Words index  Vivian Cook

Sound symbolism: big sounds, big things

The sounds of a word are not entirely arbitrary but sometimes summon up different associations. Many English words that mean ‘small’ have front vowels (i.e. said with the tongue raised at the front of the mouth) like ‘ee’, some words that mean ‘big’ have back vowels (i.e. said with the tongue lowered at the back of the mouth) like ‘ah’. Size seems to go with the vowel that is used. Obviously there are many exceptions – the word big itself is one, small another.

Size (big versus small)

big’ words         small’ words
large                   tiny mini          
huge                   teeny pigmy
enormous           little    
vast                     wee
gigantic              petit

This property has been used by writers to invent words:

big                         small
Brobdingnag           Lilliput (places in Gulliver’s Travels)
Bludger                   snitch  (balls in Quidditch)

Jaws (James Bond villain) Tinkerbell (fairy in Peter Pan)

Which of each pair do you think means ‘big’, which ‘small’ in the following languages; answers below – of course the spelling may not properly show which vowels are back.

Spanish: chico/gordo

Greek: mikro/megalo

French: petit/grand

German: klein/gross

Chinese: xiaoó/da

Arabic: kabir/quasir

Japanese: kyo/komakai

On the basis of these links, John Ohalla put forward the controversial Frequency Code Hypothesis that claims that front vowels tend to go with larger things, back vowels with smaller things. Low sounds in general go with aggressive­ness and assertion of power, not just vowels; Margaret Thatcher is believed to have had speech lessons to deepen her voice. It applies across languages, even to dogs who threaten with a low-pitched growl, submit with a high-pitched yelp.

As English sentences must have a pronoun, dummy subjects it and there get added in where other languages don’t need them:

It is snowing hard (what is it? Added to obey the non-pro-drop rule)
There is a man in the moon (What is there? Added to provide a subject)

English pronouns then have 3 persons, 2 numbers and 3 cases and is non-pro-drop; Old English had 3 persons, 3 numbers, several cases and was non-pro-drop; German is non-pro-drop. Other languages make still more distinctions such as gender; Thai has a first person pronoun only used by women when speaking to the king kramňm. Even the humble pronoun shows the diversity of the ways in which human beings relate to the world around them.

See also Sounds and Letters