Positional Phonesthemes

by Margaret Magnus
copyright 1998 by Margaret Magnus
all rights reserved

Margo's Magical Letter Page


One way to get closer to a characterization of the phonetic features is to conduct the following experiment. The results in general are clearer if you stay with monosyllabic roots or words:

1. Choose a consonant and a position in the word. Here I choose /r/ in second position after another consonant.

2. Divide the words according to another phonological characteristic. In this case, I divided the monomorphemic English words containing /r/ in second position by initial consonant.

3. For each of these classes, create a nice set of phonesthemes (semantic classes). If necessary, ignore very concrete words, like words for units of measurement, names of foods, etc.. The criterion for a nice set of phonesthemes is as always:

a. Very nearly all the words fit into some semantic class.
b. The semantic classes are narrowly defined. For example, 'thin' is more narrow than 'small', because it's a particular type of 'small'.
c. Words fit into as many semantic classes as possible.
d. There are a relatively small number of such narrowly defined semantic classes.

4. Now go across these classes that you have defined matching up similar phonesthemes. For example, you may match up the 'breaking' phonestheme you have made for /br/ with the 'fracturing' phonestheme you have made for /fr/. As you do this, you may find that you want to adjust the phonesthemes a little.

5. Look at how the phonesthemes you have matched up differ, especially with an eye to classes of sound. For example, do all the 'fracturing' words begining with [+fricative]/r/ have something in common semantically as well?

Below are the results for this test as performed for English monosyllables in initial position. The classes which /r/ in second position was found to occur in frequently were:

Some additional classes were considered which are not any more typical of /r/ than of other phonemes:

I observe that often the classes that match up most closely differ by semantic characteristics which are even narrower than the two defining phonemes would suggest. For example, in the rupture class for voiced stops in initial position. /r/ tends to rip, break, part and tear no matter where it's positioned in the word, and /d/ is downward and linear throughout the English lexicon (as well as frequently wet), but /dr/ in this rupture class is not just an vertical line that is fractioned into several pieces; the words specifically concern dripping water. This is the phenomenon I refer to as 'clustering': phonesthemes are even more narrowly defined than they need to be given the characteristics of the phonemes involved. Reference seems to be applicable to whole classes of words, as in /dr/[V] -> downward flowing water usually repetitively broken.

/r/ in Second Position

/r/ appears in second position after any stop, and after the unvoiced fricatives /f/, /T/ and /S/.

Rupture and Fractioning

/r/ initiates many words of 'ruin' and 'ripping'. This phonestheme is active when /r/ is in second position as well. The ruptures that are non-iterative show up when a stop consonant is in initial position. If the stop is voiced, we have an additional and related class of words which are fractioned into many pieces. And if a fricative is in initial position, the result is broken into uncountably many fine particles. We can more or less characterize the effects of the phonological features in this class as follows:

[+stop, +voiced] - many distinct but countable parts
[+stop, -voiced] - snip off an end or pierce at a point
[+fricative] - mashed into single consistency, pieces are uncountably many
[+labial] - ends, points, tips
[+dental] - lines
[+velar] - rupture in a surface

I will list the verbs first and the related words which are the results of the actions of these verbs immediately behind them.

a. Rupture

· Break - something hard broken off or severed into two or more pieces
bran, branch, breach, break, brief, brittle, brook, browse, bruise

· Dig - regular breaking downward through dirt
dredge, drill
· Dirt - that which remains from digging
dreck, dredge, dregs

· No verb exists
· Groove - an open indentation, the deepest point is typically not visible
grave, groin, groove, grotto

· Prick - a long hard object with a point which pierces a surface at one point
prick, prickle, probe, prod, prong

· Trim - something linear and often growing the tips of which are cut back just slightly
· Trifle - a small thing which has been made out to be bigger than it is
trifle, trinket, trite

