Does a méiguì smell as sweet as a rose?

Vivian Cook

‘A rose by any other name would smell as sweet’. Is it true? Suppose we make up a new word ‘splont’. This could mean anything we like, from a new kind of garden plant – ‘There’s a fine display of splonts in my border’ – to a way of jumping – ‘He splonted over the hedge’  – or a new infectious disease – ‘I’m afraid you’ve got a bad case of the splonts’. The word ‘splont’ is a coin without a definite value until we fix its meaning in a sentence.

So there is no reason why a word should mean anything in particular; the link between the word and its meaning is arbitrary. It’s simply a convention that English people call one flower a ‘rose’, another a ‘geranium’. As Wittgenstein said, ‘A word has the meaning someone has given to it’, rephrasing Humpty Dumpty ‘When I use a word … it means just what I choose it to mean - neither more nor less’. In a general way people agree that there is no necessary connection between the letters and sounds of a word and its meaning: a ‘rose’ could equally well be called a ‘geranium’ or a ‘splont’.

Otherwise it would be hard to explain why human languages had different words for the same thing. A rose would not be called a méiguì’ in Chinese and ‘triantafyllo’ in Greek. Some words in different languages are historically related or have been borrowed one from another – rose is indeed ‘rose’ in French, and ‘rosa’ in Spanish because of their historical connections or because of being borrowed from Latin or other languages Japanese ‘rozu’ and Basque ‘arrosa’. But these similarities are not due to any intrinsic link between the word ‘rose’ and a particular flower.

Yet, while it is intellectually possible to accept that the links between words and meanings are completely arbitrary, emotionally we still believe there is more to it than that. In our everyday lives the names of objects do somehow reflect their meaning. Why else would parents agonise over choosing names for their children or the Royal Mail unsuccessfully try out the name of ‘Consignia’ for a brief time? Is there any basis for this?

There are a few groups of letters and sounds which do seem to share a meaning in English. Why do all words starting with ‘squ-’ seem be negative in meaning, ‘squalid’ and ‘squalor’? The COBUILD dictionary has about 24 words starting with ‘squ’; on my count 12 of them have a negative meaning, such as ‘squeal’ and ‘squalor’, and none have a positive meaning. The only ones I can find with a neutral meaning are ‘square’, ‘squid’ and ‘squad’. Why are so many of the ‘squ-’ words to do with liquid, ‘squelch’, or impact ‘squash’? Obviously it is statistically impossible to prove a connection; any small sample of words starting with a particular sound is bound to share some feature. But such links are also self-reinforcing; once we have picked up a negative vibe about a sound, we are not going to use it for desirable things; a new instant coffee is unlikely to be called ‘squoffy’ or a perfume ‘Eau de squisho’. Even if meaning is logically arbitrary, human beings do try to make sense of words.

The most famous example of a genuine link between words and meanings is the names that Ashanti people give their children. A child born on a Monday is called ‘Monday’, on Tuesday ‘Tuesday’ and so on, an arbitrary naming system. However people believe that children born on particular days have particular characteristics. Monday’s children are quiet and peaceful, Wednesday’s are quick-tempered and aggressive, rather like taking seriously the rhyme            
Monday’s child is fair of face
       Tuesday’s child is full of grace
       Wednesday’s child is full of woe …

Sure enough, court statistics in Kenya show more violent crimes committed by people called Wednesday than by those called Monday. What presumably happens is that being a Wednesday means everyone thinks you are violent and so you’ve got something to live up to. The same is true of astrology; some people born under a particular sign may fall in with the behaviour supposed to be typical of it if they are aware of the characteristics of that sign.

Perhaps, however, some sounds do mean different things to the human ear. In English words for ‘big’ tend to have back vowels like ‘ah’ and ‘oo’ – ‘large’, ‘huge’. Words for ‘little’ tend to have front vowels like ‘ee’  – ‘wee’, ‘tiny’, ‘itsy-bitsy polka-dot bikini’. This of course only amounts to a tendency, with exceptions being indeed ‘big’ with a front vowel and ‘small’ with a back vowel. But it seems to apply to many languages; ‘grand’ the French for ‘big’ has a back vowel, ‘petit’ (little) has two front vowels.

This phenomenon has been dubbed the Frequency Code: high pitched vowels mean small, and hence unimportant things; low-pitched vowels mean big and so important things. It appears to apply in all sorts of circumstances: dogs threaten with a growl, submit with a yelp; Margaret Thatcher allegedly had voice lessons to deepen her voice and make it more authoritative. Again it is hard to decide whether this is sheer coincidence or reinforcement. I asked English people to decide which of two objects was a plung with a ‘big’ back vowel, which a pling with a ‘small’ front vowel; one object was large, dark and curved, the other small, light and made up of straight lines. 71% thought the large object was the plung.

The people who are particularly aware of this are manufacturers devising names for products. Other things being equal, you want the sounds of its name to attract people to your product rather than repel them. Front vowels are supposed to show smallness, lightness, prettiness and so on; experimenters showed that it was far better to call a new ice cream brand ‘Frish’ rather than ‘Frosh’. ‘Accenture’ was a brilliant new name for accountants Arthur Anderson, which drew a veil over its previous history.

While the sounds of words do link to their meaning in some ways, these links are far from systematic, more affecting the fringes than the main element in words.

Basic English Linguistic Relativity Words index Vivian Cook