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When Words Describe Themselves, Or Sound Like They Do

Many paradoxes are tied up with language, specifically language's ability for self-reference. This self-reference causes a loop it can be difficult to get out of. Beyond creating paradoxes, it also raises the question of whether the individual sounds in words mean things. The sound "fl" appears in many words indicating quickness and movement, like fly, flee, and flow. Does this fact tell us something about the sound "fl"? Could that sound contribute to the meaning of the words it is found in?

First, let's look at how self-reference can lead to paradoxes. The clearest vocabulary paradox is the opposition between autological and heterological. An autological word is a word that is what it describes — it fits its own definition. The classic example is polysyllabic, a word that means having more than one syllable and does in fact itself have more than one syllable. A heterological word is about difference (as you may be able to guess from the "hetero" prefix) — a heterological word describes a word that does not fit its own definition. Monosyllabic is a good example, because it means having one syllable but the word itself has several syllables.

Notice how we are already in the land of self-reference — the word is referencing both its own structure and its own definition to see if it fits a given category. The paradox arises when we turn that last definition back unto itself: how would you classify the word heterological? If heterological is autological, it would be what it describes, but by the very definition of heterological, it can't be what it describes, so it would be both autological and heterological. If we decide to call heterological heterological, then it would be autological, applicable to what it describes. Either way, it's both, or perhaps neither, of these categories. This is technically called the Grelling-Nelson Paradox, and there is no real answer to it, other than to say that these categories simply don't apply to words like heterological.

The ability of words to be fed back into a definition is what makes the paradox possible, and it's almost as if these words have too many definitions, too much meaning for their own good. In fact, paradoxes lead to contradictions, and it is often said that anything can be proven to follow from a contradiction. Too much meaning indeed.

This phenomenon of words themselves having something in common with their definitions has spawned many theories about sound and meaning. One of the most controversial is known as sound symbolism. This isn't onomatopoeia, but rather the theory that since certain sounds show up so often in words that have similar meanings, the sounds themselves must stand for certain elements of the meaning. The evidence for sound symbolism consists of things like the fact that there are so many words in English that refer to light or shiny things that begin with the letters "gl": gleam, glisten, glow, and glitter are just a few of these. The reasoning goes that "gl" must on some level mean "shiny."

Another example is "ump" words, which all seem to refer to round or round protruding things: rump, mumps, lump, hump. It is often noted that these words "sound round," but that is, of course, very subjective. The theory of sound symbolism in general suffers from depending on subjectivity, and there is a great deal of back and forth between sounds symbolists and their opponents about particular examples and counterexamples (like glen, gland, or gluttony to the above), but it does have its proponents. Also, doubting sound symbolism does not automatically mean dismissing the suggestion that sound has some relation to meaning; it just means questioning such a direct link.

Both of these phenomena promise a solution just out of reach: a solution to the paradox, or the discovery of hidden meanings in parts of everyday words. It's tempting to hold on to the idea that a solution is out there, because the alternatives — that the paradox is a dead end and this interesting pattern about words and sounds is just an accident — can be discouraging. I would submit that it doesn't have to be discouraging, though, and you don't have to solve a paradox or embrace sound symbolism to get something valuable out of confronting both these issues.

Paradoxes are important reminders that our reasoning isn't perfect and can sometimes tie you in knots — it's important to embrace the irrational once in a while. Noticing patterns of sound trends can lead you to explore the historical roots of language and the sound changes over time. The search for meaning is a never-ending quest, but one we can all play our part in.


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Adam Cooper studied linguistics at Brandeis University and The University of Chicago. Since 2010, he has been working with The Endangered Language Alliance in New York City on documentation and preservation projects. Click here to read more articles by Adam Cooper.

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Comments from our users:

Thursday January 30th, 1:49 AM
Comment by: Alice M. (Neuss Germany)
Very enjoyable article.
I think sound symbolism may have a lot to do with where the words originated. For instance, all the "gl" words you listed to do with light are of Germanic origin and still have their parallels in modern German: glimmernd (glimmering), glitzern (to sparkle), gleiÃ┬čend (dazzling, very bright, like midday sunlight reflected off water, or a torch shone straight into your eyes), glühen (to glow). The other "gl" examples have other roots: "glen" is Gaelic while "gland" and "gluttony" come from the Latin.
Thursday January 30th, 2:25 AM
Comment by: Alice M. (Neuss Germany)
Sorry about the funny characters; I forgot the special characters and Umlaut wouldn't come out in plain text here. It should have been "gleissend" and "gluehen".
Thursday January 30th, 10:01 AM
Comment by: Adam C.Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Thanks for your comment, Alice. Although all traceable through Proto-Germanic, I tried to have my examples come from several different roots. The sound symbolist would probably take a step back and ask why so many "light" words in Proto-Germanic begin with "gl." There is also the case of "glint" which, while also coming from Proto-Germanic( though from a different root than the three in the examples) comes to English most directly from Scottish.
Thursday January 30th, 11:22 AM
Comment by: Ted G. (Fairfax, VA)
There's a billion dollars to be made if someone figures this out. Commercials no longer need to insult us, instead Madison Ave. can simply assemble a bunch of sounds and the soap will fly off the supermarket shelves
Thursday January 30th, 1:05 PM
Comment by: Alice M. (Neuss Germany)
Well, Adam, since I come from Scotland I had actually been wondering about that because there are other "light" words with "gl" I grew up with like "gloaming" (dusk, twilight) from Central Scotland, "gloss" (bright glow, of fire) from the Borders; "gleesh" (bright flame) and "gleed" (glowing ember) from the North and Shetlands. Considering the geographic distribution, the different vowel sounds also point to different roots. The "gli" and "glee" sounds seem to have come through Viking Norway, while the "glo" ones took the Anglo-Saxon route (excuse the pun).
Thursday January 30th, 2:55 PM
Comment by: Grace T.
Your article is very scientific. I have impression that it is a combination of linguistics and philosophy. Could you kindly give me a few examples of using this knowledge I writing dialog? I intuitively feel this application, but I would like to hear from the expert. Thank you.

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