Which sound-symbol correspondences are common in words of Anglo-Saxon origin

Within phonetics, phonology and prosodics, we look at the sounds produced in human speech. These sounds can be analysed concerning their production and reception (i.e. the physical acts of speaking and listening) or their relationship with meaning.

In this article, we'll be focussing on the relationship between sounds and meaning, specifically looking at sound symbolism. We'll start by establishing what sound symbolism is and then look at some key concepts and the different types of sound symbolism with examples to help us understand throughout.

Sound Symbolism Meaning

Sound symbolism is a concept in linguistics that refers to the association between sounds and their meanings.

Sound symbolism is a type of linguistic iconicity and semiotics, meaning there is a link between the icons or signs (letters or words in this instance) and their meaning.

For example, the word 'ding' sounds like a bell's ring.

Semiotics is a field of study that looks at signs (e.g. text, images, colours) and their meanings. We use semiotics to look at how different signs work together to create meaning in context. The American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce and the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure pioneered semiotics.

Ferdinand de Saussure suggested each sign comprises two parts, the signifier and the signified.

  • Signifier = The word, image, sound, or gesture representing a concept or meaning.
  • Signified = The interpretation of the meaning of the signifier.

E.g. A red traffic light is a signifier. Its signified meaning is 'stop.

Linguistic iconicity is similar to semiotics in that it looks at the relationship between linguistic signs (letters and words) and their meanings. However, unlike semiotics, linguistic iconicity suggests an associated resemblance between the signifier and the signified.

For example, repeating the word 'bounce' almost creates the sound of a bouncing ball. Try saying it aloud yourself... can you hear it?

Historically, the relationship between sounds and symbols is thought to be arbitrary, meaning there is no intuitive or natural relationship between a sound, sign or word form and its meaning. However, linguistic iconicity exists because this statement is not always true and some words represent their meanings.

The general basis of sound symbolism is that some words or sounds sound as if they represent certain concepts. For example, some sounds sound small, some big, some bouncy, some spikey, some soft, or some hard. These are just some characteristics that can be attached to particular sounds.

The following quote is from linguist David Crystal; it briefly explains our association between sounds and meanings.

'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.'—The Guardian, David Crystal, 2009.

Useful to know: sound symbolism is also known as sound meaningfulness or phonetic symbolism.

Let's look at the concept of sound-symbol correspondence to ensure we understand sounds and symbols before we look at the different types of sound symbolism.

Sound Symbol Correspondence

A key concept for learning to read, write and speak is sound-symbol correspondence.

Sound-symbol correspondence refers to how each sound has a representative symbol.

For example, the /f/ sound can be represented with the graphemes 'f' 'ph' or 'gh'.

Sound-symbol correspondence is the very first step of sound symbolism. Before we can use a language, we have to learn the sounds and the symbols used to represent them.

As Ferdinand de Saussure states, most symbols and sounds have an utterly arbitrary connection (meaning there is no connection between them). Because of this, we have to learn graphemes (written letters), letter clusters (e.g. 'igh' and 'ph') and whole words and subconsciously commit them to our long-term memory.

However, the sound-symbol correspondence isn't always arbitrary, and several theorists suggest some sounds have a resemblance or familiarity with the concepts they represent, which is sound symbolism.

Let's now take a look at some examples of sound symbolism.

Example of Sound Symbolism

Let's take a look at the word 'bouncy' as an example.

People tend to use a particular rhythm when saying the word 'bouncy', and their voices typically have a down-up rhythm. The rhythm goes down through the first syllable 'boun' and then goes up again through the second syllable 'cy.' This down-up rhythm you get when saying 'bouncy' is representative of the meaning of the word: a repetitive up-down motion.

This example shows how letters as individual symbols must be learned for sound-symbol correspondence and have an arbitrary relationship. However, the symbol as a whole (the whole word) elicits a different sound that has an associative (almost intuitive) meaning that corresponds with the sound.

Types of Sound Symbolism

Different types of sound symbolism exist. We're going to look at some of the most common examples.


Onomatopoeia is the most common type of sound symbolism and is one you have probably come across before.

Onomatopoeic words are the ones that sound like the concept they represent.

