Margo's Magical Letter Page

Letter Meanings According to Mystical Traditions

The Meanings of Phonetic Features

by Margaret Magnus
copyright 1997, 1998 by Margaret Magnus
all rights reserved

You are probably familiar with the fact that speech sounds can be characterized as either consonants or vowels, depending on whether they have the power to carry a syllable. The consonants can be further subdivided into classes based on how they are pronounced, and each of these classes has certain semantic characteristics as well. I will try to outline some of these here:

[+voiced] - {b, d, g, v, dh, z, zh, j, m, n, l, r, w, y}: from the One to the many, intense, coarse, other-worldly, primal energy without intention
[-voiced] - {p, t, k, f, th, s, sh, h, ch}: from the many back to the One, form/shape/texture, worldly, precise, intention
[+labial] - {b, p, v, f, m, w}: a bias, bulges/waves/fountains/mounds, foundations/beginnings/preparations, fringes/tips/borders, one-dimensional, nothing hidden
[+dental] - {d, t, dh, z, th, s, j, ch, n, r, l}: a direction, a line, two-dimensional, between the known and the unknown
[+velar] - {g, k, h, ng}: a class/group, a surface or container, three-dimensional, something hidden/secret
[+stop] - {b, d, g, p, t, k, ch, j}: a barrier/stop/separation, located relative to something else, static
[-stop] - {v, dh, z, zh, f, th, s, sh, h, ch, j, m, n, ng, l, r, w, y}: no separation, infused in or runs alongside, dynamic
[+fricative] - {v, dh, z, zh, f, th, s, sh, h, ch, j}: uncountably many little parts, a narrow opening
[+affricates] - {ch, j}: process that encounters interference
[+nasal] - {m, n, ng}: quantity, sonorous
[+liquid] - {l, r}: flow/radiation
[+glide] - {w, y}: extent, wanting/yearning


The Meanings of the Consonants

by Margaret Magnus
copyright 1997, 1998 by Margaret Magnus
all rights reserved

Below the description of each consonant is a list of the phonesthemic superclasses which I use in my lexical database for words containing these consonants. All common English monomorphemic words (no prefixes or suffixes) other than the concrete nouns and the function words (prepositions, conjunctions, etc.) fit in some phonestheme which again fits in one of these superclasses. You can test this for B by looking at a portion of my Phonosemantic Dictionary. (Click on the thumbnails for a larger view.)


B is the original explosion into Being, the first division that broke the One into the Two, that gave rise to the world. B is the birth. As is the case with all the labials (b, p, v, f, m, w), the two are not equal. The labials imply a hierarchy. The hierarchy of B involves something which abuts, beside the road, by the way. Not the main event, but the side show. Not the front, but the back. B is the Base which bears the burden, which holds something on its back. B is in essence also the violation of the Boundary. Something surges forth, but is blocked behind a barrier; pressure builds up; it bulges; it bursts. Bang! (see also Bias)

The Soane Hours
Sir John Soane Museum

Big and Bulging
Binding, Contact, Connection
Foundations, Carrying and Balance
Hitting, Battling, Games
Effusive Language
Bother and Bargain
Birth and Beginnings
Fire, Light
Saturated Color
Boards and Bricks


D is the Door, the Gate in mid-stream, the divider. Water flows overwhelmingly downward toward the Deep, and just at the mid-point something checks it. Implicit in D is always a preexisting process that longs to follow its course, to flow to the sea. At the end of a word, D more frequently sends things on their way. But at the beginning, it generally diminishes the force, darkens the light, dampens the sound. Drag, Drawl, Dribble, dribble, dribble, drip. D is not powerful enough to actually kill a process, but it is the English symbol of death. Where B asks 'To Be or not to Be?", D asks "To Do or to Die?"

