Chrysti: Phonesthesia I

Most of us have succumbed to the charms of onomatopoeia, a species of words that mimic sound: screech, boom, sizzle, cluck. But rarely do we hear of onomatopoeia’s lesser-known cousin, phonesthesia.

A word in this family doesn’t seek to imitate a noise, exactly, but rather to hint at a potential sound or feeling. Bling, for example, was recently coined to suggest light bouncing off the facets of diamonds and precious metals. Reflected light is not audible, but if it were, bling might just be the sound it would make. This is an example of phonesthesia, a word means “the feeling of a sound” or “sound-sense.”

Don’t be intimidated by this term. Every English speaker knows hundreds of phonesthetic words.

There’s a crew of coinages, for example, suggesting the emission of light, and they’re all headed up by the consonants gl: glimmer, glare, glisten, glint, gleam, glow, gloss and glitter. Is there something about that gl sound that vocally represents a quality of illumination?

The sl-gang of slop, sludge and slime suggests ickyness. Phonesthesia unites terms that propose sudden motion: jab, jostle, jiggle, jolt, judder and jangle.

Next time in the Chrysti the Wordsmith column: phonesthesia at play on the face and the nose.