"It's rhetoric all the way down." — Steven Mailloux

Sounds and meaning

An article in the New York Times Magazine of 18 January, “Call it What It Is,” discusses the new science of “naming” brands and products. Oddly, the article never mentions rhetoric, not once, but that’s what is really going on beneath the fancy shenanigans of trying out parts-of-word sounds on people and running computer algorithms. The linguist from Stanford, Will Leben, supposedly discovered that people (his test subjects) connected sounds to meanings. For instance, “fip” is “lighter and faster” than “fop” and so “’the physical characteristics of sound are what determine associations” with meaning. A further study showed that sounds associate with emotional states, so that “fricatives convey ‘faster’ and ‘smaller’ – as do vowels that are voiced near the front of the mouth, like the a in ‘bat’ or the i in ‘hid.’ Plosives, or stops, convey ‘slower’ and ‘bigger’ – as do vowels that are voiced at the back of the throat, like the o in ‘token’ or the double o’s in ‘food.’ So-called voiceless stops like k, p¸and t are more alive and daring than voiced stops like b, d, and g, while the voiceless convey less luxury than the voiced.” The unspoken point is that morphemes aren’t really the smallest units of meaning in words; sounds are.
The linguistic tenant of the arbitrary relation of the signifier to the signified is challenged in the article. The challenge may be valid insofar as the signifier is a sound unit¸ not a graphic one, but there’s a difference between the graphic signifier and the aural one. Poets have long known that sounds carry meaning. Onomatopoeia illustrates the point of the relation of sound to emotion; in words like “ding,” “boom” or “plop,” the arbitrary nature of the sign is challenged because the sound is the meaning or is so close to it that the two are virtually inseparable. Just think of Poe’s “The Bells,” a verse treatise on the connection between physical sounds and emotions. In that poem, the association is not so much between words and the sounds of the actual bells, but between the words and the sounds in Poe’s descriptions of the bells. But in the case of a mere graphic representation of meaning, the relation between signifier and signified is still arbitrary. But whether the relation between sound and emotion is a matter of sound or of meaning, it is still rhetoric! The final name for the virtual reality project discussed throughout the article ¬– ”Jaunt” ¬– would “work” rhetorically either way – or both ways: aurally and semantically.

2 responses

  1. Robert Stinson

    I read a piece in the Times last year to the effect that metaphors are processed in the brain area that deals with physical experience, not just language. Hence if a man is said to have a “velvet smooth voice,” the reader will “get” velvet as a physical touch-experience. If his hands are “as rough as sandpaper,” a reader will process the comparison where the actual touch of sandpaper would register.

    January 29, 2015 at 17:45

  2. wingardj

    Yes, and whether the sounds are whispered or otherwise voiced is part of the mix.

    January 29, 2015 at 22:36

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