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The Phonaestheme /gl/:
To what extent are English speakers aware
of a meaning connection with ‘light’?
Michael Willett
Research supported by
Cardiff University, UK
[email protected]
The Context of Phonaesthemes
• Begins with J. R. Firth’s idea of prosodies
• Prosodies are any functional units of sound that
are not abstracted to the problematic level of
discrete, individual sounds – i.e. the phoneme.
Prosodies include intonation system, the syllable, etc.
• Firth more convinced by idea of words as
[groups of] syllables, themselves products of
of phonetically-allowable ‘beginnings’
(onsets), middles (nuclei) and endings
(codas) in the language than as a sum
of individual, discrete phonemes
Word analysed as series of
Prosodies
Gleam
/gl/ =
onset prosody
/i:/ =
vowel
nucleus
/m/ =
coda prosody
Defining Phonaesthemes
• Firth (1930; 1957):
A phonaestheme is what is formed when a prosody
takes on ‘a cumulative suggestive value’– a
connotation – for speakers, as a result of recurring in
a range of English words that denote a broadly
similar meaning
• That is, speakers ‘hear and learn to make these
sounds… [in similar] contexts of experience’
(1930:184-185).
Onset /gl/
• Most widely-cited English phonaestheme
• In English, the most common meaning denoted by
words beginning /gl/ is ‘light’, or semanticallyrelated ideas, including ‘sight’
(Sturtevant, 1947; Marchand, 1966; Bowles, 1995;
Sadowski, 2001)
How frequently recurring?
• 19 of the 59 (32%) head lexemes beginning /gl/
listed in the Compact OED denote a meaning
related to ‘light’:
• Glade, glamour, glance, glare, glass, glaucoma,
glaze, gleam, glimmer, glimpse, glint, glisten,
glister, glitter, glitz, gloaming, gloom, gloss,
glow
Defining Phonaesthemes
• Phonaesthemes are not:
Onomatopoeic
(they do not mime in sound their denotations)
- /gl/ cannot mime ‘light’!
Iconic
(there appears no conceived similarity between
/gl/ and the real-world idea of ‘light’ that would
make it more suitable than any other prosody)
Universal
(every language will have its own
phonaesthemes, because they
arise from forms’ denotations)
Phonaesthemes and
Arbitrariness
• The existence of phonaesthemes does not pose a
challenge to Saussure’s idea of the arbitrariness of
linguistic signs
• There is nothing initially about /gl/ to have made it
any more suitable for denoting ‘light’ than any
other prosody – e.g. /sp/ or /tr/ or /kw/ etc.
• Phonaesthemes are diachronically nonarbitrary (over time they become non
arbitrary and “more suitable” for use in
/gl/ words by analogy to the existing,
arbitrary forms)
Existing Studies into /gl/
phonaestheme
• All existing studies into /gl/ phonaestheme are
“theoretical”; they look at the existing vocabulary
of a language (usually English), and calculate how
many of the /gl/-onset words denote a meaning of
‘light’
• However, this is not sufficient grounds to
conclude that a /gl/ phonaestheme actually
exists in that language…
Existing Studies into /gl/ phonaestheme
• …because phonaesthemes, as defined by Firth,
involve speakers ascribing connotations to
prosodies as a result of the contexts in which those
prosodies frequently recur
• Thus, in the words of Jespersen (1922a: 408), ‘the
suggestiveness of [these sounds] as felt by presentday speakers…must be taken into account’
• No study to date addresses the /gl/phonaestheme from speakers’
perspectives
Research Question
• Do native English speakers connote the meaning
‘light’ more frequently than any other meaning,
from words beginning with /gl/?
Overview of Methodology
• Three experiments given to 30 native English
speakers, in the form of an online survey
• Experimental cues taken from Abelin’s
(1999) investigation into Swedish
phonaesthemes – the only research
to date that studies phonaesthemes
productively
• Two experiments are closed-ended
multiple choice questions; one is fully
open-ended.
Experiment 1
• Respondents provided with audio recordings of three
coined (‘nonsense’) words, and one image
• The image depicts glittering, reflected sparkles of light
• Only one of the ‘nonsense’ words features onset
/gl/. The other two feature different onsets.
All three feature identical nuclei and codas, to
control for any extraneous phonaesthetic
effects these prosodies may have.
