Language, reality, meaning questions/considerations for the list

jess tauber phonosemantics at
Mon Mar 27 21:45:26 UTC 2006

Thanks, Diane. Open the floodgates and see what happens! All sorts of nifty little phenomena here. 

The late Roger Wescott promoted the notion of 'labioderogation', where labial segments are used (especially as replacement initials in rhyming forms) expressing negative, dismissive and related feelings towards the referent of the original form. These are not found universally in the world's languages, but are mainly found across Eurasia, all the way from Basque in the west to at least one Tungusic language in the east, and also in India. One interesting thing is that this swath has been mostly areally case-marking, verb-final languages. Where language type is changing (as in Europe), these forms may be slowly becoming historical curiosities.

A mirror system seems to be more prevalent in South-East Asia (with India as a mixing zone), where palatal or alveopalatal (articulation zone) segments seem to have belittling function in reduplicative replacements. My own survey seems to indicate that while both replacements can be used negatively, the total evaluation is different- the labials are more in line with pejorative augmentatives, while the palatal area phonemes are more hyperchoristic diminutives.

Another interesting thing is the languages using mostly the palatal type seem to be be largely in a left-headed zone areally. Furthermore John Haiman has written about poetic preferences- left headed languages prefer alliteration, right headed prefer rhyming. I'm guessing the phonemic replacement phenomena are linked to this as well- we see palatal finals or suffixes in many right-headed languages used as diminutives (versus the form-initial replacement augmentative derogates)- in the South East Asian situation there may also be some leaning towards labial finals in derogational senses. Overall a mirror symmetry, if this is in fact true.

In Chinook (Penutian, Oregon/Washington) there was a very extensive system of augmentative/diminutive alternations (the most thorough in the Americas). It involved both articulatory position as well as manner- Edward Sapir wrote about this after his journey through the region in the first years of the 20th century with Franz Boas. More recently Michael Silverstein has reviewed the system. Interestingly here, the Chinookan phonological system had two extreme outliers that had no manner series- /qp/, a hyperaugmentative, and /t-th (thorn-affricate?)/, a hyperdiminutive. The phonological system in my work has been based on geometrical oppositions- many of the systems in the North American Pacific Northwest can be visualized as cubes, with two axes representing grave versus acute, and compact versus diffuse (in Jakobsonian parlance).

The phonosemantic extrema /qp/ and /t-th/ in the Chinook system are at opposite vertices (through the cube center). The other alternations of augmentative versus diminutive values in the system fall along the diagonals of faces, and legs.

Similar systematicity may be found in the very extensive sound symbolic alternations of Korean, which appear also to have affected the development of their writing system by King Sejong (and friends), and the notion of Yin/Yang opposition.

One should not neglect manner and secondary featural 'symbolism' either. Uvularization in Salishan languages is used to secondarily mark roots as being 'pressed' in its real-world semantic notion more than the unmarked form. Salishan is left-headed. In right-headed Athapaskan languages, it is instead an augmentative. Johanna Nichols wrote about such language and family differences in a paper from the early '70's, but did not look for any typological factors that might dispose choices one way or the other, ironic from the POV of her later work.

Nasalization often has a negative evaluation- as in some South East Asian languages. In Japanese, on the other hand, when added to ideophone roots finally, it lends a sense of internal damped vibration. Onomatopes in the Muskogean family (Alabama, Choctaw, etc.) in the gulf region of North America are almost entirely limited to representing animal cries (but not all of the latter are nasalized).

Nasals are phonologically anti-resonant, so the Japanese damping idea may not be unnatural in motivation. In at least my ideolect of English, in affective interjections, the series of mmm, nnnn, nynyny, ngngng seems to be associated grossly with increasing levels of reservation and doubt (though other additional features come into play as well). Against this the more resonant palatals, velars, uvulars- the palatals at least crosslinguistically associate with brightness, external visibility, ringing tones, and so on. There is probably a complete symmetrical system behind all this, mapping differentially onto the various semantic areas of sound, light, motion, evaluation, and so on. We see a complex mixture and assume that it is all a kluge. But underlyingly the notions of damped vibration, internality (introversion?), doubt, and lowered animacy may actually be part of the same model of reality. 

Many of you might question why I'm writing here about this rather than on the typology discussion lists- frankly most of the chattier typologists I've encountered don't seem to be remotely interested in it. Sound symbolism studies tend to throw a monkey wrench into many of the the more controversial historical linguistic ideas of Joseph Greenberg and his students (you know who you are), and there seems to be some sort of unwarrented reactionary wagon-circling extending to typological work which followed from his.


Jess Tauber
phonosemantics at

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