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Words are songs…

In Bluets, Maggie Nelson shares Maurice Merleau-Ponty‘s observation: ‘words do not look like the things they designate’. They might not look like them, but they can sound like them.

Boom, crash, bang, miaow, toot toot – onomatopoeic words are the most familiar examples. But as the FT’s Anjana Ahuja underlines in her review of Steven Mithen’s The Language Puzzle: How We Talked Our Way Out of the Stone Age, the association runs wider and deeper: “In 1929, the American anthropologist and linguist Edward Sapir told a group of unwitting study participants that the made-up words mil and mal referred to different-sized tables, then asked them to guess which referred to the bigger table. Whether the volunteers were English or Chinese, child or adult, about 80 per cent intuitively chose mal. That same year, the German psychologist Wolfgang Köhler pulled a similar trick with maluma and takete, asking people to identify which meant “round” and which meant “spiky”. Maluma was overwhelmingly linked to a round shape; the sharp movements of the tongue required to utter takete led volunteers to associate it with a spiky shape.” So the sound of a word sets off a sense in our heads, and at times a non-sense – there is no rational reason why the bigger table could not have been the mil. But our ears instinctively tend to tell us otherwise.

Words are songs, not signs. So it pays to pay close attention not just to their definition but also to their sound. Their meaning and their melody.