The Relationship between Sound
and Semantic Classes

copyright 1998
by Margaret Magnus
all rights reserved

Margo's Magical Letter Page

It seems to me that much of word semantics is regulated by the interaction of sound with semantic classes. Phonesthemes are the result of sound semantics filtered through these classes, and these semantic classes are defined by reference, or the arbitrary mapping between sequences of phonemes (like letters) and the 'outside world'. And although DeSaussure spent a great deal of time playing around with sound symbolism (phonosemantics) in his spare time (see Genette), he publicly asserted that there is no relationship between word semantics and sound at all. The generative tradition has basically followed deSaussure in his assertions that there's no relationship between sound and meaning. He was right that the semantic class that a sequence of letters falls into is largely arbitrary ­ that is, you can't predict for any given language whether the sequence of sounds 'dog' is going to refer to an animal, or a period of time, or a musical instrument or whatever. However, once a 'word' has been assigned to such a semantic class, its sound does heavily affect its meaning, much as two people with different personalities will execute the same job very differently. The more robotic and narrowly defined the job is, the less their different personalities will affect its execution. And the more general and open-ended the task, the more they will differ in their approach to it. For this reason, very concrete semantic classes where the mapping between sound and referent is very tightly defined obstruct the effect of sound on meaning... just as a person's personality does not shine through so clearly when they work flipping burgers as opposed to composing music or writing stories. DeSaussure was mistaken in greatly underestimating the effect of word-personality as it manifests in sound and most linguistic traditions in most periods of history have followed him in making this mistake.

I have offered on my dictionary page a list of words beginning in /b/ organized by concrete semantic classes, where in many cases sound-meaning is eclipsed or very inhibited. What I propose to do here is to look at some semantic classes which are not as narrowly defined as the concrete noun classes, and to show how the effect of sound-meaning shines through a little more clearly, how the words in these classes which contain /b/ differ systematically from those which contain /s/ or /l/.


Let me start for no particular reason with words which imply lowness to the ground or downwardness.

/b/ Base: The /b/ words which are low all imply a foundation on which something rests. This fits with the semantics if /b/ generally which implies a strong barrier or blockage behind which something is supported.

base, bottom

/d/ Down: The /d/ words lie closest to a direct notion of downwardness. About 37% of monosyllabic words containing /d/ are literally or metaphorically downward. The metaphorical downwardness is dampened, dark, dreary, etc. And the literal downwardness looks like this:

dab, dale, daub, deck, deep, dell, delve, dig, dip, ditch, dive, dot, douse, down, dowse, drag, drain, drape, dredge, dregs, drink, drip, drool, droop, drop, drown, duck, dump, dunk
end, flood, grade, ground, lade, land, load, lode, plod, slide

/g/ Ground: The words beginning in /g/ which are low all have to do with the ground of the earth. The way I interpret this is that /g/ quite generally revolves around a hidden source of all bounty and a similarly hidden place to which all things go. On this planet, that place is the ground, from which things mysteriously grow and to which they return when they die. At the end of the word, the /g/ acts not so much as the ground itself, but as the force of the ground ­ as gravity ­ that drags you down so you can only plug along.

glen, gorge, grave, gravel, grange, grant, gravel, groove, ground, grout, gulch, gulf
bog, chug, dig, drag, lag, log, lug, sag, slog, slug, tag, tug

/p/ Drop: The sound /p/ I think of as centering around the Point. When the /p/ is at the beginning of the word, so is the point, and the origin of the falling is specific. When the /p/ is at the end of the word, it is the goal of the falling which is specified, in this case some particular spot on the ground. Observe how different the downward words ending in /p/ are from those ending in /g/, and how consistently so. The /g/ words are uniformly encumbered ­ the /p/ words never unless other encumbering sounds like /sl/ appear in the word. The downward /p/ words contain an /l/ or a dental, most frequently /t/.

pass, pee, piss, pitch, plop, plump, plunge, plunk, pooh, poop, pour, puke
drape, drip, droop, drop, dump, flip, flop, glop, plop, scrap, seep, slip, slop, slump, stoop, swoop, tip, trip

/t/ Teeter: /t/ involves directedness toward a goal. You can see this very clearly in the words that begin with /t/. The tendency or directedness in /t/ 'tips' something over. For /t/ before the vowel, focus is generally at the 'top' of the incline. Unless some other sound like a labial actually knocks the word to the ground, it stays there teetering ot tilt without actually falling. When /t/ is after the vowel, the word is focussed on a landing. When /t/ is at the end of the syllable, focus is on the landing.

