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The human aspect of etymology - sound imitation and sound symbolism

The human aspect of etymology

Like several other posts in this blog, this one has been inspired by a letter from a reader. I am not sure that I have enough comments and questions for a full-scale set of gleanings, but more than enough can be said in answer to the question: “Why do so many words beginning with sn– evoke unpleasant associations?” Such are snide, snicker, and even snake, though snack, snow, and snipe are neutral, as far as emotions are concerned.

In discussing the origin of English words, I often refer to two concepts: sound imitation (or its learned synonym onomatopoeia) and sound symbolism. Sound imitation poses relatively few problems, and the most common examples in this area are words purporting to reproduce animal cries and all kinds of noises. Yet even here, some cases give trouble to etymologists. When cats meow, people hear more or less the same sounds all over the world; hence miau and its likes. Cows’ moo is also universal. But no combinations of human vowels and consonants match the dog’s bark. The verbs bark, growl, and yelp, along with such onomatopoeias as woof and bow-wow (compare Russian gavgav and tiaf-tiaf) imitate the noises made by dogs most imperfectly. Exclamation like ouch and oops also pretend to be sound-imitative but hardly reproduce anything we really say in pain and in frustration; we rather learn that such genteel verbal reactions are expected of us. The same holds for oh and ah. Be that as it may, in several spheres, sound imitation is a transparent concept, and let English pigs and donkeys “say” oink-oink and hee-haw and Russian horses “say” igogo (stress on the last syllable). Our withers are unwrung, as Hamlet put it.

Less obvious are verbs like creak, cry, crush, and crash. The group kr– does imitate the noises we hear when something crushes and crashes, and perhaps cry belongs here. A similar conclusion can be reached about grind, grumble, groan, and growl. However, a language historian must also explain where the sounds following kr and gr came from, and the same holds for the verb break: br– seems to owe its origin to sound imitation, but what about the end of the verb? The old posts on English trash and rubbish (24 March 2021 and 31 March 2021) are partly devoted to this difficulty.

Our withers are unwrung.
(Photo by European Mobility Week, via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 2.0)

The idea of sound symbolism is correct but evasive. Taken in separation, vowels and consonants do not “mean” anything, but when they become parts of words, they do not always remain “neutral.” Take such compounds as shillyshally, dillydally, fiddle-faddle, pitter-patter, trictrac, and flimflam. The progress is always from short i to short a, because we associate the vowel i with small-sized objects and short a with something big. Indeed, when we pronounce short i, the mouth is almost closed, and for short a we open it wide. Even the existence of the adjective big, with its “counterintuitive” vowel, cannot ruin this “law.” The process of growth refers to small things increasing their size. The structure of pitter-patter and its likes imitates this process.

Sometimes it is hard to separate sound imitation from sound symbolism. Not long ago (15 December 2021 and 5 January 2022), I devoted two posts to the words star and spark. The groups st(r)- and sp(r)- are, in a way, sound-imitative, because they remind us of spraying, sputtering, and strewing, but once they acquire this status, they begin to live a life of their own, and we tend to associate every word beginning with spr- ~ str- with strewing and the like. That is why I sometimes write in my blog posts: “sound-imitative or sound-symbolic.” We observe an even more enigmatic situation when we approach the much-discussed group fl-. For some mysterious reason, this group suggests to many people the idea of flowing and unsteadiness. Hence not only flow but also flutter and flatter, flicker and flimsy. According to the well-known law (The First Consonant Shift), Germanic fl– should correspond to non-Germanic pl-, and indeed, we find Latin pluere “to rain.” However, the Latin for “flow” is not pluere but fluere! (Hence English fluid and the rest.) No one is in a hurry to call the Germanic or the Latin verb a borrowing, and it is instructive to observe how much has been written about the symbolic (or sound-imitative?) role of the group fl. An etymologist should think twice before ascribing the origin of a certain word to sound symbolism, because the concept is vague and easy to put to use (or abuse) when all other arguments fail. Yet it exists and plays a noticeable role in the coining of words all over the world. It is unclear whether certain groups of vowels and consonants arouse the same emotions in all human beings or whether some or most of them are language-specific. Sound imitation is easier to deal with. The Austrian researcher Wilhelm Oehl defended the panhuman appeal of many groups.

