In the present article I discuss the nature of
phonosymbolism in poetry. My aim is to define more clearly
the notion of phonosymbolism as it arises from two main
sources: sounds and the images sounds signify. Charles S.
Peirce's theoretical apparatus will prove to be central to
the present analysis, insofar as the sign will be conceived
as the triadic dynamic relation of three entities: sign,
object, and intepretant. When the sign is in relation with
itself, it gives origin to an icon, an index, and a diagram.
Both icon and index will be useful to show the differences
between symbolism as it derives from the perception of icons
and symbolism when it arises from indices. To illustrate my
hypotheses I will refer to selected poems from English
1. The Phonological Figure
Let me quote Joseph Trapp (1742: 64):
Whether it was from Chance, or Design,
that these Verses, by their very Sound, represent the
Thing they describe, is not worth enquiring. It is
certain, some Words are so naturally formed for this
Purpose, and Poetry for the proper Disposal of them, that
this Felicity can't well be avoided; and 'tis to Chance
alone we are often indebted for these beautiful Echo's.
Sometimes, however, they are undoubted Effect of Art.
Whence soever they proceed, they frequently occur, and
are an ample Proof of the Force and Elegance of the
Yet, according to Jakobson, the main feature of poetry is
the repetition of the phonological figure. The network of
connections on which poetry roots its nature is above all a
phonic artifice shaped by the poet in such a way as to
induce in the reader's mind images and emotions deriving
from the quality of sounds: we may say that acoustic images
evoke visual images. The correspondence between sounds and
psychic reactions, that is, between acoustic substance and
the network of meanings and impressions thus evoked, dates
back to Plato's Cratyllus.
[ASSA No. 10, p. 531]
An example of iconicity comes to us from Pope's Essay
on Criticism :
True Ease in Writing comes from Art, not Chance,
As those move easiest who have learn'd to dance.
'Tis not enough no Harshness gives Offence,
The Sound must seem an Echo to the
Soft is the Strain when Zephyr gently
And the smooth Stream in smoother
But when loud Surges lash the sounding Shore,
The hoarse, rough Verse shou'd like
the Torrent roar.
These lines illustrate the strong relationship between the
phonetic and the semantic levels of the text: The Sound
must seem an Echo to the Sense. For
instance, in lines 8 and 9 the use of fricatives and nasals,
as well as the repetition of mid-vowels, reinforces the idea
of the softness of breeze and echoes the idea of smoothness.
In lines 4 and 5 the palatal fricatives are meant to evoke
hoarseness and harshness.
Although phoneme is, by definition, the minimal unit of
language which has no meaning, it is undeniable that sounds
support meaning effects in Pope. In the above example
phonemes or sequences of phonemes have a connotative
semantic value. This "natural" sound-meaning relation is a
representation mainly based on perceived similarity, on our
perception of the world.
2. The Autonomy of Signans
In the last two decades a great attention has been
focussed in the investigation on the autonomy of the sign,
in other words, if the sign can convey meaning in itself
independently of its semantic content. The idea, suggested
by Jakobson, leads us to question again on the 'natural'
powers of language, the first of which is the iconic power,
that is to say, the natural analogy or resemblance between
the sign and the object. Jakobson exemplified this
similarity through the famous Caesar's phrase, veni,
vidi, vici which mirrors the chronological sequence and
the rapidity of Caesar's victory at Farnace.
In the present paper my interest is focussed on the power
of iconicity at the phonological level, but iconicity models
every level of language. Iconicity in poetry is realized by
means of rhyme and prosody, stanzaic ordering and
typographic layout on the page.
The act of reading is manipulated by the poet through the
skilful use of the layout, the line and stanza breaks,
punctuation. Spatial dislocation of words and/or letters are
used to create an iconic visual poetry of great interest for
the analyst as well as for the reader.
George Herbert and E.E. Cummings serve as examples of the
way in which the disposition of words on the page can be
exploited in order to convey meaning even before the reading
of the poem.
