Ever since I read Slade’s article a few weeks back about how to use numerology to find the meaning of your name using its letters, I’ve been extremely eager to explore the topic from the standpoint of sound. The exercise Slade describes is based entirely on spelling; but you can also imagine doing name divination directly from the sound of your name. The two are not the same — especially in languages like English and French, which have spelling systems that are simple and perfectly designed for the way the languages were spoken six hundred years ago.
I was delighted to stumble on the site of Margaret Magnus, which has a wealth of information on the correspondence between sound and meaning. Magnus clearly has a deep passion for the topic, and she’s obviously spent hundreds of hours doing research into it. And she’s generously posted reams of her material on the web! I tried to contact her, but she hasn’t replied as of this writing. Her web site is the basis for the divination technique I describe below, and the inspiration for a lot of the theoretical musings in this post, as well.
From one point of view, the sound of a word is much more basic and primal than its spelling. After all, everyone learns to talk — it’s practically part of the definition of humanity — but literacy, and especially alphabetic script, is a recent invention, and it’s not necessarily easy to master it. Humans are designed to talk. For example, we have a special kind of breathing that we can “turn on” when we’re talking — quick, sharp intakes of breath, followed by very long, slow, measured outbreaths while we’re actually saying words. If you try to breathe like that when you’re not talking, you’ll probably start gasping after five minutes. But someone standing in front of a classroom or making a speech can keep it up for hours. Speaking is literally written into our genetic inheritance. But there’s no such provision made for reading or writing.
Anyway: I’m going to resist the urge to open the post with a lot of theory and ruminating, and jump right into Magnus’s technique. Afterwards, stick around and we’ll muse and hypothesize…
How to Find the Meaning of your Name
1. Find your name’s most strongly stressed syllable.
A syllable’s stress is, in simple terms, the force with which it’s pronounced. Stressed syllables are spoken slightly more loudly, with more force of air, and sometimes at higher pitch. I’ve bolded all the stressed syllables in this sentence to help you get a feel for it. English has three kinds of stress: primary stress, secondary stress, and unstressed. You can hear the difference between primary and secondary stress in words like “unbelievable”: “liev” has primary stress, and “un” has secondary stress. (The other syllables are unstressed.) If your name has both primary and secondary stress, like Rumpelstiltskin, or Eloise, pick the syllable with primary stress.
The syllable with primary stress is the big one, the one that has most “influence” or divinatory significance. Magnus doesn’t talk about the meanings of the other syllables, but my guess is that they would be like comments on the primary syllable — additional information. Syllables with secondary stress are probably more important than syllables with no stress. But it’d be great to hear from people and see what you all think.
2. Find the primary syllable’s vowel.
Every syllable has at least one vowel sound. That vowel is the nucleus of the syllable; it is its heart. Usually it’s going to be a no-brainer to find the vowel, but you do have to make sure you’re thinking about the sound, and not the spelling. For example, the name “Slade” looks like it has two vowels in it (“a”, “e”) but the “e” isn’t pronounced, so we ignore it. A little trickier is a name like “Paul”, which looks like it has two vowels (“a”, “u”) but they’re pronounced as a single vowel (short o).
The trickiest cases are ones in which a syllable has a dipthong in it. This is found in names like “Loyd”, where the “oy” starts out like “o” and slides into “y” while still being in one syllable. Magnus doesn’t address this case. Maybe it would be best to look at the interpretations for both vowels and try to combine them in some way — perhaps both vowels are active at different times of your life, for example.
3. Interpret the primary syllable’s vowel.
Magnus says “the vowels tell you how you tend to go through life, address issues, solve problems.” Most of her meanings below reflect this pretty clearly, although the “short o” meaning seems a little obscure.