A real, rather than symbolic, flood.
(Photo by Maxwell Hamilton, via Flickr, CC BY 2.0)

This brings us to the unsafe area of sn– and sl-. There is no doubt that sl– often brings forth negative feelings in English (and in most of Germanic) speakers. When we learn the meaning of slim, slight, sleazy, slattern, and quite a few others, we experience a feeling akin to satisfaction: the words, we conclude, mean what they should. But the association may be secondary. This is probably the case with sn-words, of which there are not too many. Snot, sneeze, sniff, snuff, snivel, and snore seem to be partly sound-imitative. In very many languages, words connected with the nose begin with the consonant n, like the word nose itself. But surely, snob, snub, snide, let alone snake and snarl, simply found themselves in bad company. This is guilt by association.

It is curious to observe how helpless etymologists are when they deal with sound-symbolic words. In this sphere, nothing can be proved. For example, very many English words beginning with j have very questionable antecedents. Here is a short list of j-words about which dictionaries say “origin unknown” or make do with the phrase “of symbolic origin”: jog (it used to alternate with jag and jug), jape “to copulate,” jaunt, jeer, jib, jiffy, jilt, jinx, job (!), junk, jerk, jumble, and even jump. Perhaps there is nothing to say about them, that is, no “serious” etymology of those words exist. They are like weeds on the rich garbage of human creativity.

Overwhelmed by the volume of letters to the Oxford Etymologist.
(Photo by Henry Lawford, via Flickr, CC BY 2.0)

It remains for me to say, that for “sound-imitative” James A. H. Murray, the first editor of The Oxford English Dictionary (OED), coined the term echoic. A study of echoic and sound-symbolic words has become a serious and fruitful branch of linguistics. The term iconic has been applied to the words that suggest their meaning, and the branch of linguistics that deals with iconic words deals with so-called iconicity. Students of iconicity have formed a society and meet for regular congresses. Quite a few books and very many papers deal with iconic words. The fortune of iconic words is no longer a stepdaughter of linguistics. Explaining them is slow work, but nothing of importance is done in a jiffy.

The moral of this post is: if you have questions, send me letters.

Editor’s note: the Oxford Etymologist column is taking a summer break and will be back on 31 August 2022.

Featured image from PxHere, public domain

Recent Comments

  1. John Cowan

    snipe ‘criticize’ is definitely negative, though snipe ‘kind of bird’ is not.

  2. David

    Hey, My favourite j word is juke, the juiced up jumpin’ cathouse word.
    Once in a weird performance in San Diego, based off some ancient etymology text I found in the catacombs of UCSD, I contrasted ee sounds and oo sounds, dressed in aa fur wrap and shaving cream.
    me, you in squeals and grunts
    and adding oo to words like ich – witch, rich – wretch….the Platonic right and write…hey, I was working an art audience and quoting the abscure babble of the fictionary.
    Sp–spuriously…I cannot help but hear like, lich when I add an ly….like is a suffix just grabbing at metaphorical straws.
    Thanks for the read!

  3. SP

    Good day, Mr. Liberman.
    Thank you for invaluable blog, which is a delight even for a non native English speaker as I am.
    Could you please suggest a couple of books (or papers) on “iconic words”? It would be fascinating to delve a little bit more into the subject. Thank you in advance. SP

  4. Sandra

    What a joy… and what fun!!.. it is to read your posts!! It’s like you take me on a trip of sorts…. a travelogue!!!


  5. Maurice Waite

    As with _snipe_, _slim_ and _slight_ can be positive as well as negative: _a slim figure_, _only slight damage_. But there are plenty of other, less equivocal examples: _slack_, _slavish_, _slather_, _sloppy_, _slouch_.

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