Très riches heures de Jean, duc de Berry
Musée Condé

Divide and Select
Classifiers, Dosages
Do - Execution of Pending Process
Do - Drive and Evasive Motion
Down - Misc
Downward Motion
Down - Decrease
Down - Negative


See also The Grail

G is the Grail, the Void from which all things are given and into which all things eventually go. It is the Ground from which we mysteriously grow, the invisible Source. It is the Letter of the Throat. Its bottom is too deep to be seen. Its light is reflected. Its glances sidelong. B begins the process; D checks it; and G is the process itself ongoing. More often than not, English experiences imbalance with respect to Giving and Getting in the face of this vast and invisible place. It either gets greedy, filling itself with gunk and goo and gaudy garbage. A third of G reflects too much of something where it doesn't really belong. And another third reflects not enough where it's desperately needed: it is gaunt, gloomy, grumbling, the grave, the gallows. But there remains a set of words which reflect a very specific sense of balance and a grandeur which is not to be found anywhere else in the English language: Goodness, Gladness, the Grace of God.

Miroir de humaine salvation
Musée Condé

The Gullet
Blocked Pipe
Indirect or Reflected Light
Understanding, Discovery of an Unknown
Grids and Grains
Hidden Source or Goal
Too Much Where It Doesn't Belong
Not Enough Where It's Needed


P is the Place, the single Point, the sound of precision. L has the power to spread the Point into a Plane (plate, plateau, plaque). Things are pulled from and placed on an exact position. This point is punched, pushed and pricked. P focusses the mind on this Point and speaks to it. B merely explodes and cares not a whit where it lands. In general, the unvoiced sounds are tidier, smarter, less violent, more socially aware than their unvoiced counterparts. They are more preoccupied with form: with position, shape and texture. Where the voiced stops break the One into the many, the unvoiced stops are the many which seek back to the One. The voiced stops speak from the viewpoint of God; they live in the realm without form (Being, Doing, Grace). The unvoiced stops, however, speak from the viewpoint of man (prayer, trying, seeking, capabilities). So B goes from the One to the Two, but P is centered in this world, like the other unvoiced consonants. It is the prayer from the many back to the One. And it seeks to reach its mark by clear and accurate thinking. The velar consonants (g, k, h, ng) all have a hidden, invisible or secretive side, but with labials, everything is out on the table. For this reason, P never resorts to intuition. K plays cards, but P is the problem solver. It ponders, plans, pieces things together, projects, makes a pilot project. Whereas in B the barrier is violated by an explosion (boom, bang, break), in P it is pierced with a long sharp instrument (pierce, prick, pin, puncture). And whereas the typically labial 'subordinate' in B remains adjoined to its Source (base, bottom, back), in P, it is separated. It is a mapping, a representation, a puppet, a picture, a replacement, a pawn. It concerns position. Something is put in the place of something else. It looks the same, but it's not. (see also Bias)

15th Century Italien
Musée Marmottan

Prongs, Points, Peaks
Plane, Puffy
Containers and Enclosed Areas
Image, Write
Groups, Units, Levels
Smallness, Parts
Prime Examples
Picking, Pulling
Pouring, Putting
Pushing, Punching
Stepping and Paths
The Problem


T is the Tendency: to, until, toward, tele-, trans-. Whereas D concerns the intensity of its process, T is only concerned with its location, its focus, from where to where. It touches something in order to direct it toward a specific end. It teaches. It has a task in hand. It knows where it's headed. But there's no indication as to whether it actually gets there. T is always en route. P ponders. T teaches and trains. And K actually can. When R appears right behind it, it sends T travelling on a trip along a precise track. But when the R appears after the vowel, it loses control . It turns and tears and finds the combination terrifying. The voiced D divides the One into two, but the Two of unvoiced T counts up. It puts separate pieces together and makes two. The duality in the labials is not about a number. It is a side-effect of a hierarchy. But the twoness of the dentals, D and T concerns an actual number. The number two is implicit in the line which one finds in all the dentals (d, t, dh. z, th, s, j, ch, n, r, l). Two points make a line.