For example, ‘meow’ sounds like a cat's noise, and ‘ding dong,’ ‘bong’, and ‘toll’ all sound like a large bell's noise when it’s struck.

Onomatopoeia is commonly used in comics, with words like ‘whoosh,’ ‘smack,’ and ‘kapow’ being used to describe the sound effects that the author imagines happening at specific points in the storyline.

Which sound-symbol correspondences are common in words of Anglo-Saxon origin
Fig. 1 - Comic books often contain a lot of onomatopoeia. Unsplash


An ideophone is a word that gives the impression of something sensory, which means the word's meaning is associated with one of the five senses (e.g. sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch).

Let's have a look at some examples of sound symbolism in ideophones.

An example of an ideophone would be the word ‘smooth.’ The word 'smooth' means something that is even-surfaced without any lumps or bumps, and the word itself is smooth to say, as it is one syllable and all of the sounds slide into each other. 'Smooth' relates to the sensory notion of touch.

Another example can be seen in the words used in musical notation. For example, the words ‘staccato’ and ‘legato.’

‘Staccato’ means the notes are very short and detached.

‘Legato’ means the notes are played smoothly, without noticeable gaps.

‘Staccato’ is an ideophone as, when you say it, it has short, detached feeling syllables like the manner of music it represents. ‘Legato’, on the other hand, feels more flowing when you say it, representing smooth, flowing music. These words relate to hearing.


Phonestheme is when a sequence of sounds, such as a consonant cluster (e.g. 'fl', 'pr', and 'gl'), suggests a specific meaning.

An example of a phonaestheme is the consonant cluster ‘gl.’ This is usually in words that have a meaning related to light, such as:

These words come from the Germanic word 'gluoen' which means 'to shine.' The shared etymology of these words explains why they all have the same consonant cluster 'gl.'

A second example would be in the consonant cluster ‘sl’, which is often in words that relate to movement, such as:

  • Slip
  • Slide
  • Sluggish
  • Sledging
  • Slow
  • Slovenly
  • Slothful

Magnitude symbolism

Another type of sound symbolism is magnitude symbolism, which is the name given to the automatic size association we place on different vowels. Front or close vowels such as /i/ or /e/ are often associated with small size, while back or open vowels such as /u/ or /a/ are often related to something of a big size.

Front vowels are produced at the front of the mouth, and close vowels are produced with the tongue placed at the top of the mouth.

Back vowels are produced at the back of the mouth, with open vowels produced with the mouth and vocal organs in an open, non-contracted position.

The linguist Edward Sapir tested the magnitude symbolism theory in 1929. He conducted a test where he took two tables of the same size and called one table 'mil' and the other 'mal'. He then asked participants to state which table they thought was bigger. Even though the tables were the same size, the majority of the participants stated they thought 'mal' was the bigger table.

Bouba/kiki Effect

The bouba/kiki effect is a notable theory in sound symbolism, which aims to show how humans will naturally associate certain types of sounds with certain images. The theory was first introduced in 1929 by the psychologist Wolfgang Köhler. Köhler began his experiments by asking participants to match nonsense words with images. He found that words with front and close vowels and harder sounding consonants, such as 'takete', were matched with spikey shapes. In contrast, words with back and open vowels and softer sounding consonants, such as 'baluba', were matched with rounded shapes.1

In 2001, the researchers Vilayanur S. Ramachandran and Edward Hubbard repeated Köhler's study, this time using the words 'bouba' and 'kiki' and the following two images:

Which sound-symbol correspondences are common in words of Anglo-Saxon origin
Fig. 2 - The Bouba/Kiki effect associates sounds with shapes. Wikimedia Commons

They asked the participants, both English and Tamil (a South Asian language) speakers, to match the words 'bouba' and 'kiki' to an image. Over 95% of the participants matched the spikey image to the word 'kiki' and the more-rounded shape to the word 'bouba'.2

This experiment suggests that, across languages, the human brain associates certain sounds with certain images.

Which sound symbol correspondence are common in words of Anglo

One sound Digraphs (ch, sh, th, wh, ck, ng, gh) such, with, shall, when, back, sing Most Anglo-Saxon in origin The digraph ph (to spell the /f/ sound) and ch (to spell the /k/ sound) are Greek in origin.

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