Biology,  Linguistics,  Psychology

The Phonosemantics Thesis

In earlier posts—such as here—I described the notion of space in which words are identical to their meanings, and connected it to a tree-like structure of space. In the last post I described how this tree like structure of space appears in all languages in trying to decode their meanings. In this post I will briefly discuss the empirical evidence that supports the notion that meanings are derived from the sounds of phonemes. In contrast to the conventional wisdom in linguistics which claims that the connection between sounds and meanings is arbitrary, this post describes how a closer analysis of linguistic roots suggests otherwise. This topic is broadly called Phonosemantics or “sound symbolism”.

A Simple Example of “Har”

Let’s consider the phoneme “har” which literally means two things in Sanskrit: “stealing” and “pleasure”, and therefore this term denotes the “pleasure from losing” or “pleasure from stealing”. By and large, a moral posture dictates that all pleasure must come from gaining, but earning it honestly, according to some rule of law, while restricting the act of enjoying. But there is also a pleasure that comes from taking forcibly, without a limitation or restriction. There is also a pleasure in surrendering to such a force. The phoneme “har” denotes such pleasure: it is provocative, risque, and naughty.  

Now, depending on what is being stolen/lost and enjoyed, the word “hari”—which is derived from “har”—can denote a “monkey” (a monkey steals for the delight), a “lion” (a lion just wants to dominate the forest) and even “God” (He is the person Who demands unconditional submission). In each of the above cases, there is some pleasure but it is not decent, courteous and modest, and “har” is used to denote it.

This is not to say that a monkey, lion, or God would always be called “hari”. It only means that in the appropriate context—where the loss or stealing is accompanied by pleasure—they can be called “hari”. In other contexts, where “loss” and “pleasure” are not appropriate descriptions of the situation, other words must be used. Thus, we must designate an object by its meanings, not by a fixed appellation. As described in the earlier post, this is because the name, the individual, and the concept are identical.

The term “har” is often used to denote God’s pleasure, and prefixed with His name as in “Hare Krishna”, “Har Mahadeva”, etc. God’s pleasure is not chaste and modest. In fact, it is risque, provocative, and naughty. It crosses the bounds of normal human defined “decency” as God takes whatever He wants without hesitation. Those who willingly participate in this “exploitation” also enjoy—not the modest exchange governed by rules, but the indecent and provocative stimulation. Thus, “hara” and “hari” are two sides of the same coin—one is enjoying by taking and the other is enjoying by giving. The terms “Hare Krishna” or “Har Mahadeva” thus represent an inseparable couple.

In languages such as Urdu or Arabic, similarly, the term “haram” is used to denote that which is stolen and not therefore properly deserved. If someone is enjoying life without working adequately for the pleasure, the pleasure is said to be “haram”. And, similarly, “harem” denotes a place where you forcibly take/lose and enjoy (life, semen, virginity).

Meanings and Phonemes

In each case, the meaning is derived from a “root”, and the meaning of the “root” itself is constant. Nevertheless, depending on the context, the “root” can denote various different things. Whenever the “root” is employed to describe an object, it not just the particular thing we are describing. It is rather the properties of that thing that we are describing. However, since the property, name, and the individual are identical, the name actually denotes the meaning, which in turn denotes the individual. 

Of course, these words may not constitute a complete description of the object in a given context, nor are these words a context-independent complete description of an object. Rather, they are context-sensitive, and used to capture the salient features.

Some linguists (such as Magnus, Margaret [2010]. Gods in the Word: Archetypes in the Consonants) have drawn similar conclusions for English that meanings of words are derived from meanings of phonemes and morphemes. The phoneme “str”, for example, appears in words such as “strip”, “strap”, and “string” which denote something elongated. In Hindi and Sanskrit, similarly, the word “stri” or woman means expansion. The words “astra” and “shastra” denote ways of destroying that expanse.

This phenomenon now has a cognitive science name too—it is called the Bouba-Kiki Effectnamed after an experiment in which subjects were asked to associate the words “bouba” and “kiki” with shapes, and the experiment found that most people associated “bouba” with a round, bulbous shape, and “kiki” with an angular, sharp shapes. This experiment has generated great interest because the words “bouba” and “kiki” don’t have pre-established meanings, so whatever meanings people give them (and that too so widely) must be associated with the sounds of these words themselves.

In Closing

There is a large body of empirical evidence today that suggests a close connection between sounds and meanings—essentially telling us that meanings can be denoted by sounds (i.e. given a physical expression)—although to decode the meaning from the sound, we must understand the meanings of the phonemes. This by no means suggests that all meanings (in variety of languages we use currently) are essentially derived from sounds. However, it does indicate that all meanings can be encoded via sound, which means that there is a proto-language in which sounds themselves encode meanings. These sounds are physical objects, and can be described by their physical properties (which is what material science does). And yet, the correct way to understand these objects is not those physical properties but rather their meanings.