[ASSA No. 10, p. 532]
Herbert used the technique of the Carmen
figuratum, very popular in the 16th and 17th centuries,
also known as the "hieroglyphic form." It consists of a
particular typographical layout: the verses of the poem were
printed so as to form a shape or a design on the page. The
layout of the pattern poem below gives hints to the reader
about the meaning of the poem. The title, together with the
typographical layout, reinforces the themes of wings and
flight. The pattern of the lines is indexical, that is,
points to the main theme of resurrection. It goes without
saying that this type of indexicality, that I would call
"surface indexicality," is the simplest and the easiest to
catch by the reader.
Lord, Who createdst man in wealth and store,
Though foolishly he lost the same,
Decaying more and more
Till he came
O let me rise,
As larks, harmoniously,
And sing this day Thy victories:
Then shall the fall further the flight in me.
My tender age in sorrow did beginne;
And still with sickness and shame
Thou didst so punish sinne,
That I became
Let me combine,
And feel this day Thy victorie;
For, if I limp my wing on Thine,
Affliction shall advance the flight in me.
G. Herbert, "Easter Wings"
E.E.Cummings provides a similar example: in the poem below
loneliness is compared to a falling leaf. The typographical
pattern suggests the image of a leaf that is falling on the
[ASSA No. 10, p. 533]
This sort of resemblance between layout and meaning is a
kind of similarity that we may label, after Peirce,
indexical analogy in the sense that the layout directly
points , at least, to one of the meanings of the poem. E.E.
Cummings' poem is indexical in that the disposition of
letter and brackets reveal the poet's intention of
paralleling the meaning of the poem and the motion of a
Jakobson (1960: 356) underlined the importance of
phonetic phenomena in literary and non-literary production,
proposing to oppose the combination axis, correspondent to
syntagmatic relation, to the selection axis, correspondent
to paradigmatic relation. This procedure is synthesized in
his "Projection Principle": "The poetic function projects
the principle of equivalence from the axis of selection into
the axis of combination."
This means that the network of associations on which
poetry roots its proper bases is above all a phonological
device forged by the poet in such a way as to evoke in the
reader images deriving from the quality of sound: that is to
say, acoustic images evoke visual images.
Let us focus on another example of a more complex kind of
similarity deriving from the reader's perceptive ability of
connecting articulatory facts with meaning:
Summer ends now; now, barbarous in beauty, the stooks
Around; up above, what wind-walks! what
Of silk-sack clouds! has wilder,
Meal-drift moulded ever and melted across skies?
I walk, I lift up, I lift up heart, eyes
Down all that glory in the heavens to
glean our Saviour
And, eyes, heart, what looks, what lips
yet gave you a
Rapturous love's greeting of realer, of rounder
And the azurous hung hills are his world-wielding
Majestic as a stallion stalwart,
These things, these things were here and but the
Wanting; which two when they once meet,
The heart rears wings bold and bolder
And hurls for him, O half hurls earth for him off under
G.M. Hopkins, Hurraying in
[ASSA No. 10, p. 534]
It was Hopkins himself who stated that poetry is "speech
wholly or partially repeating the same figure of sounds". In
the sonnet the high percentage of fricatives is meant to
parallel the whistling of wind which, at the thematic level,
is not only the voice of nature but also the voice of 'our
Saviour' who communicates His presence to the human beings.
Hence the phonological figure is semantic figure, and the
acoustic images overlap the visual images in a phonoiconic
use of language.
Indexicality is exemplified in Hopkins's sonnet by the
hyphenated words in the first lines as well as by a skilful
alternation of front raising vowels and back vowels. The
combination of apophonic compounds (wind-walks, silk-sack,
wilful-wavier) contributes to convey, with a minimum
expenditure of expression, a series of images, also deriving
from the unusual collocation of words belonging to distant
semantic fields. The opposition of phonemes /i:/ and /a/ in
the apophonic compounds is indexical of the occlusion and
opening of mouth in the act of articulating the vowels and
they can be said to stand in an indexical relation to the
objects they depict, the cone-shaped stooks.
There is an interplay of iconicity and indexicality
within the sonnet which ensnare the ear of the reader and
leads him toward the chosen interpretation.
The reader perceives iconic elements in a poem via the
semantic level of the text, and never vice versa. We may say
that in these cases iconicity and indexicality are
semantically motivated and their perception is directly
proportional to the interpretative ability of the reader who
connects meaning with form.
