The sound and meaning of words

Most people think that the letters that make up a word are unrelated to its meaning.

So what we call ‘cushion’ could equally be called ‘pike’.  It just happened that we chose those particular letters to denote that soft thing we sit on.

This belief is wrong, and that can be proved scientifically. To prove you need to analyse a huge number of English words and show the relationship between the sound of a word and its meaning.

A quick look at some aliens or Bond villains shows heavy use of harsh or slippery sounds: Daleks, Klingons, Rosa Klebb, Le Chiffre.

In the same way that we feel more scared by looking at pointy shapes and more comforted by looking at curves, certain sounds within words have an emotional effect and trigger a range of associations.

Margaret Magnus has synthesized a huge amount of previous research as well as her own and her site is endlessly fascinating.

A small taster of that:

Why is the cheetah is faster than a leopard or lion or tiger?

Because it’s spelled with three fast elements:

Charging ‘ch’: champ, charge, chariot, chase

And Speedy ‘ee’:  beat it!, ease, fleet, free, heat, keen, leap, leave, speed, sweep, wheel, zeal

And /t/ at the end is pretty fast too: fast, first, fleet, flight, haste, heat, jet, light, past, shoot, spit, split, sprint, swift, tilt

The link between the sound of words and their meaning gives poetry its music, colour and richness.  We’ve just touched on that here but in future posts we will go a lot deeper.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *