Can letters by themselves have meaning?

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scratch123
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Can letters by themselves have meaning?

Postby scratch123 » Thu May 24, 2012 4:06 pm UTC

I wrote something on this a few months ago but I am not sure if I should post it. Basically what I did was I took words that started with the same letter and tried to see if any of them had a similar meaning. If enough of them had the same meaning I would interpret this to mean that this meaning was associated with the letter itself. For example lets take the words cut and clap. In order to cut something you need something sharp and a clap has a sharp sound to it. This means that c has a meaning associated with sharpness. I wrote something that did this for all of the letters of the alphabet and multiple words so it is kind of long but I can post it if anyone is interested.

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Re: Can letters by themselves have meaning?

Postby skullturf » Thu May 24, 2012 5:34 pm UTC

This reminds me of something. I have a memory of reading somewhere about somebody in linguistics (possibly a linguistics grad student) writing something along vaguely similar lines.

Consider, for example, words that start with "sn-" in English. There happen to be many such words whose meanings relate to the nose in some way. (Snort, snot, snout, sneeze, sniff, sniffle, etc.) However, we usually don't say that "sn-" means nose exactly, and we wouldn't say it's a prefix exactly.

I don't remember anything about where I read this, or what any of the terminology was, which makes it hard to search for right now.

One could try to quantify all of this a little more. For example, by counting the proportion of "sn-" words in English that mention "nose" or "nasal" in their dictionary definitions, and compare this to the proportion for other one- or two-letter combinations. And if I remember correctly, that's exactly what the linguistics grad student did.

In this way, one can discover a correlation or a trend that really does exist, even though we'd probably stop short of saying that SN- "means" nose in the strictest sense.

Does this ring any bells for anyone else?

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Re: Can letters by themselves have meaning?

Postby gmalivuk » Fri May 25, 2012 12:56 am UTC

Yeah, there definitely is a correlation in English between sibilant+nasal beginnings and words related to the nose. But the OP's examples of the letter "c" are not indicative of any real pattern, as can be seen by actually looking at the thousands of other words that begin with "c" but don't have anything particular to do with sharpness.*

* Well, of course any such word is connectable to the concept of sharpness through a sufficiently convoluted series of word associations, but much like all the patterns scratch123 claimed to find with numbers and chemicals, this is simple self-deception rather than any real pattern.
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Re: Can letters by themselves have meaning?

Postby Twelfthroot » Fri May 25, 2012 1:19 am UTC

I think the article http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sound_symbolism will be of interest to you. It's certainly fair to say that most speakers of a language feel that some of the language's sounds are more apt for some meanings than others. We might expect this to stem from a combination of onomatopoeia and word formations by analogy and deformations of similar words (e.g. slick and sleek seem to share a root; slosh is perhaps a mashing together of slop and sludge, etc).

For terminology's sake, I'm pretty sure you're asking if phonemes or phonemic clusters can have meaning (to which I'd say "sort of vaguely sometimes"). It's nothing about the letter itself, unless you would expect the words center and cheese to be sharp as well (or for the words to lose their sharpness if they were written in another alphabet). That said, yes, letters can have meaning in some contexts; e.g. X connoting either unknown or sexual, or H connoting the erotic in Japanese (each in the appropriate context, of course).

/k/ being a plosive (in English) stop consonant, I wouldn't be extremely surprised if a representative sample of k-initial words in English yielded a slightly higher proportion of 'abrupt' or 'active' words than 'gentle, soft' ones by some measure, but you'd find plenty of common exceptions (caress, comfy, custard, etc) and English's words come from far too many sources to draw any sort of meaningful conclusion about it.

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Re: Can letters by themselves have meaning?

Postby ThereExistsANonexistentFlower » Sat May 26, 2012 9:11 am UTC

Perhaps you would be interested in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/AUI_(constructed_language) or some other languages (which I can't remember right now) where each morpheme is represented by a phoneme.

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Re: Can letters by themselves have meaning?

Postby Sizik » Sun May 27, 2012 4:13 am UTC

I've noticed that in a number of languages, the word for "no" begins with an n. This is supported by this list, which has 223/925 entries beginning with n, which is almost double that of the next two common (a and m, at 122 and 112 respectively).
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Re: Can letters by themselves have meaning?

