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February 18, 2015

One of the last concepts I was introduced to in my linguistics courses was the idea of the phonestheme. I wish I’d known about it sooner and in the alternate universe where I went to grad school, I’d likely be digging into it more, because phonesthemes are really, really cool.

A phonestheme is a cluster of speech sounds that occur in multiple words in the same language and seem to convey conceptual meaning. The example I was given is gl-, as in glimmer, glisten, glint, glimpse, glitter, glow, gleam, glare, gloom, and glamour. You can’t break those words down into discrete bits— -immer, -isten, -int, etc., have no meaning on their own—but there’s still an idea of “light” in the words. Since the common element is the gl-, you see why we think there might be meaning there.

Here’s a list of many more phonestemes in English. The linguist there has even teased out some meanings attached to individual speech sounds (phonemes) and even the position of articulation (lips, teeth, back of mouth…). A few more lists can be found on the Wikipedia page. If I had a few months, I could probably conduct my own research and have more, but … sorry, I don’t.

A few scattered thoughts on the phenomenon:

1) I wonder if there’s a psychological element to the associations. One of the items in the list I linked to points out that labial sounds (made with the lips) are associated with edges, and of course the lips are the edge of the mouth. And of course, there’s also the mention there of r being a “breaking” sort of sound, and in some dialects of English, that’s audible.

2) Most people seem to be doing phonostheme studies on the front of words. A few are mentioned at the ends (-ash, -ack), but are there more final clusters? Central clusters? Are the central clusters what ablaut is, or related?

3) When building fictional languages, I need to remember this concept and use it. I also need to use this when creating new words for my novels, because I can play off people’s expectations. J.K. Rowling did this with the mor in Voldemort, after all.

4) How much of a phonestheme list is due to the “meaning” of the cluster, and how much is due to the association to older words with the same cluster. Did someone coin glitter because they already had gleam and glow and were playing on the expectation I mentioned in point 3?

5) Or is the phonestheme thing tied somehow, at least in English, to the evolution of the language and linguistic borrowing? I mean, not every word in those lists is Anglo-Saxon in origin, which means we stole borrowed them, mostly from other European languages, which means their roots are the same Proto-Indo-European (PIE) we get English from—meaning that it’s entirely possible that one PIE word gave rise to three, six, ten connected words in modern English.

I love languages. They are so beautiful and weird.


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