Très riches heures de Jean, duc de Berry
Musée Condé

Tilting, Tripping, Turning
Nervousness and Trouble
Traits, Timbres, Tastes
Tips and Tops


K is a Container, an enclosed space with a small opening and a cover. Like all the velars, K is three-dimensional. The dentals are two-dimensional, and the labials are one-dimensional. Speaking as a computer programmer, the labials are for expressing hierarchy or level; the dentals are pointers; and the velars are for typing or classification. And as is the case with all the unvoiced sounds, there is an effortfulness in K, a seeking. It's not content merely to be. Because K is a velar, this effortfulness is directed inward. In the case of labials, the effortfulness is directed outward. In the case of unvoiced dentals, the effortfulness is directed from one point to another along a line. K is the sound of closing in, closing out, collecting, catching, culling, keeping. Inside this space are our intimates, the members of our clan, the kings and committees. Outside are the clowns and commoners - those from whom we have cut ourselves off. So K is the sound of care and kisses, but also of coldness and cruelty. The shapes of K is of corners, crosses, coils and curls. Because, K is a velar, there's always a place to hide. But whereas G's Mystery is of God, K's is of man. G is inherently inaccessible, but K knows and is intentionally secretive about what it knows. It has an agenda in the world, and keeps its secrets in order to reach its aim. G, on the other hand, gives and gets and doesn't know or care what the result of its actions are as seen from the world.

Pol de Linbourg, Très riches heures de Jean, duc de Berry
Musée Condé

Containers Crevasses
Catching, Collecting
Carrying, Crawling
Cutting Short
Clumsy, Queer
Care and Control
Cruelty and Crime
Throaty Sounds, Singing



V is smooth and vibratory energy which is channelled from within a container (vase) through a very narrow opening (veil, valve) outward (view, vista). Unlike the stopped labials B and P, there is no barrier implicit in V. It runs along a continuum, but it is very far toward one end. Its labial bias is felt in this way. It veers to one side. It avoids the impediments. As with all the fricatives, we are in the midst of an ongoing process in V which does not begin at any point as it does in B and P, nor is interrupted in midstream as with D, nor is directed anywhere specific as with T, nor is gathered or collected anywhere as in G and K. B stands still and supports from below. P stands still and props things up from the side. But V runs alongside in unending service, the vassal, the valet. And V is judgemental. It thinks in terms of virtue and vice. When P errs, it errs on the side of conservatism, for it is unvoiced. It is prudish, picky and preachy. V like B is voiced and errs from excess. Whereas B's transgressions are merely behavioral, V's are of the essence. B is bad. It breaks the societal boundaries and regulations, but V in its worst incarnation is inherently evil. It's not merely the baddie, the bully, the bitch. It is the villain, the vixen, the viper. B may be beautiful, but V is virtuous. It is the Virgin who does not give rise to the world once and for all in the Big Bang of B, but who gives it and lives it ongoing. Since V is voiced, the living is not yet frozen into life. It is not in the realm of form like its unvoiced counterpart F. It is the living verb. (see also Bias)

Miroir de l'humaine salvation
Musée Condé

Narrow Opening


The voiced TH sound reaches out, but in a different way than does unvoived TH. Unvoiced TH is not content with the here and now. It thirsts for something far away. But voiced TH at the beginning of a word merely refers to it (there, this, that). Like T, it has two endpoints on a line, but where as T is tied and tethered here and seeks outward toward something, voiced TH originates over there at that place and points toward me: the, that, then, those, these, they. Like the voiced fricative V at the end of a word, it forms a verb, one which infuses (seethe, bathe) or penetrates (scathe).

Master of Charles V

Function Words, Definite, Distant


Z is an ongoing Existence, which is very close to Non-Existence; the ongoing line which is. It appears as. It was. And it begins (cause, zero, zilch), or ends in nothingness (zap, close, snooze, freeze). Like all the dentals Z is linear. It is energetic and runs along a fast, smooth track. Like S, it intensifies whatever it encounters. It is also the least conventional, the least predictable of consonants. It's got its own agenda, and you can seize it and use it or else you can lose it.