· Cut - to cut a surface
crack, crop
· Crack - deformities in a surface
crack, cranny, crater, crease, crevasse
· Crunch(Crinkling sounds) - the sound of deforming a surface
crack, crackle, crash, crinkle, crunch

b. Fractioned/Many Pieces
[+stop, +voiced]

· Branchy - radiating lines from a base
bracken, braid, brake, bramble, branch, briar, bristle, broom, brow, brush
· Breed - offspring of a single source
brace, breed, brood, brother
· Type - a group which all fit a specific characterization and have a common source
brace, bracket, branch, brand

· Drip - liquid flowing linearly cut into drops
dribble, drip, drizzle, drop
· Drop - particles of liquid resulting from dripping
dribble, drip, drivel, drizzle, drop

· Grind - to push through a grid
grind, grate
· Grid - a network of lines crossing at 90 degrees to form squares
grate, grid, grill, grille, graph
· Grainy - small bits resulting from grinding
grain, gravel, grit

c. Broken into a Mass of Uncountably Many Tiny Particles

· Fray - to split the tips of something soft into a mass of fuzz or foam
frizz, frizzle, fray, froth, fry
· Frill - intricate decorations at the edge
frill, frieze, fringe, frock
· Froth - foam, uncountable, small bubbles or bits, usually in liquid
(freckle), frost, froth

· Thresh - to flail something flexible and linear fairly violently
thrash, thresh
· Thread - a long piece of materials thinner than a string

· Shred - to cut something solid into many small strips or particles


The rupture in /r/ gives rise also to words for waste. We might characterize the features as follows:

[+labial] - senseless, empty waste of time or energy
[+dental] - that which is thrown or drained away
[+velar] - greasy or crumbly texture, excess from something eaten or used
[+stop] - emphasis on the waste itself
[+fricative] - emphasis on the activity of discharging and its subsequent release
[+voiced] - dirtier, more heavy duty garbage

· Brabble - empty, boastful talk
brabble, brag, brattle, bray

· Drain - waste liquid drained, or the remains after liquid is drained
drain, dreck, dregs, drivel, drool

· Grease - greasy excess
grease, grime, grisly, gristle, gross

· Prattle - empty chatter
prate, prattle

· Trash - that which is thrown out

· Crap - excess
crap, crud, crumb

· Frivol - senseless, empty activity, waste of time
fribble, frill, fritter, frivol

· Throw - to eject, in this context to subsequently ignore

· Shrug - to ignore. The difference between throwing and shrugging is that throwing involves picking it up and ejecting it forcibly away. With a shrug, it just rolls off by itself


/r/ has a lot of human trash as well, along with adjectives to describe them and other words outlining their activities. These groupings are more referentially based. They are also in a sense broader, although each group forms a cohesive whole. A characterization for the features is therefore harder to pin down. The majority of the company in /r/ is not very pleasant, but each of the phonemes with the exception of /d/ seems to have a less obtrusive and grander aspect: brother, groom, prince, trust, Christ, friend, throne, shrine

Brat - brat, brute
Brazen(adj) - brash, brazen, brusque
Bridle - brawl, bridle, bruise

Drag - drag, drip, drone, drunk
Dreary - drab, drawn, dreary, drunk, dry
Drug - drink, drop, drowse

Grouch - grouch, grump
Grumpy - grim, gruff
Growl - grimace, gripe, groan, grumble, grunt, growl

Prude - prig, prissy, prude, prune
Prim - pretty, prim, prissy, proper
Primp - preen, primp

Troll - troll (tyrant)
Trample - trammel, tramp, trample, tromp, trounce

Crook - creep, crook
Cruel - craft/y, craven, cruel
Crunch - crime, crumple, crunch, crush
Cretin - crank, cretin, crony, crumb
Crude - crass, crude
Cry - crave, croon, cry

Freak - freak, frump
Fret - frenzy, fret, frown
Fribble - fribble, fritter, frivol