Jakobson (1985: 59) asks an interesting question:
Are the designs disclosed by linguistic
analysis deliberately and rationally planned in the
creative work of a poet and is he really aware of them? A
calculus of probability as well as an accurate comparison
of poetic texts with other kinds of verbal messages
demonstrates that the striking particularities in the
poetic selection, accumulation, juxtaposition,
distribution, and exclusion of diverse phonological and
grammatical classes cannot be viewed as negligible
accidentals governed by the rule of chance.
Jakobson's own answer is a further question about the
possibility of the reader ability of catching so refined
iconic and indexical allusion to the thematic level of the
Intuition may act as the main or, not
seldom, even sole designer of the complicated
phonological and grammatical structures in the writings
of individual poets. (p.68)
[ASSA No. 10, p. 535]
5. The Perceptive Explanation
According to the perceptive explanation the phoneme
[i] is associated to the dimension of smallness in
that it establishes a unique bilateral one-to-one relation
between the phoneme and the object the phoneme is applied
to. Studies in the field of acoustic phonetics have shown
that the frequency of a sound is inversely proportional to
the dimension of the object producing the sound: this fact
can be easily explained observing that the occlusion of
mouth gives origin to the production of high pitch vowels.
Bertinetto (1983) notices that associations of this kind can
be referred to extralinguistic characteristics of
sociological nature. The habit of matching sound with
meaning would be in tune with the Peircean triadic nature of
sign and, being language symbolic in nature, sound-symbol is
a sign which establishes a conventional relation with the
denotatum: this process is named phonoiconism in Peircean
terms. Bertinetto distinguishes phonoiconism from
phonoindexicality: while the first term should be applied to
common phonosymbolism in which a sound/phoneme, considered
as an icon, is a signans which mirrors the phonic quality of
its signatum; the second term should be used for the signans
when it is considered as a index which, by its nature,
recalls its signatum via image.
Neurolinguistic experiments (see, for example, Caramazza,
1992) have shown that the lexical meaning/signatum does not
establish any relation with the signans in that the speaker,
after perceiving a sensorial stimulus from whatever source,
auditive olfactory gustative or tactile, enters a unique
neuronal area where all meanings are stored. As a
consequence, the matching between a sensorial stimulus, the
phoneme [i] in the specimen, and a meaning, the
diminutive status in our case, is due only to frequency in
the lexicon of words/lexemes formed by high pitch sounds and
the object they depict. According to the sound-iconic
hypothesis, high pitch in tone languages refers to
smallness; whereas the sound-indexical hypothesis indicates
fronting and raising of vowels and consonants as index of
smallness, a directive stimulus toward the idea of little
dimension. Bertinetto cites the results of statistic
measurements (Chastaing, 1965; Brown, 1955; Bertinetto,
1981) among a wide number of different languages, according
to which words indicating small dimension present a non
casual distribution of fronting and raising vowels, while
central and back vowels are more frequent in words
indicating ample dimensions.
In a more recent study, Sweetser (1990: 6) asserts "our
linguistic system is inextricably interwoven with the rest
of our physical and cognitive selves." This means that what
is generally known as one of the main features of poetry,
that is, phonosymbolism, may find a scientific explanation
in neurolinguistic investigations.
[ASSA No. 10, p. 536]
Bertinetto (1983), Semantica e Fonologia, in Segre
(ed.) Introduzione alla Linguistica, Feltrinelli,
Brown (1955), Phonetic Symbolism in Natural Languages,
"The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology",
Caramazza (1992),The multiple Semantics Hypothesis:
Multiple Confusion?, The Johns Hopkins University,
Chastaing (1965), Dernières recherches sur le
symbolisme vocalique de la petitesse,"Revue
Jakobson (1960), Linguistics and Poetics, in Sebeok,
Style in Language, Cambridge, MIT Press
_________ (1985),"Subliminal Verbal Patering in
Poetry", in Krystyna Pomorska & Stephen Rudy (eds.)
Verbal Art, Verbal Sign, Verbal Time, Oxford
Joseph Trapp (1742), Lectures on Poetry.
Peirce, Charles S. Collected Papers, Cambridge,
Harvard University Press
Sweetser (1990), From Etimology to Pragmatics.
Metaphorical and Cultural Aspects of Semantic Structure,
to the editors
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