26 July 2010


In my previous post (here), I suggested that the shape of most (but not all) signs is iconic, but in contrast the sound of most words is arbitrary, so you would never guess what horse refers to unless you already knew.

There are, of course, some words that indicate something of their meaning from the way they are said. In particular, we have onomatopeic words such as plop and click, and also the names of some creatures such as cuckoo.

There are a few other words that seems to carry some hint of their meaning in their pronunciation. For example, I think the German word schrecklich sounds splendid as a word for expressing something bad, whereas the English equivalent terrible does not even begin to do that.

On the other hand, take the German word Schmuck, pronounced as /ʃmʊk/. If you don't know what it means, have a guess. To help you, here it is on the door of a fashionable shop in Regensburg.In fact, Schmuck means 'jewelry'. Now, to my ears that doesn't sound remotely appropriate, though maybe if you have all your life heard Schmuck referring to pretty things, maybe you would disagree.

As we can see, the sound of most words, in German as well as English, is arbitrary.