Threat - threat
Thrill - throb, throe, thrill
Thresh - thrash, thresh

Shrew - shrew
Shrewd - shrewd, shrill
Shriek - shriek


/r/ initiates many words of rippling, rolling and other repetitive undulating motion. As we have seen, when /r/ is preceded by a voiced stop or a fricative, this undulation succeeds in causing a multiple fracture. But when an unvoiced stop precedes /r/, it cannot cause a multiple rupture. In terms of Paget's 'phoneme physics' this suggests that perhaps unvoiced stops are somehow more impervious to /r/ than their voiced counterparts. Again, we find labials clustering around points, dentals around lines, and velars around surfaces:

[+stop, -voiced]

· Prickle - a sensation of being pricked at a multitude of tiny points

· Tremble - waver back and forth along a line between two positions
trickle, trill, tremble, tremor

· Crinkle - combines the rippling of /r/ with the corners of /k/ to produce multiple corners and creases in a surface
crackle, crag, cram, cramp, crash, crest, crewel, crick, crimp, crinkle, crisp, cream, crochet, crumb, crumble, crump, crumple, crunch, crush, crust, crystal


The words of deception in this class begin with an unvoiced consonant. Two other words related to this class but beginning with a voiced sound are 'graft' and 'grift'. There are plenty of words of deception beginning with other consonants, but they do not contain an /r/ in second position. This is a very common phenomenon. Almost all phonemes can appear in words of deception, but the [-voiced]/r/ combination seems to allow for deception more readily than the [+voiced]/r/ combination. Perhaps the fact that unvoiced sounds are not so easily ruptured by /r/ allows for this concealment when this dynamic is projected metaphorically onto the semantic space of misbehavior.


Prank - prank, prop

Trick - trap, treason, trick, trip

Crafty - craft/y, crime, crook

Fraud - frame, fraud

Throw - throw

Shrewd - shrewd, shroud


Another piece of evidence that suggest that unvoiced stops are more impervious to rupture by /r/ than voiced stops is the fact that closed containers which have /r/ in second position begin with unvoiced stops. The closest /b/ comes are 'braces' and 'brackets'. The closest /g/ comes are 'grooves' and 'grottos'. /f/ has 'fridge' and /S/ has 'shrine':

[+stop, -voiced]

Prison - prison

Vehicle - tractor, trailer, train, tram, troika, trolley, truck
Trap - trap

Crate - cradle, craft, crate, crater, crèche, creel, crib, crock, crypt

Edge of Something

There is a class in /f/ and in /b/ which relates to the edge of something. In /p/, we find tips and points, as well as 'prime' examples, but not edges, and in the other phonemes, we find neither.


· Brim - a liquid or other substance on the verge of spilling over
brim, brink

· Fringe - a fuzzy or fine border, tip or surface, often perceived as superfluous
fray, frieze, frill, fringe, frizz, frizzle, froth

Directed Movement Verbs

/r/ begins a large class of words concerning running, riding and roads. This phonestheme also occurs when /r/ is in second position after a stopped consonant. In this case, the effect of the phonological features might be characterized as:

[+voiced] - no concern for the result
[-voiced] - specific intention or result
[+labial, +stop] - pressure onto something, often from within a container with a narrow opening like a well or the lungs
[+dental] - natural linear motion, against resistance in /d/ and generally with little resistance in /t/ and /T/
[+velar] - motion over (/k/) or rooted in (/g/) a surface or terrain
[+stop] - specific path
[+fricative] - no concern for the path

· Blow - flow of air
bray, breath, breathe, breeze

Down - we find several classes of flowing. With the exception of a 'draft' of air, all of them are natural, downward and heavy or slow
· Drip - liquid
drain, dram, drench, dribble, drift, drink, drip, drivel, drizzle, drool, drop, drown
· Drag - friction against the ground
draft, drag, draggle, draw, dredge, drive, drove, drudge
· Drape - concerning cloth
drape, dress, droop, drop
· Draft - air

· Grow - plants rooted in the ground
graft, green, grow
· Grains - grass, grist, grits, gruel, groat, grout
· Garden - grange, grant, green, grove

