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The Meaning of Sound

Sound Symbolism in Italian

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One of the more hotly debated topics among linguists is the theory known as sound symbolism, which proposes that the relationship between word sounds and word meaning is not arbitrary for all words (linking phonology to semantics). More simply put, it is the belief that humans create terms whose sounds remind us of the objects or actions they name. The most obvious form is onomatopoeia (onomatopea in Italian). Buzz, whoosh, and crackle are examples of our efforts to verbally come as close to the actual sound as we can.

Sound symbolism, however, reaches even deeper levels. Let's take two examples from English: plinto and jundake. These aren't real English words and cannot be found in any dictionary, but see if you can answer a few questions about them. Which of the two would describe a newly discovered animal as large as an elephant? How about one as small as a mouse? Chances are, you answered jundake for the first question and plinto for the second and the reasoning behind this is not pure coincidence.

Some linguists believe that certain clusters of sounds hiding in everyday vocabulary elicit specific images within us. They speculate that tonal qualities may provide us with information about the proximity or size of an object and examples can be taken from both English and Italian. High-pitched vowels, such as ee (as in meet) describe small or close items: qui (here), vicino (near), and piccolo (teeny). On the other end of the spectrum, lower-pitched vowels, such as a (as in wall) or o (as in tone) describe big or far objects: là (there), lontano (far), and grande (large). In addition, the endings –ino(a) or –etto(a) may be added to nouns to make them smaller or more endearing as in fratellino (little brother). Similarly, the suffix –one(a) describes larger items such as in portone (large door or entryway). Consonants also play a large role in sound symbolism. The suffixes –accio, –accia, –acci, –acce are frequently added to nouns as pejorative descriptors. So a really bad day would be a giornaccio, bad weather or a storm would be referred to as a tempaccio and so on.

However, sound symbolism is far from foolproof. The Italian words qua (here) and lì (there) may be used to disprove the idea because their sound patterns are exactly the opposite of that proposed. In English, the adjectives small and big are frequently cited by critics of sound symbolism as examples which poke holes in the theory. And never make the assumption that every word which ends in –accio(a) is negative as there are many examples of neutral nouns with this ending: faccia (face), ghiaccio (ice), and braccio (arm).

So how does this help anyone learning Italian? Otto Jespersen, the Danish linguist, contributed greatly to the advancement of phonetics and linguistic theory. After devoting much of his time to phonological study, he concluded that sound symbolism makes some words "more fit to survive" because the word has considerable strength in the memory of a speaker. As long as you exercise care, you can begin to make predictions about meanings of unfamiliar words or at least get an idea of the connotations of particular nouns (positive or negative, large or small). With practice, you can even start creating your own new nicknames.

About the Author: Britten Milliman is a native of Rockland County, New York, whose interest in foreign languages began at age three, when her cousin introduced her to Spanish. Her interest in linguistics and languages from around the globe runs deep but Italian and the people who speak it hold a special place in her heart.

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