Sound systems

In the world of corporate and brand naming, the hunt for unique monikers is becoming increasingly difficult and fervent. Names which are both unused and possess meaning beyond the scope of semantic art, wit or historical tie, justifiably arouse interest from identity and brand designers. Unlike the graphics manifestations, names are likely to be articulated at every stage of the consumer’s association with the company or product. They are even rehearsed silently in the mind’s ear, as items are drawn from the short or long-term memory. Any inherent association between a name’s sound and meaning is an a priori part of any consumer’s underlying knowledge of the brand.

By using one of the 250 or so articulatory sound symbolic relationships in English, a name can be designed by prescription using phonetics, word stress and length. However, there is a general aversion to made-up names, and a limited supply of potential made-up names which do not sound like existing words. But there are ways around this.

Sound symbolism is the inherent association between the sound or feel of a word, or part word, and meaning. An example of this is the word “buzz”. It sounds like and represents the noise a bee or bell makes, particularly the low pitch of the vowel and vibration during extended articulation of the final consonant.

An even more literal representation of sound was used by Wickens Tutt Southgate in its award winning men’s aromatherapy range for Superdrug. The range puts into words sounds uttered under the imaginary influence of the product: AAAHHH, MMMM, WOAH, BRRR. These associations are primarily auditory.

The study of the semantics of phonetics enables us to track single letter sounds, and smaller sound units, and draw comparisons in meaning between words in which these sounds appear as with m in “mutter”, “mumble”, “mute” and “dumb”. This sound type, called a nasal, prohibits normal articulation through the mouth. Mars’ rebranding of Treets as M&M’s is probably based on a similar tactile association of the lips with food, lip-licking, opening, touching and ingesting.

By combining our current knowledge of phonetics with sound symbolism, language can be shown to have more than a passing acquaintanceship with sensory linguistic association.

Research shows that a number of common semantic areas in different language groups are actually identified by the same, or phonetically similar, sounds. For example, the high pitch sound ee and the vowel in bit, is attributed meanings such as small, proximal and friendly. These appear in English “this”, “little”, “teeny”, “itsy-bitsy”, and the y suffix in “mummy” and “Andy”. Around 60 per cent of the world’s languages use ee, or related sounds, in words within this semantic range. The car names “Beetle”, “Clio” and “Mini” use the same association. English vowels can be graded depending on how they are articulated. This grading indicates how significant each vowel is on the scale from smallness, proximity and friendliness to largeness, distance and hostility.

Mars was probably not aware of this system in 1985, when it changed the name of Treets, nor Wolff Olins in 1990 when it phonetically downsized British Telecom to “BT” or Bee Tee. Despite economic downturn, competition from Mercury and price restraints from Oftel, BT sales after rebranding increased successively from 1989 to 1992, while profits and share price soared. Just how much these increases are due to linguistic design and how much to widespread redundancies, technological innovation and other aspects of the rebranding exercise is impossible to estimate. But to ignore the potency of name style would be folly.

The study of phonetic semantics is possible because of the ability of nerve cells in areas such as the tongue and lips to relay some information on audition, touch, movement and vibration to the central nervous system. This then has the potential to connect with both the active semantic component of the brain and the lexical memory.

An example is the sound k. The articulation of k involves the forceful expulsion of around ten times as many cm3 of air from the lungs as for a vowel.

“Hardness” and “impact” are central to a long list of words for collision sounds such as “clang”, “click”, “clap”, in which the k and l represent collision (“c[o]llision”). At a less dynamic level, words for adhesion or coming together are represented by initial kl, as in “cluster”, “cling”, “clutch”, “club”. The Renault “Clio” falls into the same category, lending extra semantic shrinkage to the idea of smallness and friendliness in the vowel sound. These meanings are relevant to all Germanic languages. ©

At another level again is the group of words describing “concave structures and enclosures” such as “cab”, “coffer”, “cone”, “cornet”, “concave”, “cover”. “Hardness” applies variably to this category also. These words are linked through language family history and linguistic contact, where languages not in a direct line of evolution may borrow each other’s words. Language family history plays a large part in the transfer of meaning of words which may have little obvious phonetically symbolic association.

“Kodak”, a made-up name, was intuitively conceived to describe a hard, equipment-enclosing camera. Similarly, of the ten top-selling cars in selected European countries in 1996, more cars had the k sound at the beginning of the word, (“Corsa”, “Cavalier”, “Corolla”) than any other sound. Sales for these models were greater than any other sound except p, for which the “Punto” is a major seller, according to the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders.

The cultural influence from our heritage predominates and is arguably more important than semantic phonetics. The range of meanings applied to any name will depend to a large extent on the context in which it is used.

Words form semantic associations through analogy, so that meanings change towards the meaning of the majority. This can be seen in “glamour”, a corruption of “grammar” and “glance”, which originally meant strike or hit. Its meaning has changed towards the optical sense present in glance and gleam.

New words can then be added around this central meaning. The -ol suffix, derived from “phenol” and “alcohol”, has spawned a host of pharmaceutical brand names through analogy such as “Panadol”, “Salbutamol”, “Paracetamol”, “Dettol” and “Nytol”.

Aside from phonetically related meaning, some sounds project positive or negative associations such as positive ee and negative du as in “dung”, “dunce”, “dull”. This extends even to an initial d sound, present in a large group of words denoting “vertical descent or movement away from a location”. Another d group denotes “impairment” one reason why I believe Wolff Olins made a mistake in changing Guinness and Grand Metropolitan to “Diageo”.

It would be wrong to think that identity and brand style is controlled by the articulatory symbolics of the name above factors such as the graphics, service and personnel. However, it can be an aid to specific identity, and will probably increase sales, although it can also be a pitfall to the unwary.

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