Sound Symbolism in English: Definition and Examples

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

sound symbolism
A number of English words beginning with fl- (such as flow, fluid, fly, flee, flimsy, and flicker) are suggestive of quickness and lightness. (Rob Atkins/Getty Images)

The term sound symbolism refers to the apparent association between particular sound sequences and particular meanings in speech. Also known as sound-meaningfulness and phonetic symbolism.

Onomatopoeia, the direct imitation of sounds in nature, is generally regarded as just one type of sound symbolism. In The Oxford Handbook of the Word (2015), G. Tucker Childs notes that "onomatopoeia represents only a small fraction of what most would consider sound symbolic forms, although it may, in some sense, be basic to all sound symbolism."

The phenomenon of sound symbolism is a highly controversial topic in language studies. Contrast with arbitrariness.

The Sounds of Sound Symbolism

"Here's an experiment. You're in a spaceship approaching a planet. You've been told there are two races on it, one beautiful and friendly to humans, the other unfriendly, ugly and mean-spirited. You also know that one of these groups is called the Lamonians; the other is called the Grataks. Which is which?

"Most people assume that the Lamonians are the nice guys. It's all a matter of sound symbolism. Words with soft sounds such as 'l,' 'm,' and 'n,' and long vowels or diphthongs, reinforced by a gentle polysyllabic rhythm, are interpreted as 'nicer' than words with hard sounds such as 'g' and 'k,' short vowels and an abrupt rhythm."
(David Crystal, "The Ugliest Words." The Guardian, July 18, 2009)

"Sound symbolism is often the result of a secondary association. The words glow, gleam, glimmer, glare, glisten, glitter, glacier, and glide suggest that in English the combination gl- conveys the idea of sheen and smoothness. Against this background, glory, glee and glib emanate brightness by their very form, glance and glimpse reinforce our conclusion (because eyesight is inseparable from light), and glib has no other choice than to denote specious luster, and, indeed, in the sixteenth century, when it became known in English, it meant 'smooth and slippery.'"
(Anatoly Liberman, Word Origins And How We Know Them: Etymology for Everyone. Oxford University Press, 2005)

"Resting his hands on the rail before him, James Belford swelled before their eyes like a young balloon. The muscles on his cheekbones stood out, his forehead became corrugated, his ears seemed to shimmer. Then, at the very height of the tension, he let it go like, as the poet beautifully puts it, the sound of a great Amen.
"They looked at him, awed. Slowly, fading off across hill and dale, the vast bellow died away. And suddenly, as it died, another softer sound succeeded it. A sort of gulpy, gurgly, plobby, squishy, wofflesome sound, like a thousand eager men drinking soup in a foreign restaurant."
(P. G. Wodehouse, Blandings Castle and Elsewhere, 1935)

Rhymes and "Small" Sounds

"Consider the following group: hump, lump, mumps, plump, rump, stump These all have a rhyme -ump and they all refer to a rounded, or at least non-pointy, protuberance. Now consider what bump means. It can refer to contact involving something weighty whether it be hips, bottoms, or shoulders, or a slow-moving vehicle or vessel, but not the contact of a point with a surface, such as a pencil tapping a window pane. The crump of an exploding shell fits in here, as does thump. You might also consider rumble, and possibly mumble and tumble, though admittedly this is -umble rather than -ump. One has to allow that there can be words with -ump that do not fit the correlation. Trump is an example. However, there are enough examples to suggest there is a connection between sound and meaning in one set of words. You might also note that Humpty-Dumpty was no stick insect, and Forrest Gump wasn't too sharp."
(Barry J. Blake, All About Language. Oxford University Press, 2008)

"[W]hy is it that dints sound smaller than dents? There is presumably some sound symbolism going on here. Think of words like teeny-weeny, itsy-bitsy, mini and wee. They all sound small! A chip sounds smaller than a chop. So do slits compared with slots, chinks compared to chunks and dints compared to dents. 'Many a mickle makes a muckle' is an old saying that has virtually disappeared. Even if you haven't a clue what a mickle is, I am sure you agree it has to be smaller than a muckle. In fact, historically mickles and muckles are the same word. Like dints and dents, they arose as alternative pronunciations, although I suspect their vowels have always been symbolic of size."
(Kate Burridge, Gift of the Gob: Morsels of English Language History. HarperCollins Australia, 2011)

Phonetic Symbolism

"The phonemes in a name can themselves convey meaning. This idea goes back to Plato’s dialogue Cratylus. A philosopher called Hermogenes argues that the relationship between a word and its meaning is purely arbitrary; Cratylus, another philosopher, disagrees; and Socrates eventually concludes that there is sometimes a connection between meaning and sound. Linguistics has mostly taken Hermogenes’ side, but, in the past eighty years, a field of research called phonetic symbolism has shown that Cratylus was on to something. In one experiment, people were shown a picture of a curvy object and one of a spiky object. 95% of those who were asked which of two made-up words—bouba or kiki—best corresponded to each picture said that bouba fit the curvy object and kiki the spiky one. Other work has shown that so-called front-vowel sounds, like the 'i' in mil, evoke smallness and lightness, while back-vowel sounds, as in mal, evoke heaviness and bigness. Stop consonants—which include 'k' and 'b'—seem heavier than fricatives, like 's' and 'z.' So George Eastman displayed amazing intuition when, in 1888, he devised the name Kodak, on the ground that 'k' was 'a strong, incisive sort of letter.'"
(James Surowiecki, "What's in a Name?" The New Yorker, November 14, 2016)

Sound Meaning

"The fundamental thesis underlying the field of sound symbolism has always been controversial, because it appears to be so transparently wrong. The Sound Symbolic Hypothesis is that the meaning of a word is partially affected by its sound (or articulation). If the sound of a word affects its meaning, then you should be able to tell what a word means just by hearing it. There should be only one language. In spite of this, there has always been a fairly substantial group of linguists who do not dismiss the possibility that the form of a word somehow affects its meaning."
(Margaret Magnus, "A History of Sound Symbolism." The Oxford Handbook of the History of Linguistics, ed. by Keith Allan. Oxford University Press, 2013)

"I like a word that embodies its meaning within its sound, dances and somersaults within its sound. 'Shimmer' is an example. Other wonderful words: cringe, tinkle, grimace, farrago, thump, squirt, mumble, wisp. The sound unlocks an imagined scene, the sound puts me in the action, tells me what to be suspicious of and what to believe in. It's not just onomatopoeia--maybe you need to know English to know what these words mean, but they could all be acted out by amateurs and the speaker of Portuguese or Turkish would understand. They are 'sound glimpses,' perhaps into a room that has no fourth wall."
(Roa Lynn, quoted by Lewis Burke Frumkes in Favorite Words of Famous People. Marion Street Press, 2011)

"Given that we share many of our sound-symbolic aspects of language with other species, it is quite possible that in sound symbolism we are seeing the precursors of fully formed human language. In fact, it seems quite reasonable to say that in all advanced vocalizers (especially humans, many birds, and many cetaceans) we can see a basic sound-symbolic communication system overlaid by elaborations which could be termed arbitrary in their relationship to meaning."
(L. Hinton et al, "Introduction: Sound-Symbolic Processes." Sound Symbolism, Cambridge University Press, 2006)

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Nordquist, Richard. "Sound Symbolism in English: Definition and Examples." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Nordquist, Richard. (2023, April 5). Sound Symbolism in English: Definition and Examples. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Sound Symbolism in English: Definition and Examples." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 29, 2023).