As opposite to the more established concept of linguistic arbitrariness, reflections on the natural relationship between sound and sense may risk of being confused with the Ancient Greek etymological speculations known as
Keywords: Sound symbolismarbitrarinessOtto JespersenRoman Jakobson
Danish linguist Otto Jespersen (1860-1943) was among those who placed sound symbolism on a fairly important position. When “arbitrariness” started to be accepted as one of the key features of the linguistic sign, sound symbolism, which reflects the natural relationship between sound and sense, was considerably doubted and at least temporarily marginalized in the linguistic studies. Jespersen, however, unlike Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913) who tried to confine this natural relationship to some peripheral linguistic phenomena, never lessened his belief that sound symbolism played a fairly visible role in the development of language (Jespersen, 1917, 1918, 1921, 1922, 1927, 1941). Sound symbolism, as he argued, widely exists in many languages in the more “mainstreamed” words beyond the onomatopoeias and exclamations; in addition, in the course of linguistic evolution, sound symbolism often helped decide which form was to survive.
Recent studies have been reflecting an unusual interest in sound symbolism among researchers of both linguistics and other relevant fields. For the pure linguistic aspects of sound symbolism, Zhang and Cai (2013) reviewed important 20th century linguistic works that had dealt with this issue, Gnatchuk (2015) clarified some fallacies about sound symbolism, and Elsen (2017a) put forward his classification and proposed that natural and habitual sound symbolism be distinguished and treated separately. There are also linguists who continued the discussion of the evidence of sound symbolism in specific languages, either in a commonly used language (Blake, 2017) or in the endangered ones (Haynie, Bowern, LaPalombara, & Jordan, 2014; Lee, 2017). Sound symbolism has also been applied to the fields beyond but related to linguistics, for example, by psychologists (Asl, 2018; Lockwood, Dingemanse, & Hagoort, 2016; Ozturk, Krehm, & Vouloumanos, 2013; Spector, & Maurer, 2013) and physiologists (Imai, & Kita, 2014) who explore its role in language acquisition. Their latest experimental works have included the links between sound symbolism and emotion (Adelman, Estes, & Cossu, 2018), and between sound symbolism and visual texture (Wakamatsu, Kwon, Sakamoto, & Nakauchi, 2018). Among the researchers on literature or on the translation of literary works, Pogacar, Peterlin, Pokorn, and Pogačar, (2017) applied sound symbolism to the analysis of certain aspects of prose fictions, and Elsen (2017b) investigated its chances and limits in lyrical languages.
While the interdisciplinary nature of sound symbolism has been revealed in these latest works, it is necessary for the linguistic historians to point out that such nature was an important characteristic for this linguistic concept ever since its starting point. However, this nature tends to be hidden if linguistic historians concentrate more on the Anglo-American sources than the Continental sources, because in Jespersen’s days, large numbers of Continental academic texts were written in German, French and other European languages. Therefore, the rethinking on the term “sound symbolism” needs to be implemented with a trans-disciplinary perspective, and with information gathered from relevant texts written in various languages, no matter these texts are nowadays considered classic or forgotten ones.
In this historical research of a linguistic concept, two questions are expected to be answered:
Question 1: What were the disciplines that played a constructive role in the linguistic concept of sound symbolism?
Question 2: What information did the non-English sources provide to Otto Jespersen and the other linguists who sought to promote sound symbolism as a linguistic concept?
Purpose of the Study
The purpose of this essay is to reveal the positive role of sound symbolism in the history of phonology, so as to serve as a typical case in the research of linguistic historiography. It proves that to investigate a linguistic concept formed before the boundary between language science and other relevant fields was sharply defined, and before English was used as the most important academic language, it is necessary to have a trans-disciplinary perspective and gain supports from the sources published in various languages.
The main method of a study of linguistic historiography is the investigation into the historical sources related to the designated topic. In the case of this essay, most of these resources are published books and journal articles and occasionally unpublished archives. They were written in various European languages. Original texts are cited in the process of the investigation and non-English ones are translated into English.
The historical investigations into the sources of sound symbolism reveal that its development involves interactions especially with psychology, physiology, acoustics and poetics.
Sound Symbolism and Its Psychological Basis
Firmly established in Saussure’s posthumous work
As Joseph (2012) indicated that Saussure was among the readers of Egger’s book
En effet, la convention qui attache un mot à une idée peut être, non pas arbitraire, mais motivée par un rapport plus or moins éloigné entre les deux termes que l’on associe; nous pouvons, par exemple, convenir de nommer le cheval par une imitation de son henissement ou par celle du bruît d’un fouet, ... tel est le cas des signes visibles idéographiques, et en langage, celui des onomatopées. (p. 248)
[Indeed, the convention which attaches a word to an idea may be not arbitrary, but motivated by a relationship of more or less distance between these two associated terms; We may, for example, agree to name the horse by an imitation of its neighing or by that of the sound of a whip, … such is the case of visible ideographic signs, and in language, that of onomatopoeia.]