Postby Derek » Mon May 28, 2012 2:03 am UTC

Sizik wrote:I've noticed that in a number of languages, the word for "no" begins with an n. This is supported by this list, which has 223/925 entries beginning with n, which is almost double that of the next two common (a and m, at 122 and 112 respectively).

I've noticed this too, and I think I mentioned it in another thread a long time ago. I've wondered if this is just an Indo-European bias (since those are most of the languages I'm familiar with), or if there is actually a connection between "n" and negative words.

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Re: Can letters by themselves have meaning?

Postby Mapar » Mon May 28, 2012 8:33 am UTC

Derek wrote:
Sizik wrote:I've noticed that in a number of languages, the word for "no" begins with an n. This is supported by this list, which has 223/925 entries beginning with n, which is almost double that of the next two common (a and m, at 122 and 112 respectively).

I've noticed this too, and I think I mentioned it in another thread a long time ago. I've wondered if this is just an Indo-European bias (since those are most of the languages I'm familiar with), or if there is actually a connection between "n" and negative words.


I was going to say that Japanese is an exception, but while the word for 'no' doesn't start with an 'n', the standard negative verb 'nai' does. So much for my counterexample.


Greek fails the criterium. 'no' is όχι. I don't know about modern Greek, but in ancient greek ναι (nai) meant "yes".

So while this might be very common in Indo-European languages, Greek doesn't conform. This doesn't disprove any connection of course, just throwing it in here.
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Re: Can letters by themselves have meaning?

Postby goofy » Mon May 28, 2012 1:01 pm UTC

Derek wrote:
Sizik wrote:I've noticed that in a number of languages, the word for "no" begins with an n. This is supported by this list, which has 223/925 entries beginning with n, which is almost double that of the next two common (a and m, at 122 and 112 respectively).

I've noticed this too, and I think I mentioned it in another thread a long time ago. I've wondered if this is just an Indo-European bias (since those are most of the languages I'm familiar with), or if there is actually a connection between "n" and negative words.


I think it's an Indo-European thing. I had a quick look through that list, and it seems that many of the words beginning with N are Indo-European. And even if lots of non-IE languages have words for "no" that begin with N, it doesn't mean anything. Chance similarities between unrelated languages are very likely.

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Re: Can letters by themselves have meaning?

Postby Twelfthroot » Mon May 28, 2012 6:05 pm UTC

There is a small handful of linguists who propose that all human languages descend from one common ancestor and that we can perhaps reconstruct some words from it. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Proto-Human_language)

It's an enormous claim with little or no evidence, but some of the similarities (especially the words for water and vagina) are pretty striking. It's most likely entirely coincidental, though it is interesting that the similarities happened to line up on what could be thought to be very universal, ancient named concepts. If you really wanted to run with it, you could argue that, say, the oldest words for water all sounded like water and hence about the same, but other options include early borrowing plus coincidences, polygenesis plus coincideces, or just plain coincidence plus coincidences.

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Re: Can letters by themselves have meaning?

Postby scratch123 » Wed Jun 06, 2012 6:30 pm UTC

Twelfthroot wrote:I think the article http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sound_symbolism will be of interest to you. It's certainly fair to say that most speakers of a language feel that some of the language's sounds are more apt for some meanings than others. We might expect this to stem from a combination of onomatopoeia and word formations by analogy and deformations of similar words (e.g. slick and sleek seem to share a root; slosh is perhaps a mashing together of slop and sludge, etc).

For terminology's sake, I'm pretty sure you're asking if phonemes or phonemic clusters can have meaning (to which I'd say "sort of vaguely sometimes"). It's nothing about the letter itself, unless you would expect the words center and cheese to be sharp as well (or for the words to lose their sharpness if they were written in another alphabet). That said, yes, letters can have meaning in some contexts; e.g. X connoting either unknown or sexual, or H connoting the erotic in Japanese (each in the appropriate context, of course).

/k/ being a plosive (in English) stop consonant, I wouldn't be extremely surprised if a representative sample of k-initial words in English yielded a slightly higher proportion of 'abrupt' or 'active' words than 'gentle, soft' ones by some measure, but you'd find plenty of common exceptions (caress, comfy, custard, etc) and English's words come from far too many sources to draw any sort of meaningful conclusion about it.


Thanks that link was exactly what I was looking for.


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