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Sound Symbolism in Chinese

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A post over in the Chinese characters category led to discussion of an aspect of the Chinese language that may be unfamiliar and of interest to a broad swath of forum readers. For that reason, I'm starting a new post here.


The subject is that of sound symbolism in Chinese. Slotting this subject into the correct venue is a bit tricky, but as the topic is concerned with the Chinese lexicon, the Resources for Studying Chinese category seems to be a suitable location.


My intent in posting here is to create a focal point for discussion of sound symbolism in Chinese where non-specialists can track and keep each other abreast of scholarly advances in this fascinating, relatively new sub-field of Sinitic linguistics.


To introduce sound symbolism in general, and then to specify how it works in Chinese, I'll recapitulate and expand upon the key material presented in the earlier post.


First, two academic definitions of sound symbolism. The quotations are from abstracts of recent publications.

Sound symbolism refers to an association between phonemes and stimuli containing particular perceptual and/or semantic elements (e.g., objects of a certain size or shape). (1)


... (Sound symbolism is) the non-arbitrary mapping between sound and meaning. Most of the mapping in human language is entirely arbitrary … In all languages to varying degrees, however, the associations are not entirely arbitrary: established and predictable associations will obtain over significant portions of the lexicon in units smaller than the morpheme or word, the traditional units of meaning. (2)


Regarding the degree to which sound symbolism is established in the academic mainstream, one scholar puts it


In linguistics, it is usually taken for granted that "the linguistic sign is arbitrary" ... However, it is becoming more and more clear that motivated relations between sound and meaning are more common and important than has been thought. There is now a large and rapidly growing literature on subjects as ideophones (or expressives), words that describe how a speaker perceives a situation with the senses, and phonaesthemes ...


In Chinese, sound symbolism is expressed in several forms. The first type is terms originating in onomatopoeia, or mimicry. These include terms assigned to particular birds on the basis of the sound of their cries (鴉 鴨 鷗), terms assigned for the same reason to particular insects or other small creatures (蚊 蛙), as well as terms arising from sounds produced by humans (喝 叫 喚 唆 哂 咳 呵), colliding objects () and so on.


But sound symbolism is not restricted to a simple transfer of a sound perceived by the human ear to a particular object or to the generation of terms associated with human noises. For example, a recent paper by Arthur Lewis Thompson examines the interplay between sound symbolism and tones.


More significant, though, are the pervasive connections in Old Chinese linking specific consonants and vowels with specific semantic indicators. This applies to consonants appearing at the beginning and end of OC terms and to certain or possibly all of the medial vowels. For example, terms that can be reconstructed to have begun with *l- have to do with a continuum (actual or figurative). *m- terms involve concealment, *n- terms suppleness, *p- terms the notion of spreading, and so on. For more about the semantic values of particular sounds in Old Chinese, see this article.


In the Occident, scholarly attention to sound symbolism in Chinese may be said to have commenced in the 1970s with studies made by Gilbert Roy, formerly of the University of Virginia. Contributions to the field have also been made by Marjorie Chan of Ohio State University and by Axel Schuessler. Some more recent treatments include the following:


Zhuanglin Hu: The Image Iconicity in the Chinese Language


Jonathon Smith: Sound Symbolism in the Reduplicative Vocabulary of the Shijing


Kazuko Shinohara/Shigeto Kawahara: A Cross-linguistic Study of Sound Symbolism: The Images of Size (Considers not only Chinese but also English, Japanese, and Korean)


Also, a few years ago I compiled an etymological dictionary of Chinese characters with interpretations based on sound symbolism. There is one file containing interpretations for Mandarin (standard Chinese) and one for usage in Japanese.


I hope forum readers will find this topic of interest, and use this space to link to new studies of sound symbolism in Chinese as they are published in the coming years.


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