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SOUND AND MEANING IN POETRY AND PROSE

Written by: Sidney Beck

SOUND AND MEANING IN POETRY AND PROSE

Introduction

Classic linguistic approaches to meaning claim that the way a word sounds does not play any contributing role in its meaning. Rather, language users would know the meaning of words solely through learned links between linguistic symbols and their mental representations. Recent findings, acknowledge the importance of certain sound-meanings in language processing of vocabulary. These findings use two types of sound-meaning analysis. There is iconicity, which is based on similarities between aspects of sound and aspects of meaning (e.g., onomatopoeia). Iconicity is a further-reaching idea than logograms which were the original Chinese visual representation of a boat etc. There is also systematicity, which is regularities in language, i.e., specific patterns of sound and specific semantic concepts.  

Aryani and Jacobs’ finding shows that in language processing, people are sensitive to affective cues that are provided by words’ sound even when they are presented visually and read silently. In their study, they also aim at drawing attention to the role of emotion in language processing, especially in the study of iconicity. Affective meaning is a fundamental aspect of human communication that has been proposed as the original impetus for language evolution.

Aryani and Jacobs state that their research gives a  better understanding of affective and aesthetic processes of literary reading. Poetry is one of the best forms of literature for sound-meaning investigations. The relation of “form” to “feeling” is the basis of poetry, and the things which distinguish poetry from prose are its formal characteristics and iconic properties. Poetry is on the one hand inherently concerned with emotional expressions, and on the other hand, is accompanied by the artful use of sound patterns. People’s processing fluency involving higher ease of processing thus leads to a higher aesthetic pleasure from poetry.

They state that a similarity between the form and meaning of a word (i.e., iconicity) may help language users to more readily access semantic meaning. Previous work has supported this view by providing empirical evidence for this facilitatory effect in “sign language”, as well as for onomatopoetic words (e.g., cuckoo) and ideophones (e.g., zigzag). It is unknown if the beneficial role of iconicity in making semantic decisions can be considered a general feature in spoken language of “ordinary” words.

My own contribution is to show that systematicity does in fact apply to ordinary words. This systematicity is central to the ideas I express in this article.

I have collected 13   lists of words that resemble each other and almost every word has some connection with a central idea or notion or concept. They resemble each other by their containing certain combinations of letters. For example -MBLE with some preceding vowel making -AMBLE -IMBLE  and -UMBLE. Another example would be   -NK with preceding vowel such as -ANK -INK -ONK -UNK. These collections are strongly suggestive of the general importance of systematicity in making semantic decisions. In selecting these lists of words, care was taken to avoid English words of obvious German or French origin, because the similar ending letter combinations would restrict the broad variety of semantic meanings. The lists of words and their groups are printed at the end of this article.

Comments and conclusions from 13-word groups …

These groups of words with tell-tale endings do not always have a clear meaning. Their interpretation is to a large extent subjective. Nevertheless,  the ideas expressed in this article do echo a reality that is experienced by many readers of the texts and word lists. If you met one of these words and didn’t know its meaning,  could you guess? “Guess” in this context is a simplified way of saying “could you make an affective link”? Well, when we write or read poetry, we make many such guesses about the probable context for a particular word’s use? Poetry takes advantage of such affective links, by deliberately using words from the relevant group, or by deliberately using words from another inappropriate group. Dylan Thomas is a recognised master of such appropriate/inappropriate word selection.

When I type them all out in list form, it becomes obvious to me that a great deal of overlap is noticeable between these different groups, because the various word endings often contain similar letter combinations such as LE. So the affective meaning of a given group is not exclusive to that group. Our language ( whether prose or poetry) is filled with such groups –  which are not normally recognised as groups. Most people casually take the context for the words they use as somehow automatically arranged so the words’ semantic meaning ”fits” effortlessly.

Let us examine some of these words in their groups.

Group 1 deals with the concept of randomness, in a disorganised or clumsy manner. Imagine a person who fumbles a lot and stumbles over a pile of jumble. This group is the clearest example of systematicity. When we see the letter combination of MBLE,  it suggests that the notion of random disorganization is being invoked.

Group 2 shares the same concept and perhaps the ending of  LE indicates the concept. Imagine a man who jingles a bell while wearing spangles and getting his clothes all in a tangle. He’s free of all rules (especially for sounds), but he’s not so disorganized as the man in Group 1.

Groups 2 and 3 deal with a lack of rules especially in relation to sounds and colors. Words ending with CKLE or NGLE are commonly used in stories about witches and suspicious or negative behavior. Evil beings who cackle, shackle their captives, and mangle their limbs.

