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
/gl/ =
onset prosody
/i:/ =
/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’
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,
Defining Phonaesthemes
• Phonaesthemes are not:
(they do not mime in sound their denotations)
- /gl/ cannot mime ‘light’!
(there appears no conceived similarity between
/gl/ and the real-world idea of ‘light’ that would
make it more suitable than any other prosody)
(every language will have its own
phonaesthemes, because they
arise from forms’ denotations)
Phonaesthemes and
• 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/
• 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
• 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’
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
• Two experiments are closed-ended
multiple choice questions; one is fully
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
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
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:
*at least 7 of the 12 words
coined feature a high, front
vowel – either /ı/ or /iː/
glissipel /ɡlısıpɛl/ or /ɡliːsıpɛl/ if second <s> in second syllable
/ɡlızən/ or /ɡliːzən/ (as above)
glissiant /ɡlısıənt/ or /ɡliːsıənt/ (as above)
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’
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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