Abaddon Books

Word Nerd: Gruntled, Wieldy and Pulchritudinous; On Onomatopoeic Theory

3 years ago

Hola nerds!

So a little while ago I was sent an email by one of the guys in our IT department, asking me a word question:*

And really it is a rather wonderful question – and, as Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell says, “a wrong question,” because the answer of course is that you totally can. The word wieldy dates all the way back to Middle English and has always meant “easily manageable”; if you want to swing a hockey stick around a couple of times and remark, “Yeah, I like this; nice and wieldy,” you can do that all day long.

You probably won’t, though.

Around the same time I encountered this tumblr post, which had been screencapped and was circulating on facebook (a fine example of the great self-sustaining social media hurricane):

Now this one’s a bit more complicated, since it’s a neologism. Gruntle, derived from grunt, means “to grumble”; the reflexive disgruntled, first formed in the late seventeenth century, is a sort of double negative,† using the negative prefix dis- to amplify the sense of the already negative gruntle (this is actually not hugely unusual; the words disembowel and disannul, for instance, are formed the same way).

The positive sense of gruntled is a modern backformation, working back from disgruntled, mostly used in client management (sometimes as regruntled) to describe the fruits of successfully resolving complaints.

But, as with wieldy, it’s likely you never use it.

And there’s a reason for that...

Words Don’t Sound Right

You see, there are loads of words in the English language – like, dozens at least – and in many cases several words for each concept (even synonym has a synonym!), and those words are in competition for the limited bandwidth on our gristly human vocal cords. When it comes down to it, which word do you reach for to describe a thing?

In practice, it seems like you reach for the word that sounds right, or at least sounds best for the purpose. The reason we don’t talk about things being wieldy is that it just doesn’t sound comfortable. It has that awkward rounded EE-y sound, and that tricky little L, and for a word that specifically describes something as easy and manageable, it just doesn’t seem fitting. Unwieldy’s a great word: there, the clumsiness of the word is a virtue; it just sounds awkward. But wieldy? Just doesn’t sound like what it’s describing. In much the same way, gruntled just sounds unhappy, no matter how you use it.

There are any number of words that behave like this; words that are still there in the English lexis, but which no-one really uses because frankly they’re not very fit for purpose. Like restive, a really quite sedate-sounding word for “manic.” Or enervated, a remarkably buzzy word for “drained” or “exhausted.” Or pulchritude, which means “breathtaking beauty” and sounds rather like a skin condition.

In a few cases, words have even started to drift in meaning. We still use them, but we’ve just flipped their senses, creating contranyms; like peruse, which originally meant “to read closely” but these days more often refers to lightly skimming a text.

But I Hear Them All Moving Inside You

And the flip is true as well! Words that fit the purpose well seem to succeed and flourish. In fact, you’ll often find – certainly within a given language – that certain sounds become associated with particular values, creating whole clusters of similar-sounding, loosely-related words. Note how unpleasant slug, slimy, slither, slick, slow, slush, and slurry all are, or how light and easy glint, glitter, glisten, glimmer, glamourglad and glide are.‡ Strong somehow feels strong, with the harsh str- and the solid -ong; weak feels weak, with the soft w- and the attenuated -eak.

There’s even a theory that this is where all language comes from, known as the Onomatopoeic Theory of Language, or just the onomatopoeic theory. The idea is that our earliest ancestors tried to convey ideas to each other with onomatopoeic noises – hissing to say snake, for instance, or whistling to say wind – and language gradually built up around this core, with the most evocative or apposite sounds surviving, becoming stylised and eventually forming the first words.

So is there anything to this theory? Are these sound-values I’ve noticed universal truths, or am I projecting onto them because I happen to know what the words mean?

Well, that turns out to be a bit of a topic of debate.

Go, I’ll be Waiting When You Call

Why is that?

So Ferdinand de Saussure, the father of semiotics, insisted that the link between “signs” and “signifiers” – ie. between the sound a word makes (or the shape we draw on the page) and the sense we attach to it – was completely arbitrary; all that was required (or should be allowed, in the linguist’s mind) is that the sign is unique to the signifier and that everyone sharing the use of that sign agrees on its significance. There’s no “natural dogness” to the word dog, he said, and no “treeness” to the word tree.

And certainly that’s the principle that linguistics has largely stuck to since. Similar-sounding words are regarded as sheer coincidence, or proof of etymological relationship, rather than universal human things. The onomatopoeic theory’s largely been dismissed, often referred to (a little unkindly, I’d have said) as the “Bow-Wow Theory,” or “Ding-Dong Theory,” and we’re all structuralists these days.**

But... there seems to be something to the idea that certain sounds – or signs – are more fitting than others. In 2001, Neuroscientists Vilayanur S. Ramachandran and Edward Hubbard created the “Bouba/Kiki” Experiment, modifying an older experiment by psychologist Wolfgang Köhler. Subjects were shown two shapes, one spiky and one bulbous, told the shapes’ names were Bouba and Kiki, and asked which names applied to which shapes. Between 95% and 98% of respondents identified the spiky shape as Kiki and the rounded shape as Bouba, irrespective of their native language (the experiment was performed in English, French and Tamil). It seems like Kiki just sounds spiky, as Bouba sounds... blobby.

So... maybe we don’t throw out the Bow-Wow with the bathwater? I dunno. Not my place, I guess. Let the linguists argue about it.

And Whenever I Fall at Your Feet

Either way, the upshot for you and me is that the words we use are often the ones that generations of English speakers loved the most and used the most often, or felt fit best; the ones they repurposed to fit better (or just to keep beautiful words in the language, doing new jobs); they pruned the uglier, ill-fitting words, and molded the best to serve them.

Ultimately, this is why I keep banging on about ignoring the prescriptivists. Because the language was created and shaped by people working on gut feeling, so trying to apply any sort of universal, arbitrary rules is never going to work. Beauty and utility are genuinely the best guides to the language, because beauty and utility are the criteria by which the language has been formed and cultivated, all these centuries...

As always, if you want to argue with me, or to chat about this shit, or to propose a topic for a future blog, let me know! Tweet us; Facebook us; let’s have an argument/chat.

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*Yeah, that happens to me more often than you might think.

†Yeah, I got a double-negative post coming for you soon, I promise.

‡Beautifully, Anglo-Saxon poetry largely ignores rhyme schemes in favour of alliteration (where a string of words start with the same letter or letters), precisely to take advantage of this phenomenon, so that the Rood (in the Dream of the same name) was both on lyft lædan, leohte bewunden (“raised in the air, enveloped in light”) and forwunded mid wommum (“sorely wounded in iniquity”). Them Anglo-Saxons, they loved their alliteration.

**Except for Mama and Dada/Papa, which appear to be genuinely pan-human and which linguists absolutely love speculating about, which just goes to show, I guess.