Groups 4 6 and 7 share a similar concept framework. Group 4 displays the notion of unpleasantness, associated with metallic ideas shown by NK. Clank, crank, and junk perhaps use the idea of onomatopoeia, which  may be important here – an example of iconicity –and some of these words may additionally have an extra degree of rudeness(punk stunk bunk). Group 6 deals with the idea of wateriness words ending in SH (possible onomatopoeia on wash/flush/fish). Group 7 deals with wateriness in the context of weakness with endings of ALLOW. Weakness shows in callow, shallow, and wallow. The water is too shallow to swim and only allows a person to wallow. Contrast the energetic ‘gush’ of one group with the energy-lacking ‘callow’ of the other group.

Another concept framework is found in Groups 5, 12, and 13, a concept in which the physical size of a word or its letter combination suggests its semantic meaning.    Group 5 small words ending  in ICK  are clear indicators of short, sharp, quick  movement(for example, knick, flick, prick.) However, eleven other small words end in OCK suggest solidity rather than movement(lock, rock). And there are twelve further words suggesting neither solidity nor movement.   Group 12 deals with the concept of physical body movement. It may be that several words with ending letters NG recall the verbal gerund as in ‘walking’. Music is a clear suggestion from Group 12. The words of Group 13 also deal with physical body but here with the absence of movement. The ending letters ST may recall the word ‘static’. (iconicity?)

There are two groups that deal with the concept of poor health matters. Group 8 lists off the various eye complaints with words ending in AZE (daze, glaze, craze). Group 9 suggests poor health with words ending in ATH, perhaps linked to the idea of ‘breath’ itself.

Lastly,  there are two groups of words that address the notion of rural life in the past. Group 10 focuses broadly on life in the village in the past. Words ending in SK portray this life (dusk, cask). In Group 11, we are brought into contact with rural farm life as it once was. The words ending with RROW draw a reasonably clear picture for us( barrow, harrow)

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The 13 lists of words in their groups

 

Bumble fumble crumble grumble humble jumble mumble rumble stumble tumble

Amble shamble ramble tremble bramble gimbal nimble gamble wimble gambol

1 Suggesting disorganized clumsy random activity

…………………………………………………………………………………………………… ….

Tangle tingle single shingle spangle wangle bangle bungle dangle dingle

Gangle jangle jingle mangle mingle wrangle

2 Suggesting freedom from all rules including sound

…………………………………………………………………………………………………………..

Cackle speckle tickle tackle crackle fickle buckle chuckle shackle stickle

3 Suggesting random patterns of sound, color, or behavior

…………………………………………………………………………………………………………….

Blink chink clank clink crank sink stink blank hunk skunk junk  chunk

Punk prank spank spunk bunk

4 Suggesting metallic unpleasantness

……………………………………………………………………………………………………………. ……..

Lick nick knick crick trick crack flick fleck stick prick peck rack 

Pick rick sick wick deck hack shack lack knack neck speck puck

Cock crock dock flock hock lock mock pock rock sock stock frock

5 Suggesting quick short sharp movement

……………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………….

Wash wish cash dash dish fish hash flash flush flesh

Gash gush lush lash mash mush rush rash

6 Suggesting watery activity

………………………………………………………………………………………….

Sallow mallow callow fallow gallows hallow shallow tallow wallow

7 Suggesting   watery weakness

……………………………………………………………………………………………………….

Daze faze gaze haze laze maze raze braise blaze craze glaze

8 Suggesting poor   unfocused vision

…………………………………………………………………………………………………….

Breath bath loth cloth broth wrath health wreath death path rath moth

9 Suggesting poor health issues

……………………………………………………………………………………………………

Bask mask dusk busk cask husk musk rusk tusk risk task whisk

10 Suggesting old country village life

……………………………………………………………………………………….

Barrow harrow tomorrow sorrow sparrow marrow

Narrow arrow farrow

11 Suggesting old country farm production

………………………………………………………………………………………… ……

Sing sang song sung wing fang tongue gong sting string

Hang hung bring strong thing fling

12 Suggesting music and limb movement -Physical body

…………………………………………………………………………… …………….. …………

Chest guest rest wrist fist list gist grist gristle tryst

 Test lust list waist waste trust

 13 Suggesting static limbs – Physical body

…………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………..

(Based on an original article written on the thesis that “Affective Congruence between Sound and Meaning of Words Facilitates Semantic Decision” by Arash Aryani and Arthur M Jacobs.)

For further research, go to site

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6028912/