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Sound Symbolism, Phonosemantics, Phonetic Symbolism, Mimologics, Iconism, Cratylus
Ideophones, Synaesthesia
The Alphabet, The Word



by Margaret Magnus
copyright 1997 - 2001 by Margaret Magnus
all rights reserved

Before you proceed!

How about giving us all the benefit of your linguistic intuitions?

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And for those who have some experience, offer your views on iconism vs. arbitrariness in language. How much and how?

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A Site Map

In the Beginning...

Welcome! Welcome, reader!
To my Magical Letter Page
To a few of the hidden mysteries
Of the mighty English Word!

I read dictionaries. And I write dictionaries. It was an occupation which seemed initially thrust unfairly upon me by financial necessity, one which over the years I have come to love deeply, one which I now practice fervently at my economic peril. It has taught me to experience words and language quite literally as living beings, as beings who outlive each of us, who are recording within their very selves the patterns of our thoughts, as beings who care a great deal how they are employed. I wander into their dominions ever more deeply moved, ever more faithful that there is after all a reason behind this chaos of experience.

I have come closest to this mysterious encounter with the Word by spending time within speech sounds and their relationship to the meanings of the words which they form. I am not a lone wanderer in this particular forest. I count among my more prominant predecessors none less than the gods! Consider the words of Odin:

From the Old Norse, Poetic Edda, Wotanasaga (ca. A.D. 1200)

The Speech of the High One
I know I hung on that windy tree,
Swung there for nine long nights,
Wounded by my own blade,
Bloodied for Odin,
Myself an offering to myself:
Bound to that tree
That no man knows
Whither the roots of it run.

None gave me bread,
None gave me drink.
Down to the deepest depths I peered
Until I spied the Runes.
With a roaring cry I seized them up,
Then dizzy and fainting, I fell.

Well-being I won
And wisdom too.
I grew and took joy in my growth:
From a word to a word
I was led to a word,
From a deed to another deed.

Odin, by sir E. Burne-Jones

These voyages into the forest of dictionaries have rewarded me with what for me was a major insight into how word semantics works, though, of course, my understanding of the Word continues to evolve daily. I literally begin to feel the words in a different way than I did before, and there's no doubt in my mind that what I feel actually is there. What I see runs counter in a big way to what most linguists assume about word meaning. The gist of what I see can be stated fairly simply:

The Socratic Hypothesis

Each consonant and vowel in a language has a meaning, in the sense that every word containing that sound has an element of meaning which words not containing that sound do not have. What underlies this sound-meaning is the form of the sound, i.e. its pronunciation - a sound means what it is. For example, to pronounce a stopped consonant [b, d, g, p, t, k], you completely block the flow of air through the mouth. Consequently all stopped sounds involve a barrier of some kind. The nature of that barrier varies depending on whether the sound is voiced [b, d, g] or unvoiced [p, t, k], whether it is labial [b, p], dental [d, t] or velar [g, k], and so forth. This meaning is different from the referent, which is what we normally think of as the meaning of a word. Reference is a separate process from sound-meaning, and is layered on top of it. Reference is less central to word semantics than sound-meaning, although it is much more obvious to the casual observer. This aspect of meaning which is determined by sound lies much closer to what we call the connotation than the denotation. Sound meaning does tend to predispose referents, but does not largely determine them. That is, you can't predict what a word will refer to based on its sound, but you can predict that a high percentage of words beginning with /b/ in every language will involve explosions, birth and loud noises. You can also predict that if a word referring to a sound begins with /b/, the sound will either begin abruptly or be very loud or usually both. Sound affects meaning in every word in every language. However, because of the way reference interacts with sound-meaning, its effect is not as obvious at first glance in concrete nouns and other words with very inflexible referents. What all the various referents or senses of a word have in common is their sound-meaning. Thus by virtue of its sound, the 'get' in 'get up' is the very same word to the English-speaking ear as the 'get' in 'get away', 'get involved', 'get through', 'get fat', 'get a Lamborghini'. The glue that holds all these senses together is the meaning of the /g/ followed by the meaning of the /e/ followed by the meaning of the /t/. All of this can be and has been verified empirically by simply cataloguing the relationship between sound and referent and taking statistics.

