Size-sound symbolism revisited

Reuven Tsur*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Why do we perceive bass voices as "thick"? Owing to a "mediated association" with "thick people and animals [who] are usually loud and resonant", or owing to some "subtle inter-sensory quality" found in thick things and bass voices? The present paper rejects the former possibility and endorses the latter. As to speech-sound symbolism, I account for it with reference to two aspects: phonetic features and precategorial information. I conceive of speech sounds as of bundles of acoustic and articulatory features each of which may have certain (sometimes conflicting) combinational potentials, which may be activated, after the event, by certain meaning components. Speech is transmitted by sound waves; but while speech categories are consciously perceived, the rich precategorial auditory information that transmitted them is excluded from awareness. I assume that intuitions regarding perceptual and emotional qualities of speech sounds are prompted by rich precategorial auditory information that subliminally reaches awareness in spite of all. Examining a sample of 136 languages, Russell Ultan (1978) pointed out that in a wide range of cultures high front vowels are typically perceived as small or denoting small things, whereas low back vowels are typically perceived as big or denoting large things. "Since high front vowels reflect proportionately higher second formant frequencies, [...] there appears a correspondence between a feature of high frequency (=short wavelength in physical terms) and the category of small size". Gérard Diffloth (1994) provides a counterexample: There is a word class in a Vietnamese dialect in which "high is big", and "low is small". Though I sympathise with quite a few of Diffloth's generalisations, I must conclude that he arrives at his contradictory findings by changing the rules of the game. The two researchers mean different things by the same words. Speaking of "high" and "low", Ultan means relative formant frequency; Diffloth means articulatory location. The "height" of the place of articulation of the vowel is in an inverse relation to the frequency of its first formant. "High" articulatory location is synonymous with "low" first formant frequency. So, in both instances "high frequency is small" and "low frequency is big". They differ, then, in that while Ultan's intercultural sample directs attention to the frequency of the second formant, Diffloth's Vietnamese word class focusses on the frequency of the first formant. As far as the size-vowel symbolism is concerned, the convincing counterexamples are still to be adduced.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)905-924
Number of pages20
JournalJournal of Pragmatics
Issue number6
StatePublished - Jun 2006


  • Aspect-switching
  • Categorial perception
  • Frequency code
  • Meaning components
  • Mediated association
  • Perceived qualities
  • Phonetic features
  • Precategorial auditory information
  • Sound symbolism
  • Speech perception
  • Synaesthesia


Dive into the research topics of 'Size-sound symbolism revisited'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this