Here are the vowel meanings that Magnus suggests:
- ‘short a’ (as in bat) – balanced and flat
- ‘long a’ (as in bait) – elastic and spread out wide
- ‘short e’ (as in bet) – not a boat-rocker, works hard and connects things together
- ‘long e’ (as in beet) – a long distance runner, stamina in the face of hardship
- ‘short i’ (as in bit) – moves up-up-up, light and a bit tense
- ‘long i’ (as in bite) – roomy, oriented toward mind and art
- ‘short o’ (as in bot) – the most fundamental sound, the source and beginning of all things
- ‘long o’ (as in boat) – well-rounded, whole, and earthy
- ‘short u’ (as in but) – plenty of room in ‘u’, thoughtful and relaxed
- ‘long u’ (as in boot) – goes with the flow, fast moving and rounded
3. Find the initial and final consonants of the primary syllable.
If your primary syllable is the first one in your name, you’re all set — the initial consonants are the ones before the vowel. Otherwise, you have to be a little careful and listen to your intuition. For example, in a name like “Francine”, the primary syllable is “cine” (pronounced seen). Note that the “c” is the initial consonant in the syllable; you don’t want the “n” of “Fran” in there too. “ncine” is just a bad syllable. An even trickier one is something like “Berlusconi”: does the “s” belong to the primary syllable, or not? Linguists actually disagree about this in some cases, but the rule of thumb is that if you can make a good syllable with it, you should include it, especially if we’re talking about the primary syllable. So you’d syllabify as Ber.lu.scon.i, and the initial consonants are “sc”.
Finding the final consonants of the primary syllable is a similar process. If the primary syllable is the last syllable of the name, the final consonants are the last consonants in the name. And the rule of thumb is that if you can make a good syllable of it, you should include it. Here are some examples: Barker, Lilly, Roberson, Alexander.
That last example brings up a final point that’s very important: remember to use the sounds, not the letters. In “Alexander”, is the “x” in the last syllable or the one before it? Trick question! The “x” sound is actually composed of “ks”; break it up and look again: Aleksander. Now it should be clear that the primary syllable is sand.
4. Interpret the initial and final consonants.
The consonants provide a sense of the kind of resources you bring to bear on your life’s tasks, and the end result or goal. Here’s what Magnus says:
“The consonants before the vowel are sort of like the stage or background for the personality of your name…and the final consonants are the punch line, the outcome.”
Magnus provides the following interpretations for the consonants:
- ‘b’ – Kaboom! ‘b’ is a sudden, powerful beginning, high spirits and hot tempers.
- ‘c’ – if pronounced like in ‘Cecilia’, see ‘s’. If pronounced like in ‘Cathy’, see ‘k’.
- ‘ch’ – I think I can. I think I can… ‘ch’ is a hero, the achiever of difficult tasks
- ‘d’ – a door midstream, the letter who decides whether a project should be shut down, or opened up wide and allowed to happen.
- ‘f’ – a fountain or foundation. The ‘f’ is funny, fanciful, spontaneous. It’s the freest floater of the letters.
- ‘g’ – if pronounced like in ‘Gillian’, see ‘j’, if pronounced like ‘Gail’, it is the giver and receiver of gifts. ‘g’s the most generous and also (watch out) the most greedy of the letters. It’s very good-hearted, but it can get pretty grumpy on the off-days. And ‘g’ has a mysterious hidden source of wealth and wisdom. It’s like mother earth where the garden grows.
- ‘h’ – the home where things belong. ‘h’ is a kind of force that looks over your shoulder like a parent and either knows how to help you out or (need I mention it?) really cramps your style.
- ‘j’ – the edge on which things only fit in single file, and if you don’t watch it, you fall… well… real far… ‘j’ is the sound of the ‘judge’, the leader, the one who guides others through the troubles that (have you noticed?) tend to pop up from time to time.
- ‘k’ – a room where some things are allowed in or even captured, and where other things are definitely not cool. The ‘k’ is in the know and keeps its secrets. It’s the most caring and intimate of letters, but when it’s not careful, ‘k’ gets snobby and cuts people off.