· Press - pressure against a single point in order to initiate a process
press, prime (pump)

Travel - motion by people along a specified course without resistance and with an intended goal
· Travel - motion of people by vehicle
travel, trawl, trek, trip
· Track - a course along which one travels
track, tract, trail, trellis, trestle
· Tread - by foot
trammel, tramp, trample, tread, treadle, tromp, trot, trounce, trudge
· Vehicle - a vehicle in which one travels
tractor, traffic, trailer, train, tram, troika, trolley, truck
· Tray - a container or plate one uses to assist in carrying things while travelling
tray, truckle, trundle, trunk
· Traveller - a person who travels
tramp, tribe, troop, troubadour, troupe
· Trail - travel while dragging something behind
trail, trawl

· Cross - motion over something with clear boundaries
· Crawl - motion by a person or animal while crouched over and against resistance
crawl, creep
· Cruise - travel on the ocean with no particular goal for leisure, typically by the upper class

· Free - unlimited by any outside force
frank, free, frolick

· Throw - project into flight by an initial force
throw, thrust


Words beginning in /r/ which involve pressure are implicit in many classes such as those of support, raising and rubbing. All the relevant phonemes can occur in classes in which the force of /r/ is pushed up against something. The features can be characterized something like:

[+voiced] - focus on the process, heavy
[-voiced] - focus on the point of contact
[+labial, +stop] - support or preparation from behind
[+dental, +stop] - natural linear motion
[+velar] - pressure against a surface out in front
[+stop] - pressure causes a permanent effect
[+fricative] - solidify into a mass, effect in place only as long as the conditions maintain

· Brunt - a base which forms a foundation for something heavy which must not collapse
brace, brake, break, breech, bridge, brook, brunt

· Drag - pulling something heavy along the ground against friction along a path
drag, draggle, draw, dredge, drudge
· Drive - pushing something forward forcefully along a path
draft, drive, drove

· Grind - passing something through a sharp planar net
grate, grill, grind

· Press - pushing with a pointed object on a specific point
prance, press, prick, print, prod, prong
· Prop - leaning against something which it touches at a point
prone, prop

· Tread - stepping down heavily with the feet
tread, treadle, trammel, tramp, trample, tromp, trounce

· Crush - to break something solid between two surfaces by means of pressure
crack, crash, cream, crumb, crumble, crunch, crush
· Crinkle - something which is made to have creases or corners by applying pressure
cram, cramp, cranny, cramp, crease, crick, crimp, cringe, crinkle, cripple, crouch, crump, crumple, crystal

· Freeze - solidification by cold
freeze, frost

· Throng - a group of living beings pressed into a dense mass by following some object of interest


Some of the stops have classes of words for receiving which does not happen by force:


· Bridge - connection between two points
bridge, bring

· Give - receipt from a large, magnanimous and often unforeseen source
grace, grail, grant

· Proffer -
prize, proffer

· Trove - receipt by chance
treat, trophy, trove, trump


In initial position, /r/ can 'rally' to support. This is similar to its tendency to 'raise' or work against the force of gravity. Most of the 'raising' in second position falls together with words of pressure. The fricatives of course do not offer any support.


· Base - foundation on which something rests
breech, brunt

· Drive - to push forward along a path
draft, drift, drive, drove

· Ground - the ground! from which things grow

· Prepare - get something ready for a future event
prep, prime, prior, primp, pro, probe, prone, prompt, prop

· Truss - trapeze, truss

· Crutch - a fastener which one leans on in walking
crampon, crutch


We outlined a class beginning with /r/ of words of preparation. Here we consider more generally words which propel into the future. The features might be characterized as:

[+labial] - initiation
[+dental] - propelling a process in mid-stream
[+velar] - a mature process
[+stop] - emphasizes a starting point, boundaries
[+fricative] - emphasizes the process itself
[+voiced] - creation of something new
[-voiced] - implies an ongoing, preexisting or pending process

