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Submorphemics and English

Phonaesthemes: non-arbitrariness in the mental lexicon?

Benjamin Bergen


For the most part, the sounds of words in a language are arbitrary, given their meanings. But in fact, there are two ways in which words can be non-arbitrary. For one, there can be external reasons why a particular form would go with a given meaning, such as sound symbolism. Second, there are systematicities in languages, where words with similar forms are more likely than chance to have similar meanings. Such systematic form-meaning pairings, as observed in gleam, glow, and glimmer, are known as phonæsthemes. But are these systematicities psychologically real, or do they merely distributional relics of language change? Experimental work, including my own, suggests that these systematic form-meaning pairings are more than distributional facts about a lexicon—they also reflect organizational characteristics of the mental representation of words, their meanings, and their parts. My work also relates to a priming methodology used to test what it is that leads phonæsthemes to be mentally represented, measuring effects of frequency, cue validity, and sound symbolism.

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Editor's notes

Although unable to meet the deadline for publication, the author has kindly agreed to the above abstract/résumé of his talk at the International Linguistics Symposium on Submorphemics held in Toulouse in October 2011 being published in this issue. Some of the topics he addressed on that occasion are discussed in a work entitled Louder than Words: The New Science of How the Mind Makes Meaning (Basic Books, New York, October 2012).


Electronic reference

Benjamin Bergen, « Phonaesthemes: non-arbitrariness in the mental lexicon? », Miranda [Online], 7 | 2012, Online since 09 December 2012, connection on 24 November 2020. URL : ; DOI :

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About the author

Benjamin Bergen

Associate Professor
University of California, San Diego

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