The use of phono-meaning in Gulliver's Travels

Jeremy Kahn

WARNING I'm a linguistics major; if language concerns aren't your cup of tea, the following may be boring.

Swift, in Gulliver's Travels, chooses his names more carefully than the average reader might think. Professor Banchoff demonstrated an instinctual understanding of a phenomenon that has been explored a little bit by linguists when he pointed out that "'Lilliput' just sounds small, while 'Brobdingnag' just sounds big."

Although I regret that I don't have any references at hand (I am working in the CIT again) I remember reading a cross-linguistic study of words for big and small from languages of every major language family (including seven or eight huge super-classes from the Americas and Africa that I hadn't even heard of) of which a startling number demonstrated this interesting pattern: that the vowels for 'big' words tended to be low and back, while words for 'small' tended to use the high and front vowels.

low, high, back, and front are all linguistics terms that describe the position of the tongue in the mouth.

"ah," "oh," and "oo" are words (described in English orthography) that are back vowels, and are opposed in this dimension by the front vowels "ee" and "eh". "ah" and "eh" are both low sounds, opposed by the high sounds "ee" and "oo". You can see that there are some overlaps; the two dimensions are nearly orthogonal. (See, we can bring in dimension anywhere...)

The point of the study, though, was that the dimensions of vowel space corresponded well to the dimensions of the semantic space. Their hypothesis is that the correspondence is a simple relationship to the size of the resonant cavity; one would expect a larger resonant cavity to denote a larger meaning and indeed there seems to be some truth to that:

Examples that fit the pattern (language) [ones I can remember]

words for 'small': teensy, tiny, minor (English), mini- (Latin, English), pequen~a(o) (Spanish, Portuguese), petit(e) (French), klein (German).

words for 'big': enormous, whopping, large, broad (English), macro- (Greek, English), grande (Spanish, Portuguese), grand(e) (French), gross (German; actually the double-s), da (Mandarin Chinese).

Lilliput and Brobdingnag are well-designed names because Lilliput has two high and front vowels (the "i"s) and one centralized vowel--it is written as a "u" but it is a "schwa", a center vowel. Brobdingnag on the other hand, though it has a true "i" in the middle, leaves its stressed syllables (the first, with primary stress, and the third, with secondary) with back and non-high vowels. This pattern of vowels matches the pattern observed in the world's languages.

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