Gods of the Word: Archetypes in the Consonants
In 1993, as part of a computer project I was working on, I found myself reading an English dictionary and dividing all the words into prefixes, suffixes and roots. I had read studies in linguists which suggested that the initial consonants of a word had a set of meanings, and the remaining rhyming part also had a set of meanings. One 'sense' of 'str-' is linearity: string, strip, stripe, street, etc. And one sense of '-ap' is flat: cap, flap, lap, map, etc. If you put them together, you get a flat line: 'strap'. The idea fascinated me, and since I was marking all these words anyway, I decided to keep an eye out for these classes which have similar meaning and pronunciation both. It turns out that it is possible by means of a series of repeatable experiments to show that certain meanings hang out with certain phonemes and others do not. I have been working on a dictionary which outlines this data for English in much more detail rather formally and scientifically. But I also have many thoughts which I seem to express more openly and cheerfully when I voice them in a separate book. My purpose here is therefore not to prove anything, but to summarise my most important findings in plain English and to philosophise freely and naively on their significance.
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Every letter has a meaning, and that meaning is its sound. A word means more than the thing it names; it is shaped and guided by its phonemes. This is the thesis of Margaret Magnus’s beautiful little book “Gods of the Word,” and if it sounds mystical, then so be it, but let no rational man turn away on that account. Mysticism, after all, is not the same as magic. The magician says “wave this branch and the corn will grow,” and we laugh when his ritual fails. He is, at the bottom, nothing but a lazy scientist, who hopes inanimate nature works like his animate mind, and can be cajoled. He loves wealth, wants it to come easily, and scruples not in finding it. The mystic, on the other hand, loves subtle correspondences, and she uses their delicate threads to innervate thought and nature, that they might become human, and familiar. She often does not know whence the threads have come, or whether she has made them. Nor is it her business to know-- they, unlike a magician’s promises, will become true if they are believed.
Magnus is a mystic. She binds a sound to a feeling, then lets the sound vibrate in various words, and marks how the feeling moves in sympathy. She is also a scientist, and I’m glad of it. She is looking for the link between sound and meaning in natural human language, and so it matters to her whence the threads have come-- though in the spirit of a mystic, she doesn’t worry about it too much. She does however, test her conjectures, and does not claim, I think, more than is due to them.
All this I say by way of apology and disclaimer, because I am worried that you all will think her crazy, and me crazy by association, when I begin laying out the material of her book. It is supposed to be an introduction to “phonosemantics,” and phonosemantics is supposed to be something like a science. Unfortunately, the classifications of consonants (for Magnus does not treat the vowels) in “Gods of The Word” are, as she has admitted, somewhat spotty, and are considered by its author to be good enough so long as they hit more than they miss. But here, I am getting uncomfortably vague; let me show you what I mean*.
First, we’ll divide some common monomorphemic words (that is, words with no prefixes or suffixes) into groups, based upon their initial consonants. Then, we’ll try and group the words beginning with each consonant based on their “inherent meaning,” whatever that may mean. Words beginning with /t/ will go into one class, and words beginning with /p/ into another. We’ll take ten of each for our little sample. From the /t/’s, “to, tank, tilt, topple, trip, take, twiddle, turban, teach, treat” will do. From the /p/’s, we’ll take ‘precise, park, peel, paddle, proper, pan, pin, pilfer, pip, and port.”
Now, I’ll divide each class into groups, based upon similarity of inherent meaning-- that is to say, intuition. I’ll start with the latter class:
Looking at the groups I have made, it seems to me that all the (1)’s have... Pointhood? particularity? How shall I name them without using a /p/ word? dotlike specificity, let’s say. The words in (2) on the other hand, are all flat, with the possible exception of ‘port.’ None of the words will travel between groups, either. A pan is not pointlike in the least, nor is a pip in any way planar. Note also that though I have divided my words based upon “inherent meaning” only, no word in (1) shares an initial vowel with any word in (2).
Let’s divide our /t/’s next.
Magnus says that /t/, in one of its senses, “expresses directedness toward an endpoint, generally along a linear track, but without indication as to whether the goal is actually reached.” In another sense, she says, /t/’s “involve ‘touching’ or ‘tapping’ with the purpose of directing or redirecting attention or action.” All of our (1)’s
Summary of Scientific Methods and Results
Language as a Philosophical Tool
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