- ‘l’ – like light, air and water that take up space but have no specific shape. ‘l’ is more passive and feminine, light and lovely than ‘r’ or ‘b’, but it does definitely have a mysterious force of its own that gets its way by going with the flow.
- ‘m’ – the maker: ‘m’ is the mother, and also magician and master of skills.
- ‘n’ – ‘n’ is like a line that gets closer and closer on to something. It’s subtle, thoughtful, wise and noble.
- ‘ng’ – long, stretchy and musical. It gathers things up into itself.
- ‘p’ – a very specific point at which things are placed and from which they are pulled away. The ‘p’ is a problem solver, precise and particular. ‘p’ likes everything to be out in the open, no secrets here.
- ‘qu’ – See ‘k’ plus ‘w’… ‘qu’ is a seeker after truth, the curious, willful explorer of all the possible paths
- ‘r’ – Roar! – ‘r’ is really a handful. It has no direction of its own, and it’s all the other letters can do to handle it. If they don’t succeed, ‘r’ becomes the rabble rouser that brings down the house. If they do, there’s no other letter that has so much energy to make things happen.
- ‘s’ – the life force which reinforces what is already there. It’s often suave, sexy, strong and flexible. Unlike ‘r’, it looks very intelligently before it leaps. But like ‘r’ it’s also very strong, if not so destructive. Still, it can slowly crush something it doesn’t like, or it can stand firm and hold the world on its shoulders.
- ‘sh’ – is a shield that’s hard to get through. It can either hold everybody away or protect something that needs to be cared for. ‘sh’ can also be broken, and when that happens, it realistically shrugs it all off and moves on.
- ‘t’ – Temptation. ‘t’ is the letter of the dreamer, the designer of grand schemes, the traveller| who follows her star
- ‘th’ – a perilous path, that can be both thrilling and terrifying. Either way, you’ve learned something.
- ‘v’ – very, smooth, vibrating energy. ‘v’ tends to avoid things, but if caught, it becomes the faithful servant, not the master.
- ‘w’ – the will, water, waves, and states other than the here and now – the future the past, the ‘what if”? ‘w’ is the sound of the mature woman (not man), who knows what she wants and (for better or for worse!) knows how to get it.
- ‘y’ – Sure! I’m game! – ‘y’ is naive, trusting, energetic, and expansive
- ‘z’ – Zoom, a line along which you zip very fast and which begins or ends in who knows?
Some Examples and Ruminations
Jeff. Magnus says that “j” and “ch” are a lot like “d” and “t”, respectively, but their energies end up with more interference. Notice that “j” and “d” both indicate judgement, but “j” especially acts as a judge through difficult periods. So I take it that “judgement in difficulty” is a good handle for my life’s stage or background. Then we have a short “e”: the meaning “works hard and connects things together” indicates my judgement style. And the outcome is “f”, a release from difficulty into freedom. Vague, I suppose — but overall certainly positive…
Druid. This is an interesting case, because of some subtle phonotactics going on at the very beginning of the word. “dr” in American English is actually usually pronounced more like “jr”, because the position the tongue moves into for the “r” interferes with the “d” and gives it a “j” quality. (Try saying “Druid Journal”, and feel your mouth move into very similar positions at the beginning of each word.) This might indicate that Druids in America could encounter more difficulty in the exercise of judgement (“d”) than areas where “druid” is pronounced differently, e.g. the UK (!). The “r”, meanwhile, gives tremendous energy. The vowel of the primary syllable, “u”, indicates that the judgement “goes with the flow”, and is “fast moving and rounded”. Finally, the primary syllable has no final consonants; Magnus doesn’t say what this means, but it may mean that the outcome is unknown, unpredictable, or even unimportant — the process is the thing. Or, alternatively, perhaps the second syllable — which actually sounds like “wid”, and might mean a willful action leading to a quick, sharp judgement — indicates the outcome.
