The Search for Meaning in Sound

On kerfuffles and hullabaloos and rethinking iconicity


Due to a confused, embattled website that hasn’t worked quite right, proceeded by an even more delusional and divisive government shutdown designed to make said website wish it were never born, the word debacle has been everywhere lately. As has, for that matter, kerfuffle, fiasco, ruckus, hubbub, hullaballoo, furor, hoopla, fracas, imbroglio, and brouhaha. I can only assume we have melee, fracas, pandemonium, mayhem, bedlam, rumpus, ballyhoo, and donnybrook to look forward to during Obamacare’s continued unveiling.

Perhaps it’s the repetition that gives words like kerfuffle, hubbub, hullaballoo, furor, melee, fracas, rumpus, and brouhaha their exorbitant sensibility, or the way the final syllable in bedlam, mayhem, hoopla, and donnybrook suddenly sends the word on a not altogether expected trajectory. Whatever it is, how fitting that we have so many uncommonly outrageous words to describe such uncommonly outrageous situations!

Language, linguists’ usual story goes, is on the whole arbitrary, with no overarching correspondence between sound and meaning. There’s nothing particularly du-like about duck or dust or dumbfound, and only rarely can we derive the meaning of an unfamiliar word by listening to it in isolation. When we can, it is usually because we know something of the word’s etymology: that tumor and tumult both derive from the Latin tumere, meaning swell or be bombastic.

Arbitrariness is important. It allows for a large, easily distinguishable vocabulary. (Imagine having to come up with purely iconic, yet distinguishable, words for every single plant, animal, or cooking gadget on the planet. Whew.) Arbitrariness has been considered so important, in fact, that its opposing force—iconicity—has generally been relegated to onomatopoeias like whoosh or knock knock.

Recently, however, iconicity has garnered a bit more respect. In a 2010 article in Frontiers in Psychology, Pamela Pemiss, Robin Thompson, and Gabriella Vigliocco make the case that iconicity can be found all over the place—especially when you look beyond Indo-European languages. In many sub-Saharan African and Southeast Asian languages, as well as indigenous languages in South America and Australia, “properties of experiences—including visual, tactile, as well as mental and emotional experiences—may systematically correspond to properties of vowels and consonants, and their patterns of combination,” the researchers write. Not to mention sign languages, virtually all of which have substantial iconicity.

Some symbol-meaning associations may even be universal, or close to it. In one of my favorite findings, replicated across a number of cultures (and even in children), people are likelier to assign the label “kiki” to a spikey unfamiliar object, and “bouba” to rounded one, than vice versa. Similarly, throughout the world, as Stanford University linguist Dan Jurafsky describes, front vowels like those in bit, bet, and beet, tend to be used to describe “small, thin, light things” while back vowels like uh and oh are reserved for larger, heavier objects. Why? Writes Jurafsky: “The most widely accepted theory, the Frequency Code, was developed by linguist John Ohala … [who] noticed that front vowels have higher-pitched resonances than back vowels. He suggested that because larger animals like lions make deep sounds while smaller animals like birds make high-pitched sounds, animals and humans learned to associate lower pitch with bigger size.” Another Stanford linguist, Penny Eckert, is exploring the relationship between the ways sounds are pronounced and the attitudes they’re intended to convey.

In their Frontiers article, Pemiss and colleagues argue that iconicity, like arbitrariness, is a “guiding principle” of language—one that encodes our shared human experiences. I doubt most linguists would go so far. But writer Roy Blount Jr. would undoubtedly welcome the revelation. His 2008 book Alphabet Juice is a lively exploration of sound symbolism. Take, for instance, his riff on the letter h, that simple, breathy sound that, like air itself, so often takes the shape of its container:

“We hum. We hem and haw. We huff and puff, hoot and holler. We hiss or (if we’re a Southern dog) we hassle, we howl, we raise a hue and cry. We laugh: ha ha, hee-haw, heh heh, ho-ho. We shout: hurrah, huzza, hi-ho, hoo-hah, yo-ho-ho, hip hip hooray or hurrah, wa-hoo. We announce that we’ve caught on to something: aha!, oh-ho!, unh-hunh. We grunt: hmm?, hunh?, humph, harumph, ahem, pooh. We greet: hello, hey, hi, ho, how, howdy, ahoy …”

Yes. We do.

But don’t we also breathe and giggle and yo! and come again? And for all of the preposterousness of a hullaballoo or brouhaha, a hubbub or kerfuffle, isn’t there a perfectly sensible uproar or fuss, a proper if droll misadventure?

Yet it seems Blount is on to something. Language isn’t just about communication. It is also, as Eckert’s work is getting at, about performance. Psychologists know that rhyme and alliteration have very real effects on listeners and readers—and the deft use of these techniques does not come about by accident. As anyone who has ever struggled to find the right word understands, all sounds are not created equal.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Jessica Love holds a doctorate in cognitive psychology and edits Kellogg Insight at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management.


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