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A phonestheme (/fˈnɛsθm/ foh-NESS-theem;[1] phonaestheme in British English) is a pattern of sounds systematically paired with a certain meaning in a language. The concept was proposed in 1930 by British linguist J. R. Firth, who coined the term from the Greek φωνή phone, "sound", and αἴσθημα aisthema, "perception" (from αίσθάνομαι aisthanomai, "I perceive").[2] For example, sequence "sl-" appears in English words denoting low-friction motion, like "slide", "slick" and "sled".[3]

A phonestheme is different from a phoneme (a basic unit of word-differentiating sound) or a morpheme (a basic unit of meaning) because it does not meet the normal criterion of compositionality.[4][5]

Within C.S. Peirce's "theory of signs" the phonestheme is considered to be an "icon" rather than a "symbol" or an "index".[6]



Phonesthemes are of critical interest to students of the internal structure of words because they appear to be a case where the internal structure of the word is non-compositional; i.e., a word with a phonestheme in it has other material in it that is not itself a morpheme. Phonesthemes "fascinate some linguists", as Ben Zimmer has phrased it, in a process that can become "mystical" or "unscientific".[7]

For example, the English phonestheme "gl-" occurs in a large number of words relating to light or vision, like "glitter", "glisten", "glow", "gleam", "glare", "glint", "glimmer", "gloss", and so on; yet, despite this, the remainder of each word is not itself a phonestheme (i.e., a pairing of form and meaning); i.e., "-isten", "-ow", and "-eam" do not make meaningful contributions to "glisten", "glow", and "gleam".[8] There are multiple main ways in which phonesthemes are empirically identified.[9]

Corpus studies


The first is through corpus studies, where the words of a language are subjected to statistical analysis, and the particular form-meaning pairing, or phonestheme, is shown to constitute a statistically unexpected distribution in the lexicon or not.

Corpus studies can inform a researcher about the current state of the lexicon, a critical first step, but importantly are completely uninformative when it comes to questions of whether and how phonesthemes are represented in the minds of language users.

Study of patterns in neologisms


The second type of approach makes use of the tendency for phonesthemes to participate in the coinage and interpretation of neologisms (i.e., new words in a language). Various studies have demonstrated that, when asked to invent or interpret new words, subjects tend to follow the patterns that are predicted by the phonesthemes in their language. It is known, for example, that the word bangle is a loan from Hindi but speakers tend to associate it with English onomatopoeia like bang. While this approach demonstrates the vitality of phonesthemic patterns, it does not provide any evidence about whether (or how) phonesthemes are represented in the minds of speaker-hearers.

Study of linguistic processing patterns


The final type of evidence uses the methods of psycholinguistics to study exactly how phonesthemes participate in language processing. One such method is phonesthemic priming — akin to morphological priming — which demonstrates that people represent phonesthemes much as they do typical morphemes, despite the fact that phonesthemes are non-compositional.

Discussions of phonesthesia are often grouped with other phenomena under the rubric of sound symbolism.

Cross-linguistic similarities


While phonaesthemes may be language-specific, it has been pointed out that people may be sensitive to some phonaesthemes (e.g. /fl-/, or /tr-/) irrespective of where sound-meaning correspondences are exemplified in the lexicon of their mother tongue (e.g. English, French, Spanish or Macedonian).[10]



Phonesthemes have been documented in numerous languages from diverse language families, among them English, Swedish, and other Indo-European languages, Austronesian languages, and Japanese.

While phonesthemes have mostly been identified in the onsets of words and syllables, they can have other forms. There has been some argument that sequences like "-ash" and "-ack" in English also serve as phonesthemes, due to their patterning in words that denote forceful, destructive contact ("smash", "crash", "bash", etc.) and abrupt contact ("smack", "whack", "crack", etc.), respectively.[11]

In addition to the distribution of phonesthemes, linguists consider their motivation. In some cases, there may appear to be good sound-symbolic reasons why phonesthemes would have the form they have. In the case of "-ack", for example, we might imagine that the words sharing this phonestheme do so because they denote events that would produce a similar sound. But critically, there are many phonesthemes for which there can be no sound-symbolic basis, such as "gl-", for the simple reason that their meanings (such as 'pertaining to light or vision') entail no sound.

