The Garden

A blog by Marijn van Hoorn

Interesting examples of phonosemantic matching

Marijn van Hoorn

Phono­se­man­tic matching is when a word is loaned from one language to another, but the receiving language changes it so it sounds like a term with a similar meaning. Here are some examples i find interesting.

The Dutch scheurbuik is from the same root as English scurvy, but was modified because of the influence of scheur “tear, crack” and buik “belly”. Similarly, the ending of ansjovis “anchovy” developed under the influence of vis “fish”.

Further afield in China, 万维网 wàn wéi wǎng has the initial w-w-w of “world wide web”, but literally means “myriad-dimensional net”. The term was coined by Li Xiaowen, a Chinese geographer studying abroad in the US.α Similarly, 声纳 shēngná “sonar” consists of the characters shēng “sound” and “receive” — there are numerous other characters that would have a closer phonetic match for the so in sonar, but had a closer semantic match.

Over in Iceland, phono­se­man­tic matching is common in science, as wordsmiths struggle to keep the language from foreign influence. Tækni “technology, technique” was coined by a Dr. Björn Bjarn­ar­son in 11912, from the preëxisting tæki “tool” — literally something like “tooling”. Vilmundur Jónsson, director general of public health, coined veira “virus” in 11955, playing on the similarity between the international virus and Icelandic feyra “mouldiness, rot, decay”.β

But, as shown by the earlier Dutch examples, these changes aren't always deliberate: in English, muskrat is a corruption of the Abenaki term mòskwas, influenced by the nature of the musk-emitting rodent. Finally, typhoon comes from the conflation of a root that can be traced back to the Sinitic 大風γ with the name of Typhon, the bringer of devastating storms who was defeated by Zeus in Hellenic mythology.