Witch, wick, Wicca. The “wi” of these words seems to mean something like an act of will (i.e. magic, according to Crowley) exercised with a high, tense energy. The difference in these three words is what happens to that energy. In witch, the energy is expressed in a firm direction, but with interference and difficulty (“ch”). In wick, the energy is stored up (“k”) (pretty good for something that’s fuel for a fire!). And in Wicca, the energy is stored (again, “k”) and then — in the second syllable — changed/released as universal, fundamental energy (short o). To me, this is a remarkable correspondence — especially if you think of witch as the Wiccan operating in secrecy around the edges of dominant Christianity, and Wicca as the modern form of the belief system.
Slade, slayed, sleighed. I picked this example partly as a tribute to the fellow who inspired me to look into this, and partly to explore the issue of homophony (words that sound the same, but have different meanings). The basic meaning of this sound sequence, according to Magnus, is something like “a strong, sinuous, sexy energy that goes with the flow is expressed in an elastic, expansive way, and the outcome is a decision, or doorway”. Slade will have to speak for himself and say whether he feels like the description applies to him (but personally I suspect it does). As for the other two words: the final “d” is the past tense, which is extremely appropriate for a decision point — the action is at an end and something has been “decided”, ended; and the strong, sinuous, expansive, go-with-the-flow energy certainly fits with the motion of a sleigh through snow, though it seems a bit more of a stretch to fit it with the murderous intent of slay. But originally, “slay” is derived from words meaning specifically “to strike with a weapon” (compare related German schlagen), and here the motion of a sword or knife through the air is completely appropriate.
English used to have a spelling system that matched its pronunciation quite well; in fact, if you try pronouncing every single letter in a word like “watched” (“WA-ched”, make sure to pronounce the “e”) or “bake” (BAH-keh) or “laugh” (pronounce the “a” and “u” as separate vowels, and the “gh” is a gurgle in your throat) you’ll end up talking Middle English. But while the pronunciation of English has changed in the last 600 years, the spelling has not. It just seems like too much trouble to change it. Noe wun wants tue lurn tue reed al oevur ugen! Many languages more organized than English have spelling reforms every thirty years or so, and most folks agree it’s a good thing — but it also drives them crazy, and costs a lot of money.
I’ve suspected for a while that the sound of a word is indeed related to its meaning. And I’m not just talking about onomatopoeia, cases like “buzz” and “meow” and “bang”, where the word actually imitates the sound. I’m talking about whole families of words that are similar in sound and related in meaning. For example, take the word “truck”. There is a remarkable number of words in English similar in sound to “truck”, and have a meaning that’s related as well: “trek”, “track”, “tractor”, “tractable”, “trickle”, “take”, “drag”, “dredge”, and so on. Then there’s a whole host of words that start with “TR”, like “trail”, “travel”, “troop”, “trip”, “trade”, etc., which suggest movement. On Magnus’s site, she multiplies examples like this out to an amazing degree.
Some of these words are actually historically related to “truck” (e.g. “track”) and so they naturally have a similar meaning; but most are not. The similarity in sound and meaning is ascribed, by many linguists, to simple coincidence. After all, you only have to think for a minute to come up with a counterexample: “trick” comes to mind. (Although, intriguingly, we say someone is TRICKED INTO something — as if they were, in fact, in motion.)
But in fact, if you go and look in a dictionary, you won’t find many counterexamples at all. There are certainly no other common, simple words in English that sound much like “truck” and don’t have something to do with movement.
This is the study of the relationship between sound and meaning. The phonosemanticist asks, “Which sounds correspond to which meanings? Is the relationship between the sound and meaning the same in all languages? How do the sounds of a word work together to create meaning?”