While there are numerous studies on living languages, research is lacking about ancient languages, although the first documented example of phonesthemes dates back to at least the fourth century B.C.: Plato's Cratylus clearly mentioned a gl- phonestheme (a different one from that discussed previously, as those words are not of Greek origin) as well as an st- one and gave an explanation in terms of phonosemantics.[12]



Examples of phonesthemes in English include:

"b-": related to the body, such as "back", "bark", "beak", "beard", "belly", "blood/bleed", "body", "bone", "brain", "breast", "breath(e)", "brow", "bruise", "bum/bottom".

"cl-": related to a closing motion of a single object, such as "clam", "clamp", "clap", "clasp", "clench", "cling", "clip", "clop", "clutch".

"fl-": related to movement, such as "flap", "flare", "flee", "flick", "flicker", "fling", "flip", "flit", "flitter", "flow", "flutter", "fly", "flurry".[13]

"gl-": related to light, as in "glance", "glare", "glass", "gleam", "glimmer", "glint", "glisten", "glitter", "gloaming", "gloom", "gloss", "glow".[4][14]

"sl-": appears in words denoting frictionless motion, like "slide", "slick", "sled", and so on. These are themselves a subset of a larger set of words beginning with “sl-“ that are pejorative behaviours, traits, or events: slab, slack, slang, slant, slap, slash, slate, slattern, slaver, slay, sleek, sleepy, sleet, slime, slip, slipshod, slit, slither, slobber, slog, slope, sloppy, slosh, sloth, slouch, slough, slovenly, slow, sludge, slug, sluggard, slum, slump, slur, slut, sly.[15][5]

"sn-": related to the nose or mouth, as in "snack", "snarl", "sneer", "sneeze", "snicker/snigger", "sniff", "sniffle", "snivel", "snoot", "snore", "snorkel", "snort", "snot", "snout", "snub" (as an adjective), "snuff", "snuffle".[13]

"st-": appears in three families of meanings:[16]

  • a family of words referring to stability, as in "stable", "stadium", "standard", "stage", "staid", "stake", "stalk", "stall", "stance", "stanchion", "stand", "stare", "stasis", "state", "static", "station", "stationary", "stator", "statue", "stature", "status", "stay", "steady", "stet", "still", "stoll", "store", etc.
  • a family of words referring to the idea of strength, of rigidity, as "stout", "steel", "staff", "stave", "staple", etc.
  • another family referring to the idea of something pointed or sharp, as in "stab", "staple", "stiletto", "sting", "stitch", "stylet", "stylo", etc.

"str-": denoting something long and thin, as in "straight", "strand", "strap", "straw", "streak", "stream", "string", "stripe".[17]

"sw-": related to a long movement, as in "sway", "sweep", "swerve", "swing", "swipe", "swirl", "swish", "swoop".

"tw-": connotes a twisting motion, as in "twist", "twirl", "tweak", "twill", "tweed", "tweezer", "twiddle", "twine", "twinge".[14]

"-ow(e)l": connotes something sinister, as in "owl", "prowl", "scowl", "growl", "howl", "rowel", "bowel", "jowl".[14]

"-ump": related to a hemispherical shape or pile, as in "bump", "clump", "dump", "jump", "hump", "lump", "mump", "rump", "stump".[13]