tack, tackle, teeter, tilt, tip, tipsy, toss, topple, totter, trip, tumble, turn
stack, stage, stagger, stair, steep, step, stoop, straggle, stumble
faint, fit(seizure), hit, light, seat, set, shit, sit, slant, sleet, splat, spurt, squat, tilt, wilt

/f/ Fall: /f/ I think of as a fountain, the motion of particles after they are released into the air to freedom. The downward motion in /f/ words always has an uncontrolled element to it. In order to actually fall, /f/ needs an /l/ or a dental, just as /p/ does. In initial position, the words are verbs of falling. In final position, they are 'cliffs', overhangs or drop-offs of some kind. And in prefinal 'drift', the falling is supported by water or air.

faint, fall, fell, flat, flip, floor, flop, flounder, flurry, flush, fumble
bluff, cliff, gulf, reef

/s/ Sink: The only downward words I could find which end in /s/ are 'base', 'pass' (water), 'piss', and 'toss', as in wrestling. The only downward motion in /s/ that is frequent enough to consider phonesthemic is in initial position. These words also contain a lot of /t/s and /l/s. With /l/, /s/ has a sliding quality. With /t/, it has a setting or settling quality.

cellar, sag, seat, set, settle, sit, sink, slack, slide, slouch, slump, sound, spill, spike, stagger, stoop, straggle, stumble, sub, swoon, swoop

/s/ Incline:

scale, scarp, scend, scree, slant, slide, slope, sluice, spill, splay, spline, stack, stage, stair, steep, step, stoop

/n/ Nether: In his book The Key, John Philip Cohane makes an interesting observation that many place names referring to rivers throughout the world contain /d//n/. He finds many hundreds, but some obvious examples come to mind: Don, Donau, Dneipr, Dneistr, Danube. I too have the impression that /d//n/ is the most prototypicall downward sequence. Why, I'm not quite sure. I sense that /d/ involves a movement of either decrease or setting in motion, and /n/ in this semantic class is the lower realms themselves.

kneel, nether
end, faint, grange, grant, ground, land, lounge, plant, plunge, scend, slant, sound, trench
cline, down, drain, drown, fen, glen, lean, prone, rain, run, slant, spline, swoon, turn

/ng/ Hang: Like /g/ at the end of a word, /ng/ is subject to gravity. Since it is not a stop, however, gravity does not have an encumbering effect on the word. Gravity in /ng/ tends to work with rather than against.

drink, dunk, plunk, sink
hang, sling, string, swing, thong

/l/ Lean: /l/ quite generally conforms to the contours, and therefore quite readily flows downward in the context of gravity. Unless there's the 'doing' aspect of /d/, the hyperactive /r/ or the peppy precision of /p/ around, downwardness in /l/ is quite generally sloppy, lazy, and limp.

lame, lay, lead, lee, left, lean, leer, lie, lieu, limp, list, lounge, lunge, lurch(v)
cline, flank, slant, slide, slope, slouch, slump
halt, tilt

/l/ Lie:

lay, lean, lie, loll, lounge, lull
sleep, slouch, slump
loll, sprawl

/l/ Lay:

land, lay, lead(card), lean, light, load
place, plant, plunk

/l/ Fall:

black(out), blank(out), bleed, blitz(out), flag, flake, flood, floor, flop, flush, plop, plunk, sleet, slip, slough, slump
molt, salt, whelm, wilt
drool, fall, fell, hail, hurl, kneel, reel, roll, spill


I will compare all the verbs here which have a definite element of force in them, though the force may not necessarily be great. So, for example, 'push', 'press' and 'prick' are included, but not 'put', or 'place'. Also only verbs which can involve physical, not metaphorical force were included, so 'pester' and 'purge' were not included. The majority of force verbs in English do not involve physical force. The verbs are divided into Gravity, Push, Pull, Pump and Friction, and then subdivided again by letter. Rather than commenting again on how these sounds differ, I'll just let the reader observe the differences for herself.


