The Words We Know by Heart, Part I: Brillig

by Translation Guy on July 25, 2011

The language of the heart is jabberwocky, the sounds of the senses, the nonsensical whimsies of Lewis Carroll.

“Twas brillig, and the slithy toves” means something by its sound, if not meaning, the shape or words evoke a flavor on our tongue. Would “rose,” unknown to someone who does not speak our tongue, smell as sweet to her ear as it does to ours, just by sound alone? Those of us who have studied another language know that we can feel a word by its sound, long before we know its meaning.

Scientists are beginning to think so too, David Robson wrote recently in New Scientist. Studies suggest that we seem instinctively to link certain sounds with particular notions, bringing to mind a spiky appearance, a bitter taste, or a sense of swift movement. And when you know where to look, these patterns crop up surprisingly often, allowing a monoglot English speaker to understand more Swahili or Japanese than you might imagine.

And the Carrollian whimsies that trip across our tongue like jubjub and bandersnatchs may even hold the keys to the original language, spoken pre-Babel-istically by the first human speakers.

That ancient language of the heart seems onomatopoetically obvious. English words that begin with “sn” are often associated with our organ of olfaction: think “snout,” “sniff,” “snot,” “snore” and “snorkel.” Also turns out they get top priority in mental processing, since back in caveman days, what was on the wind often required a quick response. The scientist who discovered this priority processing, Benjamin Bergen at UC San Diego, was whipsawed when he discovered that “wh” words associated with words that describe the production of noises such as “whisper,” “whine” or “whirr,” and those beginning with “fl” that tend to signal movement in the air, such as “fly” or “flail,” also enjoyed this fast track in the brain’s processing. Bergen calls it sound symbolism. Snuff said.

It’s the same in most languages. For example, Japanese “mimetic” words, which by definition are particularly evocative of sensual experiences. Gorogoro roughly translates as “large object rolling,” while nurunuru is meant to evoke the feel of a slimy substance. “If you ask a speaker of Japanese, they will say [the words] evoke an image of an expression,” says Sotaro Kita at the University of Birmingham. He found that English-speaking kids learn the Japanese words more easily when they follow the Japanese rules for making the sound than if the rules are contravened.

Glimpses of an ancient language as through a looking glass. . . “‛It seems very pretty,’ she said when she had finished it, ‘but it’s rather hard to understand!’ (You see she didn’t like to confess, even to herself, that she couldn’t make it out at all.) ‘Somehow it seems to fill my head with ideas—only I don’t exactly know what they are!’” More to come.


  1. What about swear words or contemptuous words. Onomatopoeic and deeply connected to the emotional centres.

    From the profane to the sacred, what about words for God, Allah, Yahweh, Buddha, Jesus, Messiah? They seems to have some ahhh or long vowel sound as if to indicate a contemplative moment.

    Then what about King, Koneig, Maji, Majesty, Caesar, Tsar, Boss, Master…

    Or precious materials Gold, Silver, Ruby…

    These words have to be Mesolithic to early bronze age.

    • Ken says:

      Recent work on swear-words is very intersting. I’ll add it to the endlist list of posts I want to right.

  2. CenturyBreak says:

    This is my favourite poem, and it’s suppossed to be written how poems should not be, but somehow it’s awesome….how can you not love this?

    This and Georges song in “Georges marvellous medicine” are amazing because of how wacky they are with words, make-believe or otherwise.

  3. LOO AMOO! TLJ Me encanta Jan Svankmajer 😀 Y su version de alicia en el pais de las maravillas está Padrisimaa! Woow

    • Ken says:

      Here’s a bony clip of Svankmajer’s Alice. Weird.

  4. Eric Horner says:

    Burton’s version was horrid. It was as if he took the characters from both book put them in a hat and drew them randomly to tell a horrible plot. Read the original books. No movie has ever done them correctly.

  5. Consider this as well. A seashore language is different to a mountain language. Seashore language is longer, because of waves, and mountain language is short because of rocks. Sand languages like Danish and Bedouin are soft

  6. Mro says:

    Could this potentially explain the theory that people’s names affect their personalities?

    For example, I could hypothesise that giving a person a particularly “pointy” name (Katie?) would mean that they grow up to have a more direct “in-your-face” type of personality? Whereas a rounder name (Colin?) might mean a person grows up to be more laid back?

    Of course, disentangling the actual associations from my our own personal biases would be very difficult :)

  7. Leon Best says:

    If the theory is correct wouldn’t it be true for other primate “languages”? Don’t baboons have different sounds for different dangers – hawk vs leopard etc? Is there a strong correlation between their sounds and their environment?

    • Ken says:

      And not just primates, either, Leon.

  8. Jim Bottrell says:

    I’ve dug up some theories of the origins of Language:

    The bow-bow theory: based upon the notion that speech arose through people imitating the sounds of environment, especially animal calls, the use of onomatopoeic words

    The pooh-pooh theory : based on the evidence that speech arose through people making instinctive sounds

    The ding-dong theory : postulates that speech arose because people reacted to the world around them, sound symbolism

    The yo-he-ho theory: based on the notion that speech arose from physical environmental needs which produced communal, rhythmical grunts which later on developed into chants

    The la-la theory: provides that if any single factor was responsible to initiate human language, it would be romantic-side of human life

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