Phonesthemes: Word Sounds and Meanings

Bump Sign
Nathan Griffith / Getty Images

A phonestheme is a particular sound or sound sequence that (at least in a general way) suggests a certain meaning. The adjective form is phonesthemic.

For example, in words like glimmer, glitter, and glisten, the initial gl- phonestheme is associated with vision or light. (Words related in this fashion are called phonestheme groups or phonestheme clusters.)

Phonesthemes can appear anywhere in a word -- in an initial, medial, or final position.

The term phonestheme (or in Britain, it is spelled phonaestheme) was coined by English linguist John Rupert Firth in his book "Speech" (1930). 

Examples and Observations

  • "Many words which mean 'to talk indistinctly' contain one or more occurrences of the labial consonant [m], which is made with the lips firmly closed, preventing clear articulation. That way, the very act of pronouncing the word iconically mimics a key aspect of its meaning. You can see this if you watch yourself in a mirror saying words like mumble, murmur, mutter, muted, grumble etc. It is probably not an accident that these words also contain the phonaestheme [Λ]."
  • Words Beginning With Fl- and Sn-
    "The best-known examples [of phonesthemes] are English initials such as fl-, which is expressive of movement and characterizes a family of words, as in: flap, flare, flee, flick, flicker, fling, flip, flit, flitter, flow, flutter, fly, flurry, flounce, flourish, flout, flail, flash, flex, flinch, flock, flop (actually, this is just a partial list since there seem to be about 125 words with this phonestheme . . .). Another initial is sn-, found in words dealing with the nose: snore, snorkel, sniff, sniffle, snuffle, snuff, snivel, snout, snoot, snub, snot, snob, snotty, sneer, sneeze, snoop (Bolinger 1965b:197, Spencer 1991:33) Phonesthemes do not have to be initial in words; they may also be final [or medial]."
  • L Words
    "[R]ecently I had cause to check the thesaurus for synonyms for 'unchaste, wanton.' Is it a coincidence that so many of these words began with 'l' -- licentious, lascivious, loose, lubricous, lecherous, libidinous, lustful, lickerish and lewd, to name a few? Somehow this luscious, liquidy l-sound seems well suited to convey the sense of wantonness. Words commonly group this way, sharing both meaning and a vague resemblance of sound. So the sounds we use to stand for things might start off being arbitrary, but over time the arbitrariness often falls away."
  • Phonesthemic Patterns: The Sc- Sk- Group
    "Phonestheme groups have a tendency to ramify in networks throughout the language, forming what [Dwight] Bolinger called 'word constellations.' Such constellations consist of groups of words sharing similar meanings and linked by alliteration (shared initial phonestheme clusters) and rhyme (shared final phonestheme clusters)...
    "The sc- sk- group illustrates the point that a phonestheme group can develop from a phonestheme nucleus of Old English roots, which have perennially attracted new words through borrowing, blending, alliteration, and rhyme, and the perceived similarity of meaning. Professor Michael Samuels puts this more simply: 'A phonestheme may grow from minor coincidental identification between a few roots to much larger patterns' (Samuels 1972: 47). The words scamper, skedaddle, scoundrel, scallywag, skulk, scrimshank, skive are all labeled 'etymology unknown' or 'etymology uncertain' in modern dictionaries. They all share in common the meaning 'swift, light movement,' thus associating them with the initial sc- sk- group. There is, however, a further association of 'swift, light movement away from one's responsibilities and duties'; hence, the pejorative sense of these words, a sense that is even present in the original skip 'to skip one's duties.' These additions illustrate well the 'larger patterns' that such a phonestheme may acquire through time, and perhaps scab, 'a disloyal trade unionist,' could be added here also."
  • Phonesthemes and Morphemes
    "Although [phonaesthemes] are not integral to the morphophonemic structure in the language, they 'contribute to the structure and meaning of vocabulary items in a similar manner to (bound) morphemes, and need to be given similar status' (Allan 1980:250). It is a sort of genetic fallacy to declare that dusty, crusty, rusty, and musty, or again, flutter, mutter, stutter, sputter, and splutter, are unrelated to each other."
  • Lewis Carroll's Humpty Dumpty
    "Humpy Dumpty is a word formation on the principle of rhyming reduplication with the root morpheme hump, and hump, like lump, contains the English phonestheme -ump, whose meaning is 'something compact and heavy.' This semantic element is appropriate to the interpretant of Humpty Dumpty, whose shape is 'exactly like an egg,' as Alice remarks."

Francis Katamba, "English Words: Structure, History, Usage", 2nd ed. Routledge, 2005

Linda R. Waugh, "Iconicity in the Lexicon: Its Relevance for Morphology and Its Relation to Semantics." "Prague Linguistic Circle Papers", ed. by Eva Hajičová, Oldřich Leška, Petr Sgall, and Zdena Skoumalova. John Benjamins, 1996

Kate Burridge, "Blooming English: Observations on the Roots, Cultivation, and Hybrids of the English Language". Cambridge University Press, 2004

"Concise Encyclopedia of Semantics", ed. by Keith Allan. Elsevier, 2009

Earl R. Anderson, "A Grammar of Iconism". Associated University Presses, 1998

Winfried Nöth, "Alice's Adventures in Semiosis." "Semiotics and Linguistics in Alice's World", ed. by Rachel Fordyce and Carla Marello. Walter de Gruyter, 1994

mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "Phonesthemes: Word Sounds and Meanings." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Nordquist, Richard. (2023, April 5). Phonesthemes: Word Sounds and Meanings. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Phonesthemes: Word Sounds and Meanings." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 2, 2023).