Phenomenal Phonesthemes!

When I first heard about phonesthemes, I was fascinated.  What? Really? How cool!  They were simple, everyday words that have been part of my living breathing vocabulary most of my life, and yet here was a new way to think about them!

J.R. Firth, an English linguist, first coined the term in 1930 and wrote about it in his book Speech.  He defined a phonestheme as a particular sound or sound sequence that suggests a certain meaning.  The word itself is derived from Greek phone “sound” and aisthema “perception”.  A phonestheme can be found initial, medial or final in a word.  My students recently investigated and made collections of phonesthemes that were found either initially or final in words.


There was a list of words that begin with <wr> and have to do with twisting or turning (wrench, wrestle, wreath).  There was a collection of words that begin with <sn> that have to do with either the nose or the mouth (snore, sneeze, snout).  There was a collection of words that end with <ack> that have to do with abrupt contact (whack, smack, crack).  In all we collected words to represent 9 different phonesthemes.

Then we paused and reflected on the collaborative results.  Time to have some fun.  Time to play with our phonesthemes!  Students were asked to look carefully at all the lists and then to choose a particular phonestheme.  Keeping that particular phonestheme in mind, the challenge was to write a poem using as many words with that same phonestheme as possible.

The poems have been delightful to read!  And as I have been doing so, I’ve been realizing how important it is for students to have playtime like this.  Even though the words on each list share a sense of meaning, they are definitely not sharing an exact meaning!  The students were able to explore those sometimes subtle differences and practice using the words in a way that intrigued them and delighted them.  So many times we talk to students about “word choice”, but how often do they have the opportunity to play with the way a set of words feel in their mouths or with the poetic feel and flow of the way words sound when used in a particular sequence?

As you watch the video below, watch the expressions on the faces of these students.  Most can’t keep the smile from surfacing.  This has been such an enjoyable investigation.  And has resulted in poems that range from funky and fun to phenomenal!  We love phonesthemes!


3 thoughts on “Phenomenal Phonesthemes!

  1. Yea indeed, phonaesthemes (I speak and write British English) really are an entertaining joy. Ann Whiting’s ‘Word Nerdery’ blog of September 2013 also has a rich article on the phonaestheme.

    Has anyone investigated the Lewis Carroll poem “Jabberwocky” for phonaesthemic content?

    I actually have some reserves about, or an additional view of, the status of ‘wr’ which I’ll happily share with you if you’d like to Zoom.


    On a matter of exactitude, the denotation of Greek ‘φωνή → phōnē’ was not simply “sound”, the Greek word for which was actually ‘ἠχή → ēchē’ (and yes; it is cognate with ‘echo’).

    Here is the denotation of ‘φωνή’ as given in Liddell & Scott the standard Ancient Greek dictionary:

    “the sound of the voice, whether of men or animals with lungs and throat – mostly of human beings”

  2. Thanks! The students collected most of their words off of Word Searcher. Then they had to decide if the word shared the given sense of meaning or not by looking in dictionaries. Since then we have been noticing them in lots of places! It has definitely been a fun exploration!

  3. Wow!! I’m impressed with your poetry and phonestheme investigations! I will be showing this to my 4th and 5th grade groups today. How did you get started with your investigations? Did you begin with a collection of words? As I am thinking of places to find a collection of words, I’m thinking of comic books –Blam! SPlat! Biff! Hmmm…. you definitely have me thinking!! Thanks for sharing your learning with us across Lake Michigan!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *