Words index Vivian Cook
Size matters: big sounds, big things
The sounds of a word are not entirely arbitrary but sometimes summon up different associations. Many English words that mean ‘small’ have front vowels (i.e. said with the tongue raised at the front of the mouth) like ‘ee’, some words that mean ‘big’ have back vowels (i.e. said with the tongue lowered at the back of the mouth) like ‘ah’. Size seems to go with the vowel that is used. Obviously there are many exceptions – the word big itself is one, small another.
Size (big versus small)
words small’ words
large tiny mini
huge teeny pigmy
This property has been used by writers to invent words:
Brobdingnag Lilliput (places in Gulliver’s Travels)
Bludger snitch (balls in Quidditch)
Jaws (James Bond villain) Tinkerbell (fairy in Peter Pan)
Which of each pair do you think means ‘big’, which ‘small’ in the following languages; answers below – of course the spelling may not properly show which vowels are back.
On the basis of these links, John Ohalla put forward the controversial Frequency Code Hypothesis that claims that front vowels tend to go with larger things, back vowels with smaller things. Low sounds in general go with aggressiveness and assertion of power, not just vowels; Margaret Thatcher is believed to have had speech lessons to deepen her voice. It applies across languages, even to dogs who threaten with a low-pitched growl, submit with a high-pitched yelp.
As English sentences must have a pronoun, dummy subjects it and there get added in where other languages don’t need them:
It is snowing hard (what is it?
Added to obey the non-pro-drop rule)
There is a man in the moon (What is there? Added to provide a subject)
English pronouns then have 3 persons, 2 numbers and 3 cases and is non-pro-drop; Old English had 3 persons, 3 numbers, several cases and was non-pro-drop; German is non-pro-drop. Other languages make still more distinctions such as gender; Thai has a first person pronoun only used by women when speaking to the king kramňm. Even the humble pronoun shows the diversity of the ways in which human beings relate to the world around them.
See also Sounds and Letters.