What’s in a word?


What is a word? Think about it. Words in our everyday lives are essentially sounds that we respond to and have come to attach shared meanings to in order to convey our experience of the world.  Even when we deal with the written word, what we are also responding to at the most basic level is a sound or a mental representation of a sound.

This means that there is more to words than just their conventional dictionary meanings. Our written communication systems are largely based on the human capacity for speech. Spoken words are sounds and sound production and reception is a physical process –  auditory signals are processed in the brain and trigger responses other than cognitive ones.So quite apart from responding to any denotational, connotational or associative meanings we may attach to words, all of which along with other features (such as rhythm, intonation, stress, synonyms, antonyms, phonetic features) are stored in our “mental lexicon”, we also respond to the auditory texture of words on a physical and mental level –  they have a kind of music. Thus words can also serve as secret triggers of emotional response beyond their meaning potential.

Test it – what is your favourite word? Think about it and try to describe why you like it. One of mine is “kettle”. The fact that I like it means that I respond to it emotionally. I understand its denotative meaning: a heatable container made of durable material for boiling water (in its primary sense). In addition, a kettle carries connotations of home and the kitchen; for me it also has associations of cosy chats over cups of tea in my old flat behind the fire station in North Melbourne. But beyond that, I love the sound of the word – the velar plosive ‘k’ that matches the clank of a metal kettle when you bang it against the tap as you fill it with water, the open ‘e’ in the middle that matches the spaces of the container to be filled, the ‘ttl” cluster that imitates the bubbling water once it reaches the boil. For me it is more than just the word, it is the whole experience.

My kettle

Not all words evoke such strong responses in us, but the (mental) sounds of words can colour our response and trigger unexpected associations without our being aware why. Thus words are more complex than we might at first think. Words on the page represent words that derive from speech, the spoken word represents concepts in our minds, and our minds respond to innumerable layers of meaning that can be extracted from a word. When we write words, there is generally also a spoken model somewhere in our minds. When we read words, in an abstract way, we are also subconsciously responding to the sound of the words. It is this intricacy that makes up the magic of a word.

© Cate Kimberley and Word and Affect, 2012

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