What Are Phonesthemes?

Thursday, December 72 min read

If you’ve heard a dog “bark” or a snake “hiss,” those are examples of onomatopoeia. However, there’s another linguistic term — “phonestheme” — for a similar concept tying together language and sound.                                                        

What Is Onomatopoeia?

Across all languages, some words precisely reproduce the sound they are attempting to describe. For example, “boing” vividly describes a spring bouncing up and down. Here are some other examples of onomatopoeia:

The car beeped its horn.

The cows are mooing in the field.

I heard the leaves crunching.

From animal vocalizations to everyday street noises, these words offer an audible snapshot of our world. Some linguists believe onomatopoeia may have been one of the earliest forms of language between humans. Imitating familiar sounds certainly would have been an effective way to communicate.

What Is a Phonestheme?

Like onomatopoeia, a phonestheme deals with how sounds within words convey meaning in language. However, a phonestheme does not directly describe a sound — the connection is more abstract. The term “phonestheme” was coined by a British linguist, J.R. Firth, in his 1930 book Speech. Through his research, Firth concluded that people connected certain sounds to particular word meanings.

For example, the word “glitter” means “bright, shimmering light.” Several other words starting with the letters “gl-” also have to do with light: “gleam,” “glimmer,” “glint,” “glisten,” “gloss,” and “glow.” This suggests that the phonestheme of an initial “gl-” is related to light or vision words.  

Fitch called the words gathered together with the same sounds a “phonestheme group” or “phonestheme cluster. ” These sounds can occur at the beginning or end of a word. Here are some common phonestheme clusters and the meanings they imply:

“cl-” (describes closing motion): clamp, clasp, clench, cling, clutch

“fl-” (expressing movement): flap, flee, flick, fling, flip, flitter, flow, flutter, fly

“sn-” (related to the mouth or nose): snarl, sneer, sneeze, snicker, sniff, snore, snorkel, snort, snot, snout

“-ash” (to hit or strike): bash, crash, dash, gnash, lash, mash, slash, smash, thrash

“-ump” (round shape or pile): bump, clump, dump, hump, lump, stump

For linguists, most modern English words can be traced back to older root words. But these constellations of words don’t all share the same origin language. Why do these phonesthemes group together by sound? It’s not totally arbitrary. Our brains associate certain sounds with specific concepts, and as with onomatopoeia, we use language to explain the world around us and express ourselves.

Think about what comes to mind when you read the above lists of words. The terms “glimmer,” “flitter,” “snout,” or “clump” aren’t strictly onomatopoeia because they don’t describe a sound. But the sounds in each word help you understand what the speaker is trying to convey.

How Are Phonesthemes Used in Language?

Like onomatopoeia, phonesthemes are often used as a stylistic tool. Their meanings and sounds help us understand what we’re reading and give nuance to the phrasing. Think of the simple rhyme “Humpty Dumpty” and how the main character's name tells you more about his egg-shaped body. The rhythmic quality of phonesthemes also makes them fun to read, which means they’re an excellent tool for writers.

While phonesthemes don’t directly replicate sounds, they help paint vivid pictures. Using sounds our brains associate with particular meanings also adds to our overall understanding of language.

Featured image credit: DragonImages/ iStock

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