My Dictionary

I think it's the longest list of phonesthemes available anywhere and the first commercial dictionary of phonesthemes.
Over 900 pages of dictionary.
For more information click here.

What's it good for?
Each of the consonants has a meaning that is based in how it's pronounced. It's a fundamental and much overlooked fact of language. More than anything, these letter meanings influence how we feel about words, how we react to personal names and brand names, what subliminal effect the sounds in slang and jargon terms have on us. This reference allows you to see what the emotional, mythological and intellectual content of words is.

Who needs it?
Writers, poets, linguists, psychologists, psychiatrists, English teachers, English learners, anthropologists; NLP, mythology, symbology, linguistics, English language acquisition. Use it to learn what connotations your personal name or your brand name evoke... or what the subtle distinctions are between English words

More Questions?
Check out this site!


So you see, I have verified the Socratic Hypothesis for all the English monosyllables in a commercial spelling checker word list. The fact that this test has been carried out on all the words in a well-defined portion of the vocabulary is important, because it constitutes scientific verification of a fact which is very central to the workings of language, and which is not in general acknowledged to be true. If only those words which fit nicely into a pattern are accounted for, you have demonstrated nothing. For example, you may show that lots of 'gl' words concern reflected light, but unless you show that all letter combinations are similarly limited and that other letter combinations do not contain a similar percentage of words concerning reflected light, you have demonstrated nothing, and you have no solid foundation from which to go forth and make really general and far-reaching claims about the nature of language. This Socratic Hypothesis could in principle be proven false, but can in fact be verified as true by repeatable experiments, such as those outlined at this Web site. I therefore strongly encourage readers who are at all interested in whether the Socratic Hypothesis is true to check it out for themselves. In addition, in my Annotated Bibliography, the interested reader can find references to other accounts of comprehensive tests which have been conducted for other languages.

Phonosemantic Experiment

"It is surely harmful to souls to make it heresy to believe what is proved."
Galileo Galilei

We scientific types are not the first to discover this. The first ones to notice it were the Mystics. You find references to it in the Upanishads and in Plato and all over The Nag Hammadi Library. The major Arcana of the Tarot are based on the meanings of the Hebrew letters as outlined in the Kabbalah. The Arabs have a corresponding Abjad system. The Vikings used it as a basis for their oracle. In The Lost Books of the Bible, under Infancy I, there's an interesting passage, implying knowledge of the Hebrew Kabbalah:

"So they brought him [Jesus] to that master; who as soon as he saw him, wrote out an alphabet for him. And he bade him say Aleph; and when he had said Aleph, the master made him pronounce Beth. The the Lord Jesus said to him, Tell me first the meaning of the letter Aleph, and then I will pronounce Beth. And when the master threatened to whip him, the Lord Jesus explained to him the meaning of the letters Aleph and Beth; Also which were straight figures of the letters, which the oblique, and what letters had double figures; which had points and which had none; why one letter went before another; and many other things he began to tell him of which the master himself had never heard nor read in any book. The Lord Jesus farther said to the master, Take notice how I say to thee; then began clearly and distinctly to say Aleph, Beth, Gimel, Daleth, and so on to the end of the alphabet.."

My Book

An informal discussion about the nature of language and the function of sound in language.

published by Truman State University Press
now available from


Some Important Links

A Site Map
over 70 links

Theoretical Background
Phonosemantic Dictionary
Meaning of the English Consonants

Convince yourself within three hours that I'm not making this up.

My Dissertation

Annotated Bibliography

Linguistic Iconism Association

Yours Truly

Britannica Internet Site Award