Bloat: bloat, boil(n), bilge, billow, blister, bubble, blouse
Belch: belch, burp
Beat: blow, blast, burst, bomb, bust; bob, beat, bash, baste, bat, batter, belt, bop, buck, buff, buffet(v), bump, bunt

deck(hit), dash, doze(bull), dribble(soccer), drill, dock, down(football)

grate, grind

pounce, punch, putt, paddle, pound, pat, peck, plash, poke, pommel, pummel, punt; push, pedal, pierce, prick, plow, plunge, press, prod, pin, peg, pinch, pitch, pop, prop, pry; paw, plug; pant, puff

turn, tuck, tap, tread, trudge, tromp, toss

clobber, clip, clap, club, conk, crunch, cudgel, cuff, kick; clog, cork

fling, flap, floor(hit)

squeeze, squash, squish, squelch, smear, smash, smush, spread; slap, smack, stab, slam, slog, slug, swat, smite, sock, spank, sting, strike, stroke; step, stamp, stomp, snap; slash, slice; spew, spill, spit, splash, splatter, splay, splutter, spout, sprawl, spray, spring, spurt, sputter, squirt, sway, swing, sweep, swerve

heave, hoist

jam, jab, jack, jar, jolt, jimmy, jog, joust, jiggle, joggle, jockey, jostle

mush, mash, munch

nudge, knock, nuzzle, nestle, knead; gnaw, gnash

lean, lunge; lash, lick


whip, wrinkle


draw, draft, drag, drudge

grab, grasp, grip, grope, guzzle, gobble, gulp

pick, peel, pluck, prime(pump), pry, pull, pump


siphon, slurp, soak, sop, souse, sponge, sip, suck, suckle, swallow, swig, swill; stretch

hold, halt, hang(on), harbor, harness, herd, hook, harvest, hoard, hinder, hamper, hobble, hitch


nab, nibble, nip

lift, ladle, lick, lap, lug

wrench, wrest, wring


Gentle: dump; drip, drop, dip, dribble, drain, dredge, drink, drivel, drizzle, drool, droop, dunk; dangle, drape
Gulp: guzzle, gobble, gulp

Plunge: plunge, plummet, plump, plop, plunk
Excrement: pour, pee, pass water, piddle, piss, poop, puke

Failure: fall, flop

settle, sag, set, sink, slide, slip, slouch, slough, slobber, slump, spill, swoop; siphon, slurp, soak, sop, souse, sponge, sip, suck, suckle, swallow, swig, swill


dampen, deaden, deafen, die(out), dim, dull, drag, drain

fade, flag, fall(off, away, back), fizzle

skid, sweep

lag, lapse, linger, loaf, loiter, loll, lounge, lull

rub, rake, rash, rasp



The words I have marked for roundness are:

· acorn; bald, bale, ball, balloon, barbell, barrel, bead, beaker, beanie, bell, belly, beret, bilge, billow, biscuit, bladder, blimp, blister, bloat, blob, boil, boob, boulder, bowl, bubble, bulb, bulge, bullet, bump, bun, buoy, bur, bust, button; caldron, cameo, can, canister, carafe, cask, capsule, coil, coin, collar, conch, cone, creel, crown, cup, curve, curl, keg, kettle, kipa, quarter; dial, dime, dish, disk, doily, dome, drill; egg; garland, garter, gear, girdle, glass, glob, globe; halo, head, hole, hoop, hump; lasso, leap, lob, lobe, loop; mogul, moon, mug; knob, knoll, knee, knuckle, navel, nest, nickel, nipple, nodule, noose, nostril; opal; pail, pan, pastille, patty, pearl, pebble, pellet, penny, period, peso, pill, pilule, pimple, pit, pivot, planet, plate, platter, pock, pod, point, pompon, pore, pot, pupil(eye); reel, ring, roll, roulette, round, wrap, wreath, wrench, wring, wrist; circle, cirque, saucer, screw, scroll, sombrero, spin, spindle, spiral, spool, sun, swing, swirl, swivel, swoop; turn, twirl, twist; waist, wheel, whirl, whorl, wind, wok; yarmulke

Roundness is very frequent in labials, particularly when combined with /l/. I will make some observations here about some of the other forms of roundness in English.