Phonosemantics is not something I learned in linguistics classes. In mainstream linguistics, the idea that sound and meaning are related in any deep, fundamental way is dismissed out of hand. I did once read of a study which examined the distribution of high front vowels like “i” versus low back vowels such as “a”, and found that, overall, statistically speaking, words with “i” were more likely to refer to small, diminutive, young things, while words with “a” were more likely to refer to large, enclosing, or old things. For example, we have words like “little”, “slight”, “tiny”, versus words like “massive”, “monstrous”, “long”, and “broad”. (Remember, we’re talking about sound, not spelling.) But there are plenty of counterexamples — like the pair “big” and “small” in English. The fact that the i/a correlation is a statistical generalization rather than an ironclad rule means one of two things:
1. Like so many other cases in the human sciences, it’s just a generalization and were going to have to live with it. It’s more like a law of economics than a law of physics.
2. There are hard and fast rules, but we don’t know what they are yet. For example, Aristotle proposed that the law of gravity was “things fall toward the Earth”, and statistically speaking, based on observations, he was correct. The more modern versions of the rule are a lot more complicated, and make much better predictions.
Most linguists would agree that, if there are any correlations between sound and meaning, they’re just generalizations at best. This is the case even for linguists who are open-minded enough to study the situation in depth, such as Magnus. But my intuition is that the patterns she’s observed are not just generalizations, but hide an underlying order — an order that might be simple, and might be complex, but will eventually be revealed if more researchers open their eyes — and ears — and get down to work.
If I’m right, Magnus’s work is the seminal chapter of a whole new branch of knowledge waiting to be explored.
Beyond Linguistics: Adam’s Task
And out of the ground the LORD God formed every beast of the field, and every fowl of the air; and brought them unto Adam to see what he would call them: and whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that was the name thereof. — Genesis 2:19, KJV
The name “Adam” in Hebrew means “man”, and appears to be related to “ground” (Heb. adamah). In Magnus’s system, Adam is a name of someone balanced and solid (short “a”) who decides (“d”) and creates (“m”). This interpretation fits with what Genesis describes Adam as doing: he creates the names for the world around him (and maybe he even names himself — Genesis doesn’t say who names him), and it’s his decision to taste the apple that brings ruin on humanity.
If there is no relationship between sound and meaning, then Adam’s task was simply to make random noises at whatever God showed him. But if there is a relationship, then with each naming, Adam was trying to say something about the world around him. A word is not a simple symbol, but a complex one: it’s a network of meaning. Even the shortest word is a statement, a sort of mini-sentence.
We don’t often get the chance to make up new words these days. Most of the time they just sort of seem to happen by themselves… But we create new sentences all the time; and since words are mini-sentences, creating sentences is, essentially, the same process. When we say something as simple as “I went to the store”, you’ve named that event, using a combination of words instead of a combination of letters.
Naming — both by using new words and using new sentences — is a process of both creating and deciding. When we speak, we decide what to say; but in doing so, we implicitly carve up reality, creating a new category of experience. Adam might not have created cats himself, but in giving them a name, he decided what was important about them, what set them apart from other creatures, and what their place was in Adam’s understanding of the grand scheme. The grand scheme might not have been what was in the mind of his God — maybe Adam gave cats the wrong name! — but who’s to say? If Adam was created in God’s image, then his destiny, and perhaps his highest calling, is to create and decide — for these are the most salient characteristics of God, as well.
I’m going to close with the lines from Hávamál (one of the poems of the Icelandic Eddas) called Rúnatal, which describe how Odin hung on the World Tree and thereby discovered the runes. Through this sacrifice — a sacrifice of himself to himself — he learned the secrets of language, and gained the greatest of powers — decision and creation.
Wounded I hung on a wind-swept gallows
For nine long nights,
Pierced by a spear, pledged to Odhinn,
Offered, myself to myself
The wisest know not from whence spring
The roots of that ancient rood
They gave me no bread,
They gave me no mead,
I looked down;
with a loud cry
I took up runes;
from that tree I fell.
Waxed and throve well;
Word from word gave words to me,
Deed from deed gave deeds to me…
(translation of W. H. Auden & Taylor)