Hours of William, Lord Hastings
British Library, Bridgeman Art Library



F is the Father who funds or founds a process and then leaves to fly or fall freely on the winds. F doesn't hang around to mother and monitor its offspring throughout its life like the labial M does. It just sends them forth on their own. B comes before and during the explosion. F comes afterwards. It is the fountain. B may supply a base on which something stands statically. But F being unvoiced makes explicit the form from which something will evolve. Unlike the other unvoiced labial P, which is a stop and therefore has a break implicit in it, F does not make a completely separate replacement or copy, of the form. It merely puts on a a face, a façade, a front, which can be either false or frank. Like all the unvoiced sounds, F has a texture, and like the other fricatives, F is broken up into uncountably many parts. Since it is a labial its foam and fluff tend to lie on the surface, the fringes. So though F is spatially only in front, temporally, it can be either first or final. Like the other unvoiced sounds, F has a fight in it; it is effortful. So its labial bias is not toward the back like B, but toward the front, the foray. But it also has a sense of humor. Being a labial, its humor is a bit exhibitionist. Its not happy deep inside like H. It is funny, flirtatious, fast and fancy. (see also Bias)

S. di Pietro
Siena Duomo

Full and Fuzzy
Narrow Opening, Limitation
Fight and Fuss
Flap, Flick


Unvoiced TH is like a needle through a ball of yarn. It is dense and linear. The yarn is packed up against it. It goes with you through thick and thin, providing the fullness of wealth, health, truth and faith. But the ride, though smooth, is not always so easy. more often than not, it is accompanied by R, whom it needs to propel it through the thicket. And that can be a thrill. What is wealth in the end, is often theft and thrift in the beginning. TH has a theme which can become a thought or a thing. It doesn't sit out in front as a goal like it does in T, but threads along the entire path.

Pol de Limbourg, Très riches heures de Jean, duc de Berry
Musée Condé

Through, Thick Thin
Throat, Thumb
Thrust, Thud



See also The Serpent

S is the Serpent, what the Indians call the Kundaini, the force of life. It is so strong, so smooth, so suave, so slippery, so sexy. It is linear and dangerous and fast and stoic. It is flexible. It squeezes and slithers and sprays and spits and stings and stuns. It is the seed, the Source, which does not create as God creates, but reproduces as the world reproduces, from a single worldly thing to several. It intensifies. At the end of the word it forms the plural. And even at the beginning of a word, it turns 'mash' into 'smash', 'pike' into 'spike', 'lash' into 'slash', 'tamp' into 'stamp'. The dental linearity in S shows up as an attractive force between two things. In the beginning of a word, it seals and seduces. S is the spiritual seeker, the swami, the saint. At the end of a word, it forms the possessive.

Pol de Linbourg, Très riches heures de Jean, duc de Berry
Musée Condé

Smooth Motion
Source, Start
Seize, Seduce
Swallow (no chewing)
Strike, Sever, Scrub
Several, Series, Size
Heat, Light and Fire
Money - Spend, Save, Steal
Soul, Spirit
Sorrow, Sickness


SH is like a Shell or shelter or sheath. It can shield you from harm, shade you from the sun, but it can also be shallow. Like other unvoiced sounds, it is preoccupied with forms, appearances, shoulds and shouldn'ts. It reacts with shame, or shrugs it all off, shirks its duties, tosses it in the trash. And SH can shake and finally shatter, especially at the end of a word (bash, lash, smash, mush). Like the other major palatal sound in English, it has horizontal extent (sheet, shallow, shout).

