Why Are Letters Shaped the Way They Are?

Linguistic games and research are revealing a hidden connection between what words look and sound like, and what they mean.

n the Cratylus Dialogue, written by Plato, Socrates confronted this same linguistic dilemma: do names belong to their objects “naturally” or “conventionally,” he wondered? Why do we name things the way we do? In 1690, John Locke wrote that because there are many different languages, and different words for the same objects, there couldn’t be a “natural” relationship between words and their objects. Saussure agreed in his seminal text, A Course in General Linguistics from 1916: “Signs do not directly evoke things.” Later, the linguist Charles Hockett wrote this one of the “design features” of language.

But iconicity has always been around. One familiar example is onomatopoeias, like “ding-dong,” “chirp,” or “swish”—words that sound like what they’re referring to. Those words aren’t random, they have a direct relationship to what they represent. Yet, onomatopoeias were thought to be the exception to a wholly arbitrary set of signifiers, said Marcus Perlman, a lecturer in English language and linguistics at the University of Birmingham. This belief persisted despite hints that other words might have some connection to what they signified.

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