LINGUIST List 9.1106

Wed Aug 5 1998

Sum: re: 9.1050 Phonological Clusters

Editor for this issue: Brett Churchill <>


  1. Philip Grew, re: 9.1050 "Phonological Clusters of Semantically Similar Words"

Message 1: re: 9.1050 "Phonological Clusters of Semantically Similar Words"

Date: Sun, 26 Jul 1998 12:29:10 -0400
From: Philip Grew <>
Subject: re: 9.1050 "Phonological Clusters of Semantically Similar Words"

Last week, Gareth Gaskell (9.1050 "Phonological Clusters of Semantically
Similar Words") posted a question that I believe merits a general answer to
the list. It was as follows:

There are fairly well known clusters of similar sounding words that also
mean similar things, such as glimmer, glisten and glint or sneeze, snort
and snore. Does anyone know of any work carried out on these clusters?

Clusters of similar-sounding words with semantic affinities are the basis
of phonaesthesia. In this phenomenon, associations arise among groups of
words, which may have close, distant or no etymological relations. These
associations may then transfer to a sequence of phonemes shared by the
words with some perceived common element of meaning, creating
phonaesthemes. The presence of that same string of phonemes may then in
turn lend a shade of the meaning felt to characterize the phonaestheme to
another expression, simply because the latter contains that string.

I personally group phonaesthesia into three manifestations of the
phenomenon, two simple and one complex: alliterative phonaesthemes,
homeoteleutic phonaesthemes (usually but not always rhyming), and
combinatory phonaesthesia. Combinatory phonaesthesia tends to be
associated with other phenomena, such as reduplication, assonant couplets,
and frequentative or iterative 'suffixes' (verbal diminutives). One
particularly interesting example might be termed ablaut (or apophonic)

Both the phonaesthemes Gareth refers to in the question, /#gl-/ for
visibility and /#sn-/ for nasal activity (in a narrow interpretation) or
for slime and stealth (in a broader view), are of the alliterative variety.
 These are also two of the most noted phonaesthemes. Words that may have
contributed to the creation of the association of initial "gl" with
visibility and luminosity include the following (with date of first
appearance as recorded in _Merriam Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, Tenth
 glad ante XII
 glass ante XII
 glisten ante XII
 glow ante XII 
 glare XIII
 glaire XIII
 glaze XIV
 glint XIV
 glitter XIV
 gloom XIV
 glory XIV
 gleam XV
 glimmer XV
 glade 1529
 gloss 1538
 glum 1547
 glabrous 1640
 gloat 1676

The influence of this phonaestheme becomes apparent in the shift of meaning
in the word "glance," whose sixteenth-century meaning, "strike obliquely,"
seems to have taken a backseat to the meaning "look obliquely." However,
the presence of the same initial phoneme string in "glacier," "glide," and
"glove" does not appear to have had such impact on perceived meaning. We
may have to consider whether there is a homophonic phonaestheme evoking
lumpiness at work on words like "glitch," "glue," "glob," "globe," etc. 
The word "glib" may once have been felt part of a now obsolete /#gl-/
phonaesthetic grouping for slipping and sliding (along with "glance,"
"glide" and French "glisser") and later been influenced by the visibility
idea. The verb "glean" appears to be showing the influence of the
visibility series in our time. Discussion of the role of the /#gl-/
phonaestheme in "gloom" would take up too much space, but a sort of ~lucus
a non lucendi~ reasoning can combine with the word's other phonaesthetic
associations and with the sound symbolism of the vowel in placing this word
within the visibility phonaestheme.

A parallel to the phonaesthetic influence on the meaning of "glance" can be
seen in the influence of the rhyming phonaestheme /-aes<#/ (i.e., "-ash")
in what Bolinger called the "family of words, including crash, mash, bash,
lash, slash, gnash e splash ... [on] dash, rash and hash (the edible
kind)." Other rhyming phonaesthemes can be found in words with "-ish,"
"-ack, "-unch," "-ip," and "-inge," to name just a few. The single
word-final phoneme /-c<#/, usually spelled "-tch," seems to exert a sort of
homeoteleutic phonaesthetic pressure associating, say, "catch" and "glitch"
(though I am glossing over a discussion of their rhymes to keep this
posting brief).

