Empirically Observed Iconicity Levels of English Phonaesthemes

  • Nahyun Kwon Nahyun Kwon, Department of Applied Linguistics, Nagoya University, Furo-cho, Chikusa-ku, Nagoya-shi


This paper aims to reveal to what extent the diagrammatic iconicity (i.e., form-meaning correspondences which are created by relating similar sets of forms with similar sets of meanings [Peirce, 1955, p. 104]) of English phonaesthemes (e.g., gl- in glitter, glisten, and glow) could manifest primary iconicity (i.e., iconicity that involves a sufficient similarity between sign and referent to allow the understanding that the former stands for the latter [Sonesson, 1997]). To serve the aim, the current research conducts a test, using a multiple-choice task in which groups of native English and Korean speakers choose the meanings of phonaesthemes in sets of aurally-presented nonsense English phonaesthemic words. If primary iconicity is carried by a phonaestheme, then both native and non-native listeners should be able to report with some consistency the putative meaning of the nonsense phonaesthemic words. If, on the other hand, a form-meaning correspondence is carried by secondary iconicity (where the existence of the sign-relation, given by convention or by being explicitly pointed out, is the precondition for noticing the similarity between sign and referent [Sonesson, 1997]), then neither language group is expected to deliver high correct guessing rates. The result showed that the purported meanings of sk- and tw- were correctly guessed by the Korean-speaking participants only, and those of cl-, gl-, sw-, gr-, sn-, and sq- were correctly guessed by the English-speaking participants only. The purported meanings of sp- and tr- were correctly guessed by neither language group. These findings show that individual phonaesthemes possess varying degrees of (primary) iconicity.

Author Biography

Nahyun Kwon, Nahyun Kwon, Department of Applied Linguistics, Nagoya University, Furo-cho, Chikusa-ku, Nagoya-shi
Nahyun Kwon is an overseas researcher under Postdoctoral Fellowship of Japan Society for the Promotion of Science at Nagoya University in Japan. Her research interests include the study of motivated form and meaning associations in language and the phonotactics and morphophonology of ideophonic words.