“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell just as sweet.”

William Shakespeare, ‘Romeo and Juliet’ Act 2 Scene 2

Or would it….

Semantics is all about the meaning of words.

Some words carry a clear relationship to their meaning. Think: bang, crash, whoosh, zoom, meow, oink, bark, chirp. These are examples of onomatopoeia because they sound like their meaning. Onomatopoeia is common in languages across the world, particularly for words used to represent distinctive sounds like animal noises, and even some non-speech sounds made by humans, like laughter or even the rumbling of the stomach! For an English speaker, chicken goes cluck cluck, whereas to a Croation it might say kokoda, and in Vietnamese cục tác.

Learn more about onomatopoeia here.

Horses on the common by Derek Cummings is licensed under CC-BY-SA 2.0

However, most words don’t sounds obviously like their meaning. Nothing about the word horse obviously suggests a large four-legged vegetarian animal often tamed by humans. Different languages use completely different words to describe the thing that we understand as a horse. A horse in Mongolian is mori, in German pferd, in Basque zaldi.

Some research suggests that sound symbolism plays a bigger role than we think in language. Let’s do a brief experiment, one of the most famous in linguistics.

Take a look at these shapes:


If you had to give them a name, which one would you call bouba and which one would you call kiki?

Okay, now why?

Researchers have found that most people call the shape on the left kiki and the shape on the right bouba. This holds true for people who speak differently languages. These results suggests a link in our brains between sharper sounds (like the k in kiki) with pointy shapes and rounder sounds with softer objects.

However, to what extent this phenomena has actually influenced the development of language is still unknown.

For more information about Bouba and Kiki, check out this video.

Semantic Change

Words and their meanings are changing all the time, too fast for dictionaries to keep up with them!

Take, for example, the word cringe. You might use it as a verb i.e. ‘he cringed with fear’, meaning ‘to recoil’ but more recently you might use it as an adjective i.e. ‘that was so cringe’. If we look back even further, it had a really different meaning. It comes from the Old English verb cringan, meaning ‘to yield, give way, fall over in battle’, then in Middle English (around 1200) it shifted to crenge or crenche, meaning ‘to bend’, then we have evidence from the 1570s of it shifting to cringe, with a meaning closer to ours today ‘to bend or crouch, especially with servility or fear’. Recently, it has become particularly associated with embarrassment rather than fear, and has become a slang term for something embarrassment as an adjective.


Photo by on

Many many other words have undergone similar changes. For example, the Old English term læce “leech” used to refer to both the bloodsucking aquatic insect and doctors! This was not an insult, but rather because doctors were so associated with the leeches that they used to place on the skin of their patients as a cure for various ailments.