Combinatory phonaesthesia of the reduplicative type clearly plays a role in
expressions like "spick and span," while the homeoteleutic type is at work
in "willy-nilly." Both come into play in "wishy-washy," where we see the
beginnings of ablaut phonaesthesia at work. This can mimic the paradigm of
a strong verb to create a series like flip : flap : flop : flub (with the
vowels of sing : sang : song : sung). A word like "flip" thus has
phonaesthetic relations of all three types. Its alliterative group,
/#fl-/, evokes the volatility of fly, flow, flee, fleet, flash, flake, and
flick. Its rhymes, dip, sip, quip, drip, pip, tip, slip, and so forth, add
to its connotation of minor labile action. It also belongs to an ablaut
series where vowel alternation has a semantic value (think of a politician
"flip-flopping" on the issues), much as it does in couplets like
"pitter-patter," "chit-chat," "tip-top," or "tip-tap." In the discussion
of these phenomena where he coined the term "phonaesthesia," Firth was
already aware of the ablaut implied in a series like drip : drop : droop :
drape. Proportional analogy also comes into play here. Thus clip : clasp
:: grip : grasp, crash : crush :: mash : mush, and munch : crunch :: mash :

Because the essence of phonaesthesia lies in a grouping of relationships
that are not always clear, cataloguing phonaesthemes becomes a daunting
task. I know of no attempt more complete than that of Marchand. 
Identifying the role of an associative process in word formation leads to
the slippery slope of speculation about cognitive processes that we do not
fully understand. In addition, the dependence of these phenomena on the
naive speaker's intuitive refusal of arbitrariness might make the study of
such 'nonarbitrary' influence in word formation seem unscientific. 
However, the refusal of arbitrariness also underlies folk etymology, and
poetry has little need of scientific method.

It is all too easy to dismiss a vague associative process as mere
onomatopoeia with a marginal role in contributing to the lexicon. Words
bearing the signs of past phonaesthesia often present us with unresolved
etymologies. When the humorist Dave Barry writes (International Herald
Tribune, June 27, 1998) that a barbecue should be partly made up of
"hardened black grill scunge from food cooked as far back as 1987," we have
little need to question the nonce formation. The term "scunge" is
immediately recognizable because of what we can associate it with. We can
dismiss it as a blend of "scum" and "grunge" or we can look further and ask
if there isn't a phenomenon worthy of study here, an associative process
that encouraged Barry to extract the /#sk-/ not simply from "scum" alone
but from what Mencken might have termed its 'congeners' (i.e., scuzzy,
skin, scurf, skim, scuff, scam, skunk, and a host of others) and to tack
that onset onto the rhyme not so much of "grunge" per se as of whatever
lies at the basis of 'expressive coinages' like "grunge" itself and the
earlier "gunge" and of 'blends' like "blunge." Barry is not Shakespeare,
or course, and "scunge" may remain a hapax legomenon. But the coinages of
the past were no doubt similarly influenced by the phonaesthetic
sensibilities of the Zeitgeist of the coiners, just as our own shared
sensibilities enable Barry to elicit a laugh by creating an expression we
consider so apt. Obviously there is a *reason* we find it apt.

Perhaps newer discussion in the fields of mimetics, synaesthesia, and sound
symbolism in general will shed more light on phonaesthesia. I fear that
since Firth published his insights in 1930 phonaesthesia has been given
short shrift because of the heretical nature of any investigation pairing
phonological parallels with semantic affinities. Thus I know of no better
place to begin seeking answers to Gareth's question than the works of
Firth, Marchand, and Bolinger. Perhaps someone has taken a more recent,
sweeping, swooping swipe at phonaesthesia that I have missed. If so,
please let me know. I will look forward to Gareth's summary.

Philip Grew

- - references ---
Bolinger, Dwight L., 1980, _Language -- The Loaded Weapon: The Use and
Abuse of Language Today_, New York: Longman.

Firth, J. R., 1930, _Speech_ (reprinted in _The Tongues of Men & Speech_,
1964), London: Oxford University Press.

Marchand, Hans, 1959, "Phonetic symbolism in English word-formation" in
_Indogermanische Forschungen_ LXIV.
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