Sound symbolism

Kimi Akita

Table of contents

“Sound symbolism is the direct linkage between sound and meaning” (Hinton et al. 1994: 1). This phenomenon—also termed “phonetic symbolism,” “phonosymbolism,” and “phonesthesia”—is usually introduced as an exception to the Saussurean thesis of the “arbitrariness” of linguistic signs (de Saussure 1916/1960). The relationship between the form and meaning of a linguistic sign, such as a word, is essentially arbitrary in the sense that how the sign sounds has nothing to do with what it means. For example, the English sound sequence [tri:] in and of itself does not tell us about the perennial plant with a long stem, branches, and leaves, and in fact different languages have different names for the plant: arbre in French, Baum in German, in Mandarin Chinese, and ki in Japanese. Frequently cited examples of sound symbolism include onomatopoeic forms (e.g., meow, ding-dong, zigzag) and antonymic adjectives (e.g., katai ‘hard’ vs. yawarakai ‘soft’ (Japanese); Kunihira 1971), demonstratives (e.g., this vs. that; Traunmüller 2000), and nonwords (e.g., bouba for a rounded shape vs. kiki for a spiky shape; Ramachandran and Hubbard 2001). The meanings of these words are more or less imaginable from their sounds when properly highlighted (e.g., presented in pairs or in context). 1

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