Happy #phonologicalfriday everyone!
I hope you are doing well.

If you are a regular reader of this blog, you know that I like to find logic in the English language. I think it is important that educators can tell students why things are spelled a certain way.

A few weeks ago I found a book that I just had to get and it arrived this week. It is by Colin Williams called SL- is for Sleaze but SN- is for Sneeze! The Meaning Behind English Consonant Clusters. Within the first few pages of this book, I was introduced to the term phonosemantics. As I read further into the book I thought it would be a great thing to post about, because if it is a new term for me, then there are probably others who don’t know about it either.

In this post, I will tell you about what I have learned so far! Please leave a comment if you know of any other resources I should look into or have things you think should be added to the post!

Phonesematics is a small but growing field of linguistics. It is the idea that sounds have inherent meaning. It is also referred to as phonesthesia or sound symbolism.

Phonesthemes refers to the meaning related to a cluster of sounds. A sound cluster may have more than one phonesthemes.

Before going any further, it is important to note that phonosemantics is not the same thing as morphology. Phonesthemes are general trends found within the language and not as consistent as morphemes. Words with prefixes, roots, and suffixes already have part of their meaning explained and the relationship between then is more obvious.

Once you remove these words and regroup the remaining words together that have the same clusters of sounds, there will be several words that have at least something that ties them together. Sometimes this commonality isn’t very apparent at first, but all it takes is someone pointing it out to you and then it becomes more apparent.

At the very least, these consonant clusters can provide us a hint into the word’s etymology or where this word came from.

I will share a couple of examples that Williams (2018) goes through in his book.

The phonestheme st can be found in hundreds of thousands of English words. While the words containing this cluster can trace their origins to a variety of different sources, the vast majority of them can be traced back to Proto-Indo-European origins.

This cluster includes words such as step, stay, stable, sting, steadfast, establishment, and obstacle. Words containing this cluster tend to be rigid and unbending.

The consonant cluster br is another one with a rich European history and appears to have three phonesthemes associated with it. Many words containing this cluster can be sorted into traditional ideas of masculine and feminine.

The masculine words such as brag, bravery, and brawn have underpinnings of aggressiveness and territorialism. While feminine words like bride, breed, and bread are associated with traditional feminine things around homemaking and feeding. The final phonestheme of this blend relates to bristly things.

The vast majority of words containing the consonant cluster sn have to do with the nose. Think of the following words: sniffle, snore, snout, sneeze, and even Snuffleupagus. We can see this pattern in Old English, Norse, Proto-Germanic, Norwegian, Baltic Languages.

Williams, C. (2018) Sl- is for sleaze but sn- is for sneeze: The meanings behind English consonant clusters. ISBN-13:978-1985830899

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