Friday, October 24, 2008

Mimesis and Sound Symbolism

Mimesis is a fun concept that I discussed a fair amount in my thesis. It's a philosophical/literary/linguistic term (it does, of course, have other usages), which means--for my purposes, at least--sound imitating meaning. I relate it very much to sound symbolism (another biggie in my thesis); it's when a word sounds like what it means. Onomatopoeia is a common example of mimesis. When we hear "meow," we automatically think of a cat, or when we hear "moo," we think of a cow. But to what extent is sound tied to meaning? Do we associate a word's meaning with it's sound because the two are actually related, or is it just an arbitrary assignment?

I quote (rather extensively--sorry!) from Magic Words: the Phonology of Fantasy Neologisms below (don't worry; I gave myself written permission):

Is there a meaning behind the words that authors coin? Do the sounds themselves tell us something about the words? ... Sound Symbolism (Hinton, et. al., 1994) is the area of linguistics that discusses the link between sound and meaning. Hinton et. al. addresses the various types of symbolism, including corporeal (sounds such as coughing), imitative (onomatopoeia), and synesthetic (tone, pitch, elongation of syllables for emphasis) These examples show that, whether by origin or evolution, certain sounds, classes of sounds, combinations of sounds, can have meaning attached to them by the speaker and/or the hearer. Hinton et. al. also addresses issues such as the frequency code, which tells us that high tones, vowels with a high 2nd formant (especially [i]) and high frequency consonants are associated with high frequency sounds, small size,sharpness, rapid movement, and closeness. On the other hand, low tones, vowels with a low 2nd formant, and low frequency consonants are associated with low frequency sounds, large size, softness, heavy; slow movements, and far distance. (Hinton, et al 1994, 325; Fromkin 2000, 521) For example, the word tiny indicates something very small, but teeny may be even smaller. This is also commonly seen in how words are diminutivized in English; a small dog is a “doggie,” a small cat is a “kitty,” and so on. Even my name reflects this; my family often calls me Katie (I am both the youngest and the shortest in the family!). Likewise, other languages show this phenomenon. In German, the diminutive is indicated by adding the suffix [xɪn], and Spanish uses the suffix [itə] (fem.) or [ito] (masc.). A former German teacher called me Katechen [keɪtxɪn] (the German equivalent of Katie), and a Spanish professor called me Katiesita [keɪtisitə]. Both of these diminutives—from two very different languages—use a high front vowel to indicate small size. From this, it is evident that this sound-symbolic process is pan linguistic.

Certain phoneme classes are sometimes associated with particular semantic fields. Most commonly discussed with literature and reading in mind, this phenomenon is best illustrated by imitative and synesthetic forms. In imitatives, stops equal abrupt sounds and acts; continuants represent continuing sounds or acts; nasals are used for reverberating, ringing sounds; and fricatives mimic the quick, audible motion of an object through air. (Hinton et. al., 1994, 10) In literature, the sound of words chosen toportray meaning plays an important role. This shows up most frequently in poetry, but may also be present in other forms of literature and particularly in neologism. In linguistics, the major question is, how arbitrary is language form? How much can the form of language be tied to meaning? The answers to these questions, if they exist, are amorphous, but it is clear that meaning and sound can never be fully separated. (Hinton, et. al., 1994, 5)

“The sound of a word is not random. Be it the movement of the lips and tongue, or the sensory experience of saying or reading the word, sounds create certain associations.” (Sedia, 2005) Individual segments can, themselves, create images and impressions. [i] and [ɪ] sounds are often perceived as smaller than [e] or [o] sounds. These impressions are important to our pictorial and verbal thinking, creating a muscle sense that enables us to mesh all of our impressions into a more complex whole. When we read or speak any given word, it feels a certain way. Some words may be thought beautiful or ugly, depending on the feel of them in the mouth. “The words used to build a fictional world…matter,” (ibid) some fantasy worlds endure and some don’t; some fantasy writing is authentic and some isn’t. Appropriate use of neologism increases the chance that the story will be real and endure. “Many authors use onomatopoeic words—words that mimic a natural sound like crunch or slosh…Often we associate certain sounds with certain visual images. This device is often used in fantasy, where good characters have pleasant-sounding names full of vowels and lilting sounds, and the villains have names that are based on sibilants (such as the House of Slytherin in the Harry Potter Books) or burdened with too many consonants.” (Sedia, 2005) ...

Sound and its perceived meaning can tell us interesting things about neologism. Kohler (1992) showed subjects two shapes—one rounded and one angular—and two invented words (“takete” and “maluma”). He then asked them which word went with which shape. Overwhelmingly, the subjects associated “takete” with the angular shape and “maluma” with the rounded shape. The consensus held across a number of different languages, indicating that there is a universal concept at work here. Other researchers have performed similar experiments, including associating the size of an object with words that had either a front or a back vowel (the larger object was universally associated with the back vowel, the smaller object with the front vowel). This further emphasizes the universality of some sound and meaning associations. “Thus, every word, regardless of its intended meaning by its creator, will evoke a certain response in us.” (Sedia, 2005)

The above obviously discusses primarily neologisms, but that's just because that's how it applied to my thesis; it seems that sound symbolism--mimesis included--pervades language.

What do you think?


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