See also



  1. ^ "phonestheme". Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary.
  2. ^ Firth, J. R. (1964) [1930]. The Tongues of Men, and Speech. London: Oxford University Press. p. 211.
  3. ^ "All About Phonesthemes, Also Known as Word Sounds and Meanings". ThoughtCo. Retrieved 2023-10-16.
  4. ^ a b Bergen, Benjamin K. (2004). "The Psychological Reality of Phonaesthemes" (PDF). Language. 80 (2): 290–311. doi:10.1353/lan.2004.0056. ISSN 1535-0665. S2CID 16182026.
  5. ^ a b Kwon, Nahyun; Round, Erich R. (2015). "Phonaesthemes in morphological theory". Morphology. 25 (1): 1–27. doi:10.1007/s11525-014-9250-z. ISSN 1871-5621. S2CID 255314943.
  6. ^ Waugh, Linda R.; Newfield, Madeleine (1995-12-31), Landsberg, Marge E. (ed.), "Iconicity in the lexicon and its relevance for a theory of morphology", Syntactic Iconicity and Linguistic Freezes, DE GRUYTER MOUTON, pp. 189–222, doi:10.1515/9783110882926.189, ISBN 978-3-11-014227-3, retrieved 2023-10-16
  7. ^ Bob Garfield and Mike Vuolo (2014-10-20). "Where Did the Word Snark Come From?". Lexicon Valley (Podcast). Slate. Event occurs at 0:27:30. Retrieved 2015-12-06.
  8. ^ Abramova, Ekaterina; Fernandez, Raquel; Sangati, Federico (2013). "Automatic Labeling of Phonesthemic Senses". Proceedings of the Annual Meeting of the Cognitive Science Society. 35 (35).
  9. ^ Hutchins, Sharon Suzanne. "The psychological reality, variability, and compositionality of English phonesthemes". ProQuest 304472389. Retrieved 2023-10-16.
  10. ^ Mompean, Jose A, Amandine Fregier, Javier Valenzuela (2020). "Iconicity and systematicity in phonaesthemes: A cross-linguistic study". Cognitive Linguistics. 31 (3): 515–548. doi:10.1515/cog-2018-0079. S2CID 216295143.{{cite journal}}: CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  11. ^ Bolinger, Dwight (1980). Language, the Loaded Weapon: The use and abuse of language today. New York: Longman. p. 20. ISBN 0582291089.
  12. ^ Leonardi, Filippo Maria (2015). Phonesthemes in Latin Language. Academia.edu.
  13. ^ a b c Waugh, Linda R. (1994-07-01). "Degrees of iconicity in the lexicon". Journal of Pragmatics. Special Issue 'Metaphor and iconicity', edited by Masako K. Hiraga and Joanna Radwan´ska-Williams. 22 (1): 55–70. doi:10.1016/0378-2166(94)90056-6. ISSN 0378-2166.
  14. ^ a b c Bolinger, Dwight L. (1950). "Rime, Assonance, and Morpheme Analysis". WORD. 6 (2): 117–136. doi:10.1080/00437956.1950.11659374. ISSN 0043-7956.
  15. ^ Marchand, Hans (1960). The Categories and types of present-day English word-formation a synchronic-diachronic approach. Internet Archive. Wiesbaden Harrassowitz.
  16. ^ Poncet, Danièle (1981). A Study on the ST-Phonaestheme. France: University of Grenoble III. p. 137. {{cite book}}: |work= ignored (help)
  17. ^ "Cross Linguistic Phonethemes". www.trismegistos.com. Retrieved 2023-10-16.


  • Marchand, Hans (1959), "Phonetic Symbolism in English Word-Formation", Indogermanische Forschungen, Volume 64, pp.146-168, 256-277 [1], [2]
  • Marchand, Hans, The Categories and Types of Present-Day English Word Formation: A Synchronic-Diachronic Approach, 2nd ed, C.H.Beck'she Verlagsbuchhandlung, (München), 1969. Chapter 7 ("Phonetic symbolism") and chapter 8 ("Motivation by linguistic form: Ablaut and rime combinations"), pp. 397–439.
  • Leonardi, Filippo Maria (2015), "Phonesthemes in Latin language" [3]
  • Poncet, Danièle, A Study on the ST-Phonaestheme, Mémoire de maîtrise, Université de Grenoble III, France, University year 1980–1981, directed by Mr. Chevillet.