· Begin - initiate a new process
branch, break, breed, brew, bring, broach

· Drive - propel a process in midstream so that it comes into being
draft, drive

· Grow - development of somthing into something bigger
green, grow

· Prepare - make ready for an upcoming event
prep, prime, primp, probe, prompt, prone, prop

· Trigger - flip a switch to set a pending event going
trigger, trip
· Train - the process of learning to perform a task
train, try

· Cross - after having come some way in a process, moving over a boundary into a new dimension

· Forward - motion outward at the anterior end of a process
fro, front, frontier

· Through - motion en route surrounded by something along a linear path
thread, through


We found a phonestheme in /r/ centered around large quantities. The features for groups can be characterized as follows:

[+labial, +stop] - group selected for a purpose
[+dental] - gathered by following a common goal
[+velar] - general gathering

· Branch - a subdivision broken off from a source
bracket, branch, brand, breed, brood

· Drove - people or animals driven from behind toward some goal

· Group -
grade, gross, group

· Prime - the best candidates from a larger class
prime, prize

· Troupe - travelling groups
tribe, troop, troubadour, troupe

· Crowd -
crew, crowd

· Phrase -
frame, phrase

· Throng - people or animals drawn toward some goal


Related to groups are words for large size. These occur in those stops which form a container of the mouth.

[+stop, -dental]

· Broad - wide, expansive

· Grand - large, magnificent
grand, great

· Prime - The best from a group
prime, prize

· Crest - The top part
crest, crown


These words involve forcefulness and desire. Those in /g/ actually have a hold on the desired , whereas those in /k/ only suffer, but can't touch what they want. There is also the verb 'bring' which is similar in some ways, but doesn't have this element of desire. It also ends in a velar.


· Grab - to hold forcefully to something
grab, grabble, grapple, grasp, greed, grift, grip, grope, grub

· Crave - to desire greatly
crave, croon, cry


[+dental, -voiced]

Trio - treble, trio, triple, trivet
Three - three, thrice


Let me now list the words in those classes which I have chosen to compare throughout this presentation of each of the consonants in initial position: heat/fire, water, sound and emotion. We will not summarize the classes, because it's fairly obvious what they have in common. In this group it is harder to give characterizations for the phonological features:

Broil - braise, braze, brew, bright, broil, broth
Dry - dry, drought
Grill - griddle, grill
Fry - fry
Shrivel - shrivel

Unsettled - breaker, brine, brook
Drip - drain, dram, drench, dribble, drink, drip, drivel, drizzle, drool, drop, drown
Greasy - grease, grime, grisly, gristle, gross
Trickle - trickle
Creek - creek
Froth - froth
Freeze - freeze, frost

Bray - brabble, brag, brattle, bray
Drawl - drawl, drone, drum
Grumble - gripe, groan, grumble, grump, grunt, growl
Prattle - praise, prate, prattle, pray, prayer, preach, proof/prove, proffer
Trumpet - trombone, trumpet
Cry - croak, croon, cry
Crinkle - crackle, crash, creak, crinkle, crumple, crunch
Phrase - frame, phrase
Thrum - throb, thrum
Shriek - shriek, shrill

'Shrieking' seems not to be so clearly angry as the words that begin with voiced stops. It seems more hysterical and manipulative. 'Crimson' can also express anger:

Bridle - bridle, brood, brusque
Drat - drat
Grumble - grim, grimace, gripe, grit, grind, grudge, gruff, grumble, grump, grunt, grouch, growl

[+stop, -labial]

Dreary - drab, drawn, dreary, dry
Grieving - grave, grief, grieve
Trouble - trauma, travail, trouble, trudge
Crushed - crack, crumble, crush


The closest word in the stops is 'craze' which seems to differ from hysteria in that it is aunthentic
Frenzy - frenzy, fret
Throe - throe
Shriek - shrew, shriek, shrill