Experiment 1 (cont’d)
• Respondents asked to listen to the audio recordings
of ‘nonsense’ words, and choose whichever word
they feel is most appropriate to name a specified
part of the content in the image (the ‘light’ part)
• If /gl/ phonaestheme is recognised by speakers,
respondents should show a degree of preference
for the /gl/-onset word to name the content in
the image;
the onsets are the only dimension on
which each word varies from the others
gless /ɡlɛs/
pless /plɛs/
fless /flɛs/
Experiment 2
• Designed to provide a re-test and add reinforcing
evidence to that collected in Experiment 1
• Reverses the process of Experiment 1: Now,
respondents provided with three images and single
audio recording of a coined (‘nonsense’) word
• Coined word features the /gl/ onset plus randomlychosen nucleus and coda
• Only one of the images depicts a meaning
associated with ‘light’. The other images
depict unrelated meanings
In theory, respondents
should attribute coined word
to this image (B), as it
depicts glowing, shining stars
gliss /glıs/
Experiment 3
• Fully open-ended
• Respondents provided with a definition relating to
the emission of light, and asked to coin (‘invent’)
any word of their choosing to name this definition
• If /gl/ phonaestheme recognised by speakers,
respondents should prefer coining words with
/gl/- to any other onset
Experiment 1: Results
• 25/30 respondents (83%) preferred using the coined
word featuring /gl/- to describe the glittering eyeshadow
Experiment 2: Results
• 27/30 respondents (90%) preferred attributing the
glittering stars image to the /gl/- word
Experiment 3: Results
• 12/30 (40%) respondents coined a word beginning
/gl/ in response to definition
• Given that there are at least 81 possible word onsets
in English (Kreidler, 2004; Cruttenden, 2008); the fact
that 40% of respondents all selected the same
consonant cluster seems particularly high in a 30strong respondent cohort…
Experiment 3: Results (cont’d)
• Chart showing the frequency with which onsets
were used by speakers in response to open-ended
question:
Is the phonaesthetic effect of
/gl/ affected by the vowel(s) with which
it is paired?
• Experiment 2 sees a slight increase over Experiment
1 in the number of speakers associating /gl/ to the
meaning of ‘light’ (compare 83% to 90%).
• Experiments 1 and 2 use coined /gl/- words which
are phonetically identical aside from their
vowel nuclei:
/glɛs/ in Experiment 1 (mid-front vowel)
/glıs/ in Experiment 2 (high-front vowel)
Is the phonaesthetic effect of
/gl/ affected by the vowel(s) with which
it is paired?
• Further evidence that respondents prefer /gl/+highfront vowel from the words coined in Experiment 3
(insofar as the vowel graphemes can be
interpreted)…
Is the phonaesthetic effect of
/gl/ affected by the vowel(s) with which
it is paired?
• Examining the /gl/ words coined by speakers in
Experiment 3, and their inferred pronunciation:
gloosie
*at least 7 of the 12 words
gliss
/ɡlıs/
coined feature a high, front
vowel – either /ı/ or /iː/
gleety
/ɡliːtiː/
glite
glinkel
/ɡlınkəl/
glissipel /ɡlısıpɛl/ or /ɡliːsıpɛl/ if second <s> in second syllable
glizon
glizzen
/ɡlızən/ or /ɡliːzən/ (as above)
glind
glisty
/ɡlıstiː/
glissiant /ɡlısıənt/ or /ɡliːsıənt/ (as above)
glastifer
Concluding Remarks
• /gl/ is consistently and strongly associated with ‘light’ by
speakers across all experiments, showing evidence that English
native speakers recognise its phonaesthetic function
• However, it appears it has an even stronger association with
‘light’ for speakers if combined with a high-front vowel
 Experiment 2, with high front vowel nucleus, yields 7% more
responses associating the phonaestheme to a meaning
of ‘light’ than experiment 1, with mid-front vowel
 At least 7 of the 12 respondents who coin a /gl/ word in
Experiment 3 use a high-front vowel
• This finding seems to support Jespersen’s (1922b)
claim that in many languages, high-front vowels
tend to be associated with ‘lightness’
and low back vowels ‘darkness’
References
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Abelin, A (1999) Studies in Sound Symbolism. PhD thesis: Göteborg University.
Bowles, H (1995) “The Semantic Properties of the Phonaestheme”. Studi italiani di
linguistica teorica ed applicata, 1: 91-106.
Cruttenden, A (2008) Gimson’s Pronunciation of English. London: Hodder Education.
Firth, J R (1930) Speech. In Firth, J R, The Tongues of Men and Speech.
London: Oxford University Press.
Firth, J R (1957) Papers in Linguistics 1934-1951. London: Oxford University Press.
Hayes, B (2009) Introductory Phonology. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.
Jespersen, O (1922a) Language: Its Nature, Development and Origin. London:
George Allen & Unwin Ltd.
Jespersen, O (1922b) “Symbolic Value of the Vowel I”. In Jespersen, O, Selected
Writings of Otto Jespersen. Abingdon: Routledge.
Kreidler, C W (2004) The Pronunciation of English. Oxford: Blackwell.
Marchand, H (1966) The Categories and Types of Present-Day English WordFormation. Alabama: University of Alabama Press.
Sadowski, P (2001) “The sound as an echo to the sense: The iconicity of English glwords”. In Fischer, O and Nanny, M (eds.) The Motivated Sign. Amsterdam:
John Benjamins.
Sturtevant, E H (1947) An Introduction to Linguistic Science. New Haven, CT: Yale
University Press.
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