Petites heures de Jean, duc de Berry
Bibliotéque Nationale, Paris

Shake and Shatter
Shake Off


H is Home. It is having, adherence, holding,a sort of loose collocation of things. H haunts; it hang around, hovers. H doesn't involve a literal capture; it's not stuck as in K, nor glued and grounded as in G. H merely expresses a belongingness. There is some freedom of movement in H, but, like a family, it both hinders, and helps you. So this belongingness can be heaven or hell. It can be high and happy or hard and heavy. Like the other velars, H does imply a space, but home, heaven and hell are not as confined or clearly defined as the containers of K, or the grooves and grottos of G. H only occurs at the beginning of a syllable. Home is always the backdrop, and never the conclusion. Like the other velars, H has a hidden element. Because it is unvoiced, the concealment is intentional. But is not kept secret in order to achieve some aim as in K, nor is it in principle unknowable as in G. Rather it seeks a haven. The unvoiced effortfulness of H takes the form of hunger or horniness which seeks to hold something back, to have and to hold it like a security blanket. As with all the velars there is a certain amount of fear implicit in the hiddenness.


Pol de Linbourg, Très riches heures de Jean, duc de Berry
Musée Condé

Have, Hold
Harass and Harp
Who and He


J is the Edge (ledge, wedge, hedge, ridge, bridge). Because it is dental and linear, you can't simply walk around. You have to go in single file and juggle or jockey for position. There is very little leeway. You have to hit J just right, and if you find that mystical point, it gels. But if you miss, it's a long jump to the bottom. You are junked and rejected. The joy in J has a sudden, extreme and unexpected quality about it as well. The joke lives in J. You are led up to the edge and released. In the realm of the mind, this edge shows up as judgement. The linear directedness in J is similar to the travel in T, except that it encounters more hardship due to the fricative ZH that it has to go through, and it is more preoccupied with the process of travel and less concerned with the endpoint. J jogs and journeys. J contains in it a fricative whose particulate nature manifests as a jiggly, jogging motion, a jagged shape, a jingly or jangly sound. But because it contains a stop, J's frequency is lower than for the pure fricatives and its amplitude higher.

Pol de Linbourg, Très riches heures de Jean, duc de Berry
Musée Condé

Jutting, Jumping
Joy, Jazzy
Judgement, Subtlety
Giant and Gems


CH begins with the directedness toward a goal in T. But then it has to chop through the protective shield of SH. CH is therefore challenging and chewy. It is the change we resist, the lurch at the launch, the difficult choice, the chip on your shoulder, the choke, the chink in the iron. CH's combination of the directedness in T and the ongoing nature of the fricative gives it the power to charm and enchant.

Jean Fouquet
Musée Condé

Change, Challenge, Forward Motion
Chanting, Charm, Chum
Chief, Full, Money


Whereas G is that which gives forth something from nothing, M Makes something from something else. It is the clay from which things are formed, the Magician, the Master of his trade, the Muse. If the experiment is successful, the result is magical, miraculous, musical. But sometimes it misses and creates a monster. It is the Man that God made from the primordial mud and then breathed life into. The texture of M is overwhelmingly mushy. M can also unmake; it can mangle, mash, massacre. Or it can mix things together to create something new. Or the tranformation of form in M can manifest merely as movement. And if F is form and P is position, then M is Measure or Amount. How much and how many? Mini and maxi, micro and macro, miles, meters and moons. This preoccupation with quantity is typical of the nasals.The hierarchy in the labial M is the model from which a thing is made. It is also the mate, something taken from the rib which matches the form in order to serve as a cohort. Put another way, M is the Mother, the mold and matrix of life. (see also Bias)

Boucicaut Master
Musée Jacquemart

Match, Model, Symbol
Make and Maintain
Must and May
Mud and Mildew
Mad and Monstrous
Mirth and Music
Celestial Bodies


Nearer, narrowing in, Now I Know, new, next. Like the other dentals, N is a line with a special point on it. This point is the Null point, the nave, the nexus. The place where all things are known and come to nought. But this point is approached like a mathematical limit. You get infinitely close. But you still can't get from here to there. It just happens to you. All the spaces and times and distances and sizes in N are small, nubby, niggling, neat and narrow. And N is the consonant of the negative: not, nix, no, never, nay.