The French word
Among linguists, this psychological tinge was highly visible in the description of
Mag unser etymologisches Wissen dazu sagen was es will, für unser Empfinden sind Wörter wie „Blitz“ und „Donner“, „rund“ und „spitz“ so innig und naturnothwendig mit ihren Bedeutungen verwachsen, dass wir uns den Fall kaum denken können, es hätten diese beiden Wortpaare ihre Bedeutung ausgetauscht. Statt Hund: Katze, statt Katze Spatz zu sagen, würde uns nicht so arg zuwider sein, weil hier die Laute dem symbolisirenden Gefühle weniger Anhalt bieten. (Gabelentz, 1891, p. 217)
[Let our etymological knowledge say what it wants: Words like “Blitz” (lightning) and “Donner” (thunder), or “rund” (round) and “spitz” (pointed) are so closely and naturally intertwined with their meanings that we can hardly think, in either of the pairs, of exchanging their meanings. In contrast, in pairs like “Hund : Katze” (dog : cat) or “Katze : Spatz” (cat : sparrow), exchanging their meanings is not felt so repulsive, because in these cases the sounds offer less sense to the symbolizing feelings.] (My translation)
Based on the
Similarly Jespersen’s sound symbolism was not a replica of the Greek
Sound Symbolism in the “Mainstream” Words and Its Physiological-Physical Basis
Unlike Saussure, Jespersen’s list of words that reflect the natural relationship between sound and sense were not limited to the peripheral part of vocabulary that Saussure called
Despite the lack of direct citations from the physiologists and physicists, it was not coincidental for Jespersen to note and grasp these delicate physiological-physical details that make sound symbolism possible, for as shown in his “Zur Geschichte der Phonetik” [On the History of Phonetics] (1905-1906), he was highly familiar with the phonetic studies done by the physicists and physiologists in Germany and Austria in the centuries prior to him, among whom were Wolfgang von Kempelen (1734-1804), Karl Moritz Rapp (1803-1883), Ernst Brücke (1819-1892) and Carl Ludwig Merkel (1812-1876). Therefore, although Jespersen wrote some of these works in English, the inspirations often arose from the above-mentioned scholars who wrote in German. In Jespersen’s own works, especially in his Danish
6.2.1. Physiological basis for the words of sound symbolism
The physiological basis was noticeable in Jespersen’s studies on the negation words and the adversative conjunctions. In the first of the above-mentioned works,
The starting point … is the old negative
This accurate description of the articulation of
But this short book that Jespersen wrote in English was not his only work concerning sound symbolism at this stage. An article entitled “Nogle men-ord” [Some but-words] (1918) that he wrote in Danish witnessed the first time he began to employ the term sound symbolism, though in its Danish form “lydsymbolisme” (p. 54). (The English translation did not appear until he published it in the 1933 Linguistica.) Similar to the previous work, here he pointed out the fact that many unrelated languages have adversative conjunctions (the so-called “but-words”) initiated with
How often it happens that one wants to say something, even knows that one must and will, but is not quite clear as to
These physiological gestures include: (1) the enclosure of the lips, (2) the lowering of the velar, and (3) the release of air stream through the nasal cavity, exactly what the speaker physiologically experiences in a state of hesitation: He is willing to and has to say something, but is not sure about what to say. These gestures present natural tendencies in the sound-sense relationship and explain why the adversative words initiated with
6.2.2. The Physical Basis for the Words of Sound Symbolism
Besides the physiological grounds for sound symbolism, the physical or, more specifically, auditory effects were also visible in Jespersen’s lists of words that show sound symbolism. He argued in his
The reason why the sound [i] comes to be easily associated with small, and [u, o, a] with bigger things, may be to some extent the high pitch of the vowel…; the perception of the small lip aperture in one case and the more open mouth in the other may have also its share in the rise of this idea. (Jespersen, 1921, p. 16)
While the latter of these two reasons was a self-evident physiological fact, the former one was established on a physical (acoustic) basis. Naturally the “high pitch” was more of a subjective auditory impression in Jespersen’s days. However, three decades later, its correctness was confirmed graphically in the spectrogram images in Jakobson, Fant and Halle (1952): Pronouncing [i] makes energy cluster in the high-frequency areas on these images, therefore this high pitched vowel has “acuteness” as opposed to the “graveness” in [u, o, a]. This contrast in tonality was then established as one of the twelve pairs of distinctive features in Jakobson-Halle’s system.
