Where do phonesthemes come from?

3 Apr 2024

A phonestheme is a sequence of sounds that occurs across many words with a similar meaning, but which is not a morpheme. Examples are ‘gl-‘, which occurs in many words having to do with light (‘gleam’, ‘glitter’, ‘glow’, etc.), ‘sw-‘, which is associated with long movements (‘sweep’, ‘sway’, ‘swerve’, etc.), and ‘-ump’, which is associated with hemispherical things (‘bump’, ‘hump’, ‘lump’, ‘jump’, etc.).

I was curious to know where such sound-meaning associations come from, so I looked up the etymologies of a ton of words on Wiktionary and Etymonline and came to the conclusion that phonesthemes can be divided into two categories:

  • Type 1 (or etymological) phonesthemes arise due a large number of words sharing a common origin. This is amplified by cross-linguistic or cross-dialectal borrowing (typically from Old Norse, Dutch, or Scots, in the case of English), and the addition of suffixes that do little to change the word’s meaning (such as the ‘-er’, ‘-le’ in words like ‘slither’, ‘crackle’). An example is the ‘gl-‘ phonestheme listed earlier: all of the light-related words beginning with ‘gl-‘ ultimately derive from one of two Proto-Indo-European roots: *ǵʰley, which meant ‘shine’, and *ǵʰel, which meant ‘flourish’ and ‘green’ (but came to mean ‘yellow’ in some daughter languages, such as Germanic).

  • Type 2 (or imitative) phonesthemes occur mainly in onomatopoeiae. An example is the “-ack” in words like “smack”, “crack”, “whack”, and “thwack”, all of which but “crack” are imitative in origin. Such coinages are sometimes influenced by a preexisting etymological phonestheme; it is possible that an etymological phonestheme may come to be perceived as somewhat onomatopoeic over time, leading to further proliferation of words containing that phonestheme.

I will now list some phonesthemes along with their origin.

  • ‘gl-‘, in words related to light, derives from PIE *ǵʰley (meaning ‘shine’; whence ‘gleam’, ‘glimmer’, ‘glisten’, ‘glint’ (via Scots), ‘glitter’ (via Old Norse), ‘gloom’) and *ǵʰel (meaning ‘green’ or ‘yellow’; whence ‘glow’, ‘gloss’ (via Old Norse), ‘glass’, ‘glare’ (via Dutch), and also ‘gold’, ‘yellow’). Etymonline cites *ǵʰel as the origin of all of these words, so it seems that *ǵʰley itself was derived from *ǵʰel.

  • ‘sl-‘ in words related to frictionless motion, derives from PIE *sley (meaning ‘smooth’; whence ‘slime’, ‘slip’, ‘slick’, ‘sleek’) and *sleydʰ (meaning ‘slippery’; whence ‘slide’, ‘sled’ (via Dutch), ‘sleigh’ (via Dutch), ‘slither’). It seems likely to me that *sleydʰ is simply a suffixation of *sley. The words ‘slush’ and ‘slosh’ are onomatopoeic.

  • ‘sw-‘, in words related to long or turning motion, is more difficult to classify.
    • ‘sweep’, ‘swoop’, ‘swipe’, ‘swivel’, and ‘swift’ are all related, and come from PIE *ksweybʰ.
    • ‘swerve’ comes from PIE *swerbʰ.
    • ‘swirl’ is probably a variation of ‘whirl’ influenced by the preexisting ‘sw-‘ phonestheme.
    • ‘swing’ comes from Proto-Germanic *swinganą, further origin unknown.
    • ‘sway’ probably comes from Old Norse ‘sveigja’ (meaning ‘bend’, ‘bow’), possibly from a Proto-Germanic verb *swaigijaną.
    • ‘swag’ probably comes from Old Norse ‘sveggja’ (meaning ‘swing’, ‘sway’). Wiktionary and Etymonline both list ‘sveggja’ as potentially related to *swinganą.
    • ‘swish’, ‘swoosh’ are onomatopoeic. If ‘swing’, ‘sway’, and ‘swag’ are all related, there would only be three origins for the ‘sw-‘ words, discounting onomatopoeiae. The meaning of ‘sway’ could be due to confusion between ‘sveigja’ and ‘sveggja’.
  • ‘cl-‘, in words related to grabbing, derives from the PIE root *gel, meaning ‘clump together’, via three variations: *glew (whence ‘clutch’, ‘claw’), *glembʰ (whence ‘clam’, ‘clamp’, ‘clip’, ‘clasp’, and also ‘clump’), and *gley (whence ‘cling’, ‘clench’, and also ‘glue’ (via French), ‘clay’).

  • ‘sn-‘, in words related to the nose or mouth, is mostly or entirely imitative.
    • ‘sneer’, ‘sneeze’, ‘snore’, ‘snort’ originally had ‘fn-‘ in Old English, and ultimately derive from PIE *pnew, which meant ‘gasp’ or ‘sneeze’ and was “likely onomatopoeic” according to Wiktionary.
    • ‘snack’, ‘snuff’, ‘snout’, ‘snot’ come from the Proto-Germanic words *snakkōną, *sneufaną, *snūtaz, *snuttuz, with no further etymology. The first three were borrowed from Middle Dutch.
    • ‘snorkel’ is a recent loan from German ‘Schnorchel’, ultimately from Proto-West-Germanic *snarkōn (meaning ‘snore’), with no further etymology.
    • ‘sniff’/’sniffle’, ‘snarl’, ‘snicker’/’snigger’ are imitative and of Middle English or Modern English origin. My overall impression is that the Germanics had a tendency to coin nose- and mouth-related words beginning with ‘sn-‘. It was likely because of this tendency that the [fn] > [sn] shift even occurred in English. The small number of Old English words beginning with ‘fn-‘ were all nose-related, since they all came from *pnew, so the [fn] > [sn] shift was likely motivated by a desire to bring the ‘fn-‘ words with nose-related meanings into consistency with the ‘sn-‘ words with nose-related meanings.