Jean Fouquet
Musée Condé

Narrow, Near, Nudge
Bumps and Notches
Now, Nave


NG is strong and sonorous. Whereas the two in H don't quite touch, but hover just around one another, the two in NG long for one another and cling together. NG has the power to bring something into being, a thing or a thought. It has the power to fling something outwards so it takes wing, so it sings out. And like the other nasals (m, n) it is without beginning or end. NG is ongoing. NG is the counterpart to H. Whereas the Home in H always begins a word and therefore forms the backdrop for the word, NG always occurs at the end and expresses a result, a loud, sonorous, unending finale.

Miroir de l'humaine salvation
Musée Condé




L has volume, but no specific shape. It is Liquid, Light and Air. Without support it leans over and becomes limp. It conforms to whatever form it is given. And given an opening, it blows with the wind or flows downward with the water. But its energy in L is not active or assertive or destructive like that of R. L lolls around lazily until something calls it or pulls it away. From the fountain of F, it flees or flies. Behind the barrier of B, it bulges. It spreads the point in P out into a plane, and makes the serpent in S slip and slither and slide. Toward the container of K, it clusters. It glitters indirectly from G and blazes or flashes brightly from the labials. And L is the sound of love, life and feeling. Like the other dentals, L is linear. It is long, and its motion is flowing from one place to another, if it is first released. But the stopped consonants tend to hold it in check when they come after. K can lock it in so it can't go anywhere, P can make it loop around back where it came from. G can waterlog it. T can make it late. D can laden in down. L also has a palatal quality to it like SH and Y which gives it horizontal extent. L is level. It can be held low to the ground by a low vowel, or it can be made light and lifted up high by a high one.

Jean Colombe
Musée Condé

Little and Low
Late, Limp
Loot and Cut
Learning, Law


R is the most masculine of the consonants. It is raw, active energy, radiating outward like a dental in straight lines. It is rearing, raring to go, roaring, rowdy and roguish. It is also linear and inflexible. It has no patience for anything, least of all negotiations. It reasons. It thinks in terms of right and wrong. If it runs along with you it can back you up like a rock. But if crossed, it brings about wrack and ruin. It is the energy which most frequently drives processes implied in the other consonants through to their conclusion. In second position, it makes the face in F to go to the front, the barrier in B to break, the garden in G to grow, the tendency in T to travel, the drain in D to drip. But after the vowel, it often tends to be out of control and destructive. It wars, fears, careens, terrifies, mortifies, horrifies, burns, dares, veers, turns. It is fire. Its color is red. (see also Bias, Positional Phonesthemes)

Jean Bourdichon
Musée Marmottan

Run and Ride
Rip and Rub
Wriggle, Ripple
Linear and Round



And W is the Axis Mundi. It manifests as Wind and Water. It always moves in Waves and Whorls. W is Willful, ever waiting, wishing, wanting, ever wangling and whining. Nearly all its people are women. It lives in the past and the future, the alternate realities, what was, what will be, what would have been. And whereas R never asks any questions, W is full of why and how and wherefor, of quests and wandering. When brought together with R, W can sometimes work, but she has to be on the opposite side of the room. More frequently she is eclipsed, and things go wrong. There is war: writhing, wringing of hands. (see also Bias)

Libro de Horas de Isabel la Catolica
Biblioteca Royale

War and Wiildness
Wisdom, Magic, Questioning
Wind and Water
Walking, Whizzing


Y is the sound of innocence and naivité. It longs for the high adventure. It is filled with youthful exhilaration. Where N says "no", Y says "Yes". But more fundamentally, Y as a palatal consonant represents Extent, long periods of time, great distances: years, yelling, yearning. At the end of a word it stretches things out, displays them, makes them longer, wider, more visible, more accessible: Y plays, flies, sees, sighs. It is the trees and the fields, the sea and the skies.

15th Century Venitian
Musée Marmottan

Yak and Yell


Letter Meanings According to Mystical Traditions

Margo's Magical Letter Page