Slurp. Ka-ching. Boom.

ice-cream-865126_640Words often sound like the thing they mean, in any language. And it’s not all coincidence.

Ever noticed that ice cream sounds fat and crackers sound skinny? There’s a reason, and it goes to the phonetic heart of how words are constructed. Some consonants simply sound like they take up more space than others. Compare voiced plosives /b/, /d/, and /g/ to their unvoiced counterparts, /p/, /t/, and /k/. Doesn’t the first set sound slower and bulkier than the second set? So is it any surprise that the first set is more likely to appear in the names for indulgent foods?

Consonants aren’t even the primary culprit. Vowels play a huge role in how words are used. Why do you suppose my male classmates–Ricky, Jimmy, Nicky, and Bradley–decided in junior high to go by Rick, Jim, Nick, and Brad? They wanted to sound more grown up, and the “y” at the end of the word was holding them back–or rather, the “ee” sound. That’s because “ee,” and other vowels formed at the front of the mouth, is associated with smallness. Incidentally, front-of-mouth vowels are significantly more likely to occur in female names than in male names, and we are socialized to prefer it that way. Last I checked,  Olga and Bertha have never hit the Top 100 as baby girl names.

Other factors come into play as well, as the study from this article discusses. Some words are quicker to spit out–fast versus slow–so duration is at play. And some words are more melodic–smooth versus rough–so harmony also plays a role.

Native speakers of a language don’t notice such phenomena because we learn word meanings without paying a lot of attention to word features. But you can help your second language learners learn vocabulary by calling their attention to phonetics. You could look at a single sound or set of sounds, as in slurp, slip, slide, and slow, and see if those words have anything in common. Or, look up a word like big in a thesaurus, and catalog the kinds of sounds among the synonyms. For example, mammoth, gargantuan, and gigantic all have back-of-the-mouth vowels and consonants, or consonants with long durations, which make the words bulky, and thus, indicative of their meaning.

How do you use phonetics in your language class? What other patterns have you noticed among English words?


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