Brave - brave, bravo, brazen, bright, brisk
Droll - droll
Great - grand, great, grin, grit
Proud - praise, prance, pride, proud
Triumph - treat, triumph, trophy
Frisky - frank, free, frisk/y, frolick
Thrill - thrill, thrive, throb

[-labial, -stop]

Dread - dread
Grovel - grovel
Tremble - tremble, tremor
Crouch - crawl, creep, cringe, crouch
Fear - freeze, frenzy, fright
Threat - threat, throb
Shrink - shrink, shrivel


Drowse - dream, drop, drowse, drug, drunk
Trance - trance, tranquil

A few final classes:

The Mind

The features might be characterized as:

[+labial] - completed, clear
[+dental] - process, implicit goal or direction
[+velar] - unclear, unexamined

Bright - brain, bright
Drill - drill, drive
Understanding - grapple, grasp, grip, grog, grope, ground
Prove - proof, prove
Trust - trade, treaty, troth, truce, true, trust, tryst
Credo - creed, credo
Frame - frame, phrase
Shrewd - shrewd



Drape - drape, dress
Crochet - crewel, crochet
Frock - fray, frill, fringe, frock
Thread - thread
Shroud - shroud


The words 'bright', 'groom', 'trim' and 'fresh' are similar, but most of the primping is in /p/


Pretty - preen, pretty, prim, primp, prissy, proper, prune


The non-concrete monomorphemic words which have an /r/ in second position and which have not been mentioned in the foregoing discussion are:

· brawn, bribe
· graze, greet
· prey, prowl, price, prairie
· trace, trait, trend
· crux
· frail, fraught, frisk

One could continue in this vein for some time especially outlining classes which are more concrete. Still we begin to discern something about the nature of the dynamic. Most of the literature on phonosemantics concerns polyconsonantal groups such as these, though not presented in quite this way. (Lawler, McCune and Rhodes view onsets as playing a function similar to that of classifiers in other languages.)

There seem to be two primary forces at work which give rise to this phenomenon - one inherently divisive and one unifying. Reference is divisive. It tends to use a single form - a single sequence of phonemes - as a means to an end, and thereby fraction it by placing it in a context. Reference occurs primarily on the level of the word, and it is this which makes the word the most basic linguistic unit - we recognize it as a 'thing' to be used. The clustering dynamic, which McCune has thought of as 'attraction of submorphemic sets', is a unifying force which seeks to make each individual form - each phoneme and each combination of phonemes - command a single and unique semantic domain. It therefore clusters referents together subject to the constraints imposed by pronunciation.

The result is that within each phoneme we find a fairly specific and highly interconnected set of semantic classes which are related by metaphor and possibly other processes to pronunciation. These classes taken together form as single logical whole. When we cross these wholes with one another by putting two phonemes in succession, we get more narrowly defined classes which bear elements of each of their component parts. We have observed that in the less concrete, more verbal or adjectival classes, a characterization of the phonological features also becomes discernable. Let us form a tentative semantic characterization of the phonetic features based on the data given anove for /r/ in second position here:

· many distinct but countable parts
· dirty, angry
· heavy duty
· little concern for results
· creation of something new
· an end or point
· iterative but nonbreaking
· specific intention or result
· an ongoing, preexisting or pending process
· emphasis on a thing or product as opposed to a process
· specific path, starting point, boundaries
· receiving, support
· end, point, boundary, container, marginally breakable
· mashed into single consistency
· soft
· uncountably many
· emphasis on the activity or process itself
· release, no concern for the path, hysteria
· a narrow opening
· selected for a purpose
· ends, points, tips, edges, initiation
· senseless, empty waste of time or energy
· completed, clear
· sadness
· fear
· narrow opening
· group selected for a purpose
· linearity
· natural motion, sleep/trance
· implicit goal or direction
· mid-stream, process
· large size
· surface
· a mature process
· gathering, grabbing, craving, excess
· something hidden, unclear, unexamined

[+dental, -voiced]
· three

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