The three sounds of top don't individually have meaning; they form a meaningful unit only when combined as in top. And it's precisely because the individual sounds in top don't carry independent meaning that they can be formed into other combinations with other meanings, such as pot, opt, topped, and popped.Yet this principle has an escape clause of sorts, one that goes by the name of sound symbolism. While individual sounds may not possess intrinsic meanings, certain sounds do seem to suggest certain meanings.
(Language: Its Structure and Use, 5th ed. Thomson/Wadsworth, 2008)
In his Little Book of Language (2010), David Crystal demonstrates the phenomenon of sound symbolism:
It's interesting how some names sound good and some sound bad. Names with soft consonants such as [m], [n], and [l] tend to sound nicer than names with hard consonants such as [k] and [g]. Imagine we're approaching a planet, where two alien races live. One of the races is called the Lamonians. The other is called the Grataks. Which sounds like the friendlier race? Most people opt for the Lamonians, because the name sounds friendlier. Grataks sound nasty.In fact, sound symbolism (also called phonosemantics) is one of the ways in which new words are fashioned and added to the language. (Consider frak, the all-purpose swear word coined by the writers of the Battlestar Galactica TV series.)
Of course, poets, rhetoricians, and marketers have long been aware of the effects created by particular sounds, and in our glossary you'll find numerous overlapping terms that refer to specific arrangements of phonemes. Some of these terms you learned in school; others are probably less familiar. Give a listen to these linguistic sound effects (an example, by the way, of both alliteration and assonance). For more detailed explanations, follow the links.
The repetition of an initial consonant sound, as in the old slogan of Country Life butter: "You'll never put a better bit of butter on your knife."
The repetition of identical or similar vowel sounds in neighboring words, as in the repetition of the short i sound in this couplet from the late rapper Big Pun:
Dead in the middle of little Italy little did we know
That we riddled a middle man who didn't do diddly.
--"Twinz (Deep Cover '98)," Capital Punishment, 1998
Similar sound endings to words, phrases, or sentences--such as the repeated -nz sound in the advertising slogan "Beans Means Heinz."
Broadly, the repetition of consonant sounds; more specifically, the repetition of the final consonant sounds of accented syllables or important words.
Homophones are two (or more) words--such as knew and new--that are pronounced the same but differ in meaning, origin, and often spelling. (Because peas and peace differ in the voicing of the final consonant, the two words are considered near homophones as opposed to true homophones.)
A sequence of words (for example, "the stuff he knows") that sounds the same as a different sequence of words ("the stuffy nose").
A word or lexeme (such as mama, pooh-pooh, or chit-chat) that contains two identical or very similar parts.
The use of words (such as hiss, murmur--or the Snap, Crackle, and Pop! of Kellogg's Rice Krispies) that imitate the sounds associated with the objects or actions they refer to.
- Echo Word
A word or phrase (such as buzz and cock a doodle doo) that imitates the sound associated with the object or action it refers to: an onomatope.
A short utterance (such as ah, d'oh, or yo) that usually expresses emotion and is capable of standing alone. In writing, an interjection (like Fred Flintstone's "Yabba dabba do!") is often followed by an exclamation point.
To learn more about phonosemantics in the context of a wide variety of modern languages, have a look at the cross-disciplinary essays collected in Sound Symbolism, edited by Leanne Hinton, Johanna Nichols, and John J. Ohala (Cambridge University Press, 2006). The editors' introduction, "Sound-Symbolic Processes," offers a lucid overview of the different types of sound symbolism and describes some universal tendencies. "Meaning and sound can never be fully separated," they conclude, "and linguistic theory must accommodate itself to that increasingly obvious fact."