“What’s in a Name?”
Everyday a plethora of sounds pass people by: the beep of car horns, the explosion of a sneeze, and of course, the language spoken between humans . The sounds of words play a huge part in the daily lives of humans, yet many don’t think much of it. In conversation, there is a whole lot that goes into the words people choose to use, even if this process is subconscious. This is because different words convey different meanings, even if they are synonyms. This is in part because of their sound, it’s the difference between using a slit and a slot--different sounds are associated with different meanings. Although languages can be quite different, the same sounds are internationally recognized as symbolic for similar meanings. As a result, changing the sound of these words would alter the symbols that people associate with the words.
A popular line from Shakespeare’s famous, Romeo and Juliet states, “What's in a name? that which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet; so Romeo would, were he not Romeo call'd, retain that dear perfection which he owes without that title.” This line sounds sweet, but what Juliet claims may not be entirely true. Certainly the name of a rose is not what gives it its shape, or color, or sweet aroma but the sound of a word does do something to alter the perception of an object, if only in small amounts. Nico Lang, a former blogger for radio station WBEZ, makes a point of saying that, “The linguistic formula for a disgusting word is to make sure it contains phonetically abrasive letters like ‘b,’ ‘g,’ ‘m,’ ‘u’ and ‘o,’ which you’ll find to be common among the most hated.” This part of his argument goes to prove my point, though he then goes on to say that, “It’s not just the word, but what it represents to us. When we hear ‘vomit,’ we think not just of its unflattering construction but the very image it signifies.” and that, “our revulsions come socio-culturally loaded.” The second part of his argument is not incorrect. Yes, it’s true, the most hated words in the English language display similar characteristics, in that most of them are associated with unpleasant things, but that is not enough. Not all words associated with terrible meanings are so hated, half of reason for the hatred that boils to the surface of people’s feelings after hearing certain words is the sound of the words themselves. Many of the words that are held in such contempt are abrasive sounding and tend to linger in one’s mouth after saying them. After looking at several different lists of the most hated words in the English language, one will find that this statement is true for the majority of unfavorable words. If a rose, instead was named something like a “worpuss” or “gratak” it would seem much less appealing, at least at first, one would, on instinct be semi-repulsed by it, even without any knowledge of the definition. This is because of the sounds are harsh and associated with unkind things in the world, for example the long “s” sound in “worpuss” reminds us of words like “fester,” and “moist.” The sound that both “g” and “k” make are aggressive and in the word “gratak” the combination of the two provides no relief from the onslaught of harsh sounds.
Some words are so beautiful they could be played on repeat forever and no one would ever tire of them. Others are cringe worthy and will grate against ears whenever spoken. What determines whether they are in the category of music to the ears or nails against chalkboard widely has to do with sounds that are easier and more delicate on the ears being associated with beauty and goodness. David Crystal’s article, The Ugliest Words that appeared in The Guardian, a British national daily newspaper, states that, “Words with soft sounds such as 'l,' 'm,' and 'n,' and long vowels or diphthongs, reinforced by a gentle polysyllabic rhythm, are interpreted as 'nicer' than words with hard sounds such as 'g' and 'k,' short vowels and an abrupt rhythm." Though this may not be true for all people, because it is true that in some cases beauty is subjective, the majority will agree that when words sound softer they are more attractive or nicer.
It’s not a stretch to say that if people associate sounds with nice vs. mean, they associate them with many other things as well. Such is the argument of Dr. Richard Nordquist, an English and rhetoric emeritus professor of Armstrong Atlantic State University. He wrote an article stating that, “Sound symbolism is often a result of secondary association.” For example, words that begin with gl- convey an idea of a sheen, smoothness, or brightness, words like glory, glee, glimmer, glib, even glance and glimpse because sight is so closely tied to light. This is not the only case where this happens. Then there is the point where some words just sound smaller than others, like dints and dents, which were originally just different pronunciations of the same words, but when said aloud, instinctively one would think that a dint is smaller than a dent, it just sounds smaller. This is not only true for English, A study done by Berkeley professor John J. Ohala shows that many other languages share these same sound associations, sounds with “High front vowels like [i I y e], [-grave] consonants, voiceless consonants, high tone etc.,” are often associated with “small” and “low back vowels like [A √ ç o], [+grave] consonants, voiced consonants, and low tone.” are often associated with “large.” This goes to say that, sound can have a lot more power in affecting perception than people may give it credit for and changing even the pronunciation of a word such as dent, can alter how it is seen, even if that alteration is only a dint.
When asked, people might say that the small attributes of language do not concern them. But on closer inspection, understanding what they are can lead to an easier pathway to worldwide communication. Though people do not yet all speak an international language, realizing that across all languages there are similarities that one can spot through the sound of those languages it can make communication across cultures much easier. When people are able to communicate ideas with each other, amazing things can happen, larger advancements in science, mathematics, art, and basic empathy and understanding are within grasp.
Kate Burridge, Gift of the Gob: Morsels of English Language History. HarperCollins Australia, 2011
David Crystal, "The Ugliest Words." The Guardian, July 18, 2009
Nordquist Grammar & Composition Expert, Richard. "What Is Sound Symbolism in English?"
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Lang, Nico. "“Moist” And 28 Other Gross-Sounding English Words That Everyone Hates." Thought
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Shakespeare, William. "SCENE II. Capulet's Orchard." SCENE II. Capulet's Orchard. N.p., n.d.
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Ohala, John J. "Sound Symbolism." Linguistics. UC Regents, n.d. Web. 25 Sept. 2016.