Jespersen’s collection of words in “Symbolic Value of the Vowel
Since Jespersen never intended to overestimate the role of sound symbolism (e.g. he emphasized that
Sound Symbolism and the Supports from Poetics
The value of sound symbolism was especially welcomed by Roman Jakobson (1896-1982), the renowned phonologist whose Slavic philological background often included an interaction between linguistics and poetics. Sound symbolism was discussed in
The influence of Jespersen’s sound symbolism on Jakobson is also indicated in the “Roman Jakobson Archives” at the library of Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In the extensive collection of published or unpublished materials that Jakobson assembled, four of them were Jespersen’s works. Among these four pieces are the photocopies of the Danish article “Nogle men-ord” and the English article “Symbolic Value of the Vowel
It is worth mentioning that Jakobson’s career as a phonologist began with the publication of a short book on poetics,
The Czech words
Unlike the Anglo-American research traditions where linguistics and poetics are treated as separate disciplines, Jakobson regarded them as inseparable. With the aid of sound symbolism, the phonological distinctive features interact with the readers’ aesthetic attitudes, making the linguistic and the poetic elements unified in the poetic language.
One should also know that when Jakobson was facing Jespersen’s ideas on sound symbolism, beliefs in the natural relationship between certain sounds and their associative meaning were neither new nor astonishing. In the Slavic world, the 18th century Russian poet Mikhail V. Lomonosov (1711-1765) was especially known for his experiments with the vocalic effects of sound symbolism in his odes. As he declared in
В российском языке, как кажется, частое повторение письмени “а” способствовать может к изображению великолепия, великого пространства, глубины и вышины, также и внезапного страха; учащение письмен “е”, “и”, “ѣ”, “ю” — к изображению нежности, ласкательства, плачевных или малых вещей; чрез “я” показать можно приятность, увеселение, нежность и склонность; чрез “о”, “у”, “ы” — страшные и сильные вещи: гнев, зависть, боязнь и печаль. (Lomonosov, 1748, p. 164)
Frequent repetition of the letter “a” strengthen the image of the magnificence, the great space and depth and height, and the sudden fear. Writing more “je”, “i”, “je”, “ju” creates the image of tenderness, gentle touch, the lamentable, or the minute. Through “ja” one shows pleasure, amusement, tenderness and some hobby. And through “o”, “u”, “ɨ”, the terrible and strong things like anger, envy, fear and sadness. (My translation)
Linguists may not agree with everything that the great poet expressed in this highly subjective description, but a phonologist who had been long familiar with this kind of discourse followed Jespersen’s ideas on sound symbolism without much pressure, for it was no more than to welcome a confluence of the East European poetic passion and the West European linguistic reason, in which sound symbolism was beneficial to the sound shape of language he was constructing.
Sound symbolism entered Jespersen’s linguistic works as some more serious, more systematic and more scientific investigations after it had been put forward in the 19th century linguistic works. Just like its opposite concept, arbitrariness, it came into being with a strong psychological tinge. Jespersen succeeded in establishing it convincingly upon a multitude of linguistic facts, so that it would not be confused with the dilettanti of folk-etymological speculations. His investigation of sound symbolism in the negation words, the adversative conjunctions and some other mainstream vocabulary often involved certain physiological and physical features inside the relevant speech sounds. The scientific nature of these features was revealed decades later by Jakobson and his colleagues with the aid of the post-WWII technological advancements. Jakobson’s positive views on sound symbolism also reflected his knowledge of the Slavic poetic tradition. In this sense, sound symbolism may well be regarded as a confluence of linguistics and poetics, and of East and West European philological traditions. A factor that has blurred this picture lies in the fact that many important texts supporting this history are scattered in several disciplines and written in several different European languages. These texts now rarely draw any attention if they are not completely forgotten. Several key texts were written in an international academic language in the 19th century sense, i.e. in German or in French rather than in English, or in a language much confined to East Europe like Russian, or in a non-international language like Danish. In a study of linguistic historiography, a full picture of the history will not become possible until all these jigsaw pieces are put together.
This paper is part of the Project “A Study on Otto Jespersen’s Ideas of Phonological Evolution (1886-1941)”, supported by National Social Science Foundation of China (16BYY007). The trip to the Penang conference was financed by Teachers’ Training Fund, Office of Human Resources, Dalian University of Foreign Languages.
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18 December 2019
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Sociolinguistics, linguistics, literary theory, political science, political theory
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Qu*, C. (2019). Rethinking On Sound Symbolism With Trans-Disciplinary Perspective And Multi-Lingual Texts. In N. S. Mat Akhir, J. Sulong, M. A. Wan Harun, S. Muhammad, A. L. Wei Lin, N. F. Low Abdullah, & M. Pourya Asl (Eds.), Role(s) and Relevance of Humanities for Sustainable Development, vol 68. European Proceedings of Social and Behavioural Sciences (pp. 35-45). Future Academy. https://doi.org/10.15405/epsbs.2019.09.4