· One source of roundness is bloatedness, which is the result of a passive force behind a barrier. By my intuition, the words in the above list exhibiting this kind of force are: balloon, belly, bladder, blimp, blister, bloat, blob, boil, bubble, bulge. They all contain a /b//l/. (The word 'puff' might also fit in here, but it seems to me not to be necessarily round, and this is due to a porousness which 'puff' allows, but these other words don't. The porousness comes from the /f/ (fluff, feather, foam, etc.).) (/b//l/ has a pattern similar to its unvoiced version, /p//l/. But /b/ gives the construction more force (blast, blare) and less precision (blunt) than does /p/. So the plane of /pl/ bulges in /bl/. /b//l/ never pulls like /p//l/ ­ /b/ almost never goes inward. A neat 'plug' in /p/ goes to 'block' in /b/;' placing' goes to 'belting'; and 'splitting' and 'splattering' goes to 'blasting' and 'blowing up'. The emptiness of 'pale' and 'paltry' is very pervasive in /b//l/, but it is in general more complete: black, bland, blank, blasé, bleach, bleak, blind, blur, bald. I think the fact that /b//l/ has more blankness than /p//l/ is related to the greater strength of the blockage in /b/. There is more pressure on one side of the barrier in /b/, and more emptiness on the other. A very similar phenomenon concerning /p//r/ and /b//r/ has been discussed at some length in Lawler.)

· The words which imply that something is swung out are: swing, swirl, swoop, whirl and whorl. These are different from the other turning motions 'drill, roll, spin, swivel, turn, twist, wind, wrap, wring' in that something is swung outward. Three of these words contain the pattern /w/ V/r//l/. One exception, 'swing' rhymes with: fling, ring, sing, spring, wing, zing, which also have this same type of flinging outward. The '-ing' words which do not have this connotation are: bring, cling, king, ping, sting, string, thing, wring.

· The other exception, 'swoop' ends in 'oop'. The base words ending on the sound /u:p/ exhibit a tendency to being held together (coop, goop, group, scoop, troop, troupe) or to having a loop shape (hoop, loop, scoop, stoop, swoop). The other /u:p/ base words are: croup, droop, dupe, poop, snoop, soup. It seems that 'hoop', 'loop' and 'swoop' get their roundness from 'oop', which involves a hanging or outward force given by the /u:/, and a precise boundary given by the /p/. Another words which expresses a similar loop shape is 'noose'. In 'noose', the /u:/ forces the rope outward, the /s/ makes it into a line. The phoneme /n/ can be described as: 'near, narrow, nigh, no never, not, nix,...... Now'. It reminds me of a limiting process in mathematics, the smile of the Cheshire Cat. That is the meaning that /n/ supplies to 'noose'. (Words starting with /n/ tend to be smallish, niggling and nitpicky, and the rounded things beginning with /s/ are also small: knob, knoll, kneel, knuckle, navel, nest, nickel, nipple, nodule, nostril. There are also a number of round small things beginning with /p/, but unlike /n/, these tend to be detached objects like pills and pebbles. This is consistent with the conjecture that /p/ has a sharp boundary.)

· The words 'bump' and 'hump' end in 'ump', which generally involves a rounded elevation: (bump, clump, crumpet, crumple, hump, jump, lump, mumps, plump, pump, pumpkin, rump, rumple, stump), or its opposite: (chump, dump, frump, grump, slump, sump). There are 3 'ump' words involving hitting: (chump, crump, thump). The remaining 'ump' base words are (trump, trumpet, umpire). (I don't have a particularly clear understanding of how this is analyzed into phoneme meanings. The phoneme /m/ is mushy, of a consistency that can be molded, and is therefore clayey without sharp edges. It's conceivable that when /m/ is surrounded by a clear boundary provided by /p/, you tend to get a bump. A stressed 'um' in general tends to indicate clumsiness, numbness or bluntness (bum, bumble, bummer, clumsy, comfit, crumb, crumble, crummy, cumber, dumb, fumble, glum, grumble, gum, humble, humbug, humdrum, jumble, kumquat, lumber, lummox, mum, mumble, mummy, numb, plum, scum, slum, slumber, stumble, thumb, tumble, tummy). The most basic 'um' words are come, from and some, which says nothing to me. The other 'um words are: chum, comfit, drum, hum, hummock, jumbo, number, plumb, plummet, pommel, rum, rumba, rumble, rummy, strum, sum, summer, summersault, summit, thrum, yummy)

· English seems to like the phoneme /p/ for round food, and /r/ for berries:

Fruits ­ apple, apricot, cantaloupe, grape, kiwi, melon, passion, persimmon, peach, pear, pomegranat, plum
Citrus ­ lemon, lime, orange, tangerine
Vegetables ­ bean, beet, cabbage, onion, pea, potato, pumpkin, spud, tomato
Berries ­ berry, cherry, currant
Other ­ olive, pistachio

Margo's Magical Letter Page