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  • The Psychological Reality of Phonaesthemes
  • Benjamin K. Bergen

The psychological reality of English phonaesthemes is demonstrated through a priming experiment with native speakers of American English. Phonaesthemes are well-represented sound-meaning pairings, such as English gl-, which occurs in numerous words with meanings relating to light and vision. In the experiment, phonaesthemes, despite being noncompositional in nature, displayed priming effects much like those that have been reported for compositional morphemes. These effects could not be explained as the result of semantic or phonological priming, either alone or in combination. The results support a view of the lexicon in which shared form and meaning across words is a key factor in their relatedness, and in which morphological composition is not required for internal word structure to play a role in language processing.*

1. Introduction

Phonaesthemes (Firth 1930) are frequently recurring sound-meaning pairings that are not clearly contrastive morphemes. An example is the English onset gl-(Wallis 1699, Bloomfield 1933), which, like other phonaesthemes, is relatively infrequent in English, except among words with meanings related to ‘vision’ and ‘light’. Some of these are exemplified in 1a. Another well-documented phonaestheme (Wallis 1699, Bloomfield 1933) is the English onset sn-, which occurs in a large number of words relating to ‘mouth’ and ‘nose’ (1b).


a. gl- ‘light, vision’ glimmer, glisten, glitter, gleam, glow, glint, etc.

b. sn- ‘nose, mouth’ snore, snack, snout, snarl, snort, sniff, sneeze, etc.

When viewed simply as statistically aberrant distributions of sound-meaning pairings in the lexicon, phonaesthemes are found to be pervasive in human languages. They have been documented in such diverse languages as English (Wallis 1699, Firth 1930, Marchand 1959, Bolinger 1949, 1980), Indonesian (McCune 1983) and other Austronesian languages (Blust 1988), Japanese (Hamano 1998), Ojibwa (Rhodes 1981), and Swedish (Abelin 1999). While it is difficult to establish reliable estimates of how many of the world’s languages contain phonaesthemes, or how many words in a given language’s lexicon have phonaesthemes in them, every systematic study of a particular language has produced results suggesting that that language has phonaesthemes. In general, phonaesthemes seem to appear in content words over function words, and in more specific (or subordinate level) rather than more general (or basic level) words.

In addition to distributional evidence, phonaesthemes can be detected through their role in language change, in particular by the part they play in the generation of neologisms (Joseph 1987). Phonaesthemes have been implicated in both the production and perception of neologisms on the basis of experimental (Abelin 1999) and comparative studies (Blust 1988, 2003). The recurrent finding of note in this latter area is that in a given set of related languages, phonaesthemes that appear in some languages will also appear in other languages but in words that are not cognates. For example, the Austronesian phonaestheme ŋ occurs in initial position in words that have meanings related to ‘nose’ or ‘mouth’ (Blust 2003). In particular, it appears in words meaning ‘chew, masticate, ruminate’, such as Amis ŋafŋaf, Toba Batak ŋaltok, and Trukese ŋú, among others, but none of these words are cognates. [End Page 290]

While statistically significant representation in the lexicon and participation in the construction of neologisms are important convergent indications that phonaesthemes are a viable part of language, these two types of evidence leave room for different interpretations of what exactly the status is of phonaesthemes. The extent to which phonaesthemes play a role in the synchronic mental organization of language remains an open question.

Indeed, their cognitive status remains controversial in part because they do not fit well into linguistic theories that view compositionality as a defining characteristic of morphological complexity, such as so-called item-and-arrangement models (Hockett 1954). On these compositional types of account, phonaesthemes belong outside the scope of regular morphological analysis. By contrast, noncompositional theories of morphology predict that recurrent sound-meaning pairings in a language, whether compositional or not, will rise to the status of organizing structures in the lexicon, on the basis of their frequency. Examples of such noncompositional models are the dynamic model (Bybee 1985), the usage-based model (Langacker 1991), seamless morphology (Starosta 2003), and most connectionist morphological models (e.g. Plaut & Gonnerman 2000...