What's in a Name? Sound Symbolism

Article excerpt

In his 1929 book Gestalt Psychology, Wolfgang Kohler described a classic experiment that uncovered a striking consistency in the names people picked for two abstract drawings. A rounded doodle was associated with a soft-sounding name; a pointy scribble got the hard consonants. Such sound symbolism, according to some scholars, goes beyond the onomatopoeia of words like "bow wow" and reflects an intuitive attempt to capture in human speech the salient or essential traits, like size or shape, of at least certain objects.

"It's essentially gesturing with the mouth," says anthropologist Brent Berlin of the University of Georgia in Athens.

For evidence of sound symbolism, Berlin has looked into the languages and fauna of South America. He described a preliminary analysis of the words for two different animals--the tapir and the squirrel--in 19 distinct Indian languages, whittled to omit those with borrowed words.

In 14 of the languages, the pair of words fit a pattern. The tapir was represented by a word containing the vowel sound "ah," as in mezaha, while the squirrel was represented by a word containing an "ee" sound, as in kuzikuzi. …