If you are crazy enough to work on the entire dictionary of a specific language, and group words according to which sounds they have, and what pieces of meaning they share, see what happens! Suddenly all sounds carry certain meanings, and if you replace them, the meaning changes! I bet you never noticed it before. And it’s not just a “mere coincidence” when thousands of words, and their corresponding sounds show the same patterns.

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– Margaret Magnus, “Gods of the Word: Archetypes in the Consonants” (1999)
– Margaret Magnus’ website
– Her dissertation
– Also in this series: Sounds and Meaning: Part 1 – Introduction


Hello, and welcome to Language with Chu. I hope you watched the first part of this presentation. Please click above and watch that first, because it will give you the content of what I’m talking about. But let’s move on. I’m going to start by telling you about one of the theories that talks about sounds and meaning:


It is the work of Margaret Magnus. And it’s not just this book. There’s actually her thesis, there are more writings by her. I personally find her excellent. She’s made me think a lot about words and what they really mean, and sounds. But let me give you a brief explanation of what she talks about:


She called it Phonosemantics, so “meaning of sounds”. And in her hypothesis, she says that “in every language of the world, every word containing a given phoneme (sound) has some specific element of meaning, which is lacking in words not containing that phoneme. Each phoneme is meaning bearing”. So what that means is that (I’ll show you in a in a second with an example) each sound, say /a/… whatever, has a meaning, an intrinsic meaning. And that is what she calls the “phonesteme”. So that would be the smallest chunk of meaning in language, not the phonemes. Meaning you, have to break it down on two things: meaning is the reference, like I showed in my earlier video about the tree. It’s just the meaning of the word. But there could also be inherent meaning, which are traits that are like the essence of a thing it’s not the thing itself. If I ask you to describe something like, I don’t know, a bomb, say, you would say, well, it’s explosive, it’s hard, it’s, you know, it has something… it’s enclosed, you know, all those things… all those characteristics of a definition, those would be inherent meaning that are carried sometimes or very, very often by the phonemes themselves, by the sounds themselves.

I’ll give you a quick example: you have words with /str/ in English, right? “srt”. And they all mean something linear, like a line, a string, a strip, a stripe, a street. That’s curious, because when you look at each of these words, they all have different roots according to the standard etymological explanation. And then you have words with /ap/, and they happen to have some quality that tells you they are flat things: cap, flap, lap, map. Okay, what happens if you combine the two? What word do you get? Strap. And what is a strap? It’s a flat line, basically, it’s a band.

Okay so, these things, when looking at the roots of the words, will not be grouped together at all. And Margaret Magnus did 14 different kinds of experiments, I believe, in which, from different angles and in different kinds of groupings, she found out for the entire English dictionary (and she did a bit on Norwegian and Russian too) that you end up with something that looks like this:


For the sound /b/ she grouped words. Every word that didn’t have prefixes and suffixes, just the main core of the word without affixes, if you want.

She grouped them and she said, okay, some of them have to do with explosions, some of them have to do with badness… What’s the quality that these words share in common? And she ended up with this kind of grouping, where all the words that start with /b/ will have one of these characteristics.

And if you change it for a /d/, the characteristics will change.

sounds Magnus.png

Sometimes some of them will be shared, so you’ll have these four for /d/ as well, but they’ll have a subtle difference. Now I don’t have to time to explain all the experiments she did, but it’s really fascinating when you see the words grouped together. Then she explains that each language will choose to group these essences a little bit differently, and that would explain why we don’t use the same words in every language. So Russian, for example, (this is not the actual analysis, it’s just for a visual representation)… Russian would use words starting with /b/ to also represent big and bulging things, or fire or light, but for badness they chose, I don’t know, the /g/ sound. Norwegian would have done the same with another group of words, etc.

Each sound will have been divided like that, and then it gets fascinating, because she starts combining those sounds saying, well, what happens if you put the /b/ and then follow that with an /r/? Or what happens if you have /g/ alone and /g/ and /l/, etc?

sounds Magnus2.png

And she ends up with all kinds of fascinating combinations that tell you, wait a minute, there’s something about sounds! Of course, the /b/ doesn’t have a meaning in itself but it could convey in one word all these little traits of an object. So keep that in mind for the next one, which is yet another theory of how to find meaning in sounds. Stay tuned, see you next time!