa), after leading
the scientists through a Pipe Ceremony (to bring them into the
center of their universe and ways of knowing), talked very openly
about their knowledge of the subatomic world, which they call the
realm of spirits. Physicists and Native Americans agreed that
there were many points of similarity between their worldviews:
flux is the only constant; everything that exists vibrates; there is
an implicate order beyond the explicate in which the part enfolds
the whole, etc.

One important description of Algonquian languages emerging
from the conversation is that sound symbolism (as Kimberly Soto
defined it in her reply to Banner, a direct relationship between
some property of the thing named and the phonetic shape of the
name) -- or let us extend it to a larger notion of sensory
symbolism so as not to exclude other senses -- is a fundamental
source of their naming. This is not, as in English, an insignificant
oddity against a backdrop of arbitrariness, but a nearly exclusive
principle of naming.

In Mikmaq, said Sakej, trees are/were named for the sound the
wind makes when it blows through the trees during the autumn,
about an hour after sunset when the wind always comes from a
certain direction. And more astoundingly, these names are not
fixed but change as the sound changes. So if an elder remembers
that a stand (tribe) of trees over there used to be called such and
such 75 years ago but are now called so-and-so, these terms can
be seen as scientific markers for the effects of acid rain over 75
years, something we can't do with our terms oak, pine and

Thus, Klang association is a topic which has become crucial for
some on-going world-class leading-edge discussions of linguistic
relativity today. American Sign Language, from what I understand,
also shares verb-orientation and sensory symbolism. So perhaps
our introductory linguistics textbooks of the future will reflect
that arbitrariness, once thought to be universal, was in the 1990s
realized to be yet another culture-bound notion once mistakenly
imposed on other languages of the world by the Western European
linguistic mindset -- such as the noun notion of God NOT shared by
Native Americans, the subject of a recent talk I gave to the
Society for the Anthropology of Consciousness; but maybe we
should save that one for another posting.

 -- Moonhawk (%->)
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Message 2: Re: 5.590 Sum: Klang association

Date: Tue, 24 May 1994 12:04:20 Re: 5.590 Sum: Klang association
From: Penny Lee <>
Subject: Re: 5.590 Sum: Klang association

Sound symbolism is different from klang association. In the first case the
association is between the sound of the word and the sound it represents or
refers to. In the second case there is a response to the sound rather than
meaning of the word, e.g. when a psychologist asks a child "Which are most
similar, a car and a cart or a car and a truck". (Sorry to give such a non
North American example; it's the first which came to mind - car means
automobile and truck means lorry - or is the latter British?). A
phonestheme is different again - it is an element of a word, smaller than a
morpheme, which may nevertheless convey meaning. Hockett considers these in
some detail within the notion of "resonances" in his Refurbishing Our
Foundations (1987) and Whorf and Sapir and others also discussed the issue.
I think I've got that right - didn't know Bloomfield wrote his thesis on
the phenomenon.

Dr P. Lee, School of Education (Soc Sci S), Flinders University, GPO Box
2100, Adelaide SA 5001. Australia.
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