Daily Archives: June 19, 2016


“When I get home, I am going to flumf and have a nap.”

That was me this afternoon, after we had swum, steamed, been massaged, and had lunch with sparkling wine. In short, it was a spa day, and there’s nothing I want more after all that than to flumf onto the bed and snooze for a piece of the rest of the afternoon.

Don’t bother looking up flumf in a dictionary. It’s not there. So what. I just used it and don’t pretend you didn’t understand it. Sound symbolism and phonaesthetics are an inexhaustible well, especially in English.

What do words that start with fl tend to signify? OK, many of them don’t have any special meaning in common, or any evident connection between sound and sense (fleet, flint), but those that do often have a sense of loose motion (the flapping and fluttering of a flag, for instance). There is a soft looseness to /fl/, onomatopoeically.

And how about that umf? First we should note that I’m spelling it umf and not umph. We’re more likely to spell that set of sounds umph in English, but I find that a bit too weighty – simultaneously precious (because of the ph, heavily associated with expensive words taken from Greek) and hard (because it manifests a connection to p). I want to make it clear how soft and fluffy this bed is. And flumf has those feathery f’s bedposting it, and is only one letter from fluff. But that one letter is m, and the /ʌmf/ has a dull, dense heaviness to it. Words ending in /ʌmp/ have a solid tendency to be associated with heaviness and bluntness (bump, clump, dump, lump, slump, thump). That /m/ is resonant, and the /ʌ/ is a vowel that tends to be associated with dullness (“uhhhh”). So soften it to /ʌmf/ and you have a heavy but soft landing.

And since this is English, which so freely converts words of one type to another type, thanks to its minimal requirements of derivational and inflectional morphology (i.e., you don’t have to change the form of a word to change what you use it for), I don’t have to say “I’m going to fall with a flumf on the bed” (imitative noun) or “I’m going to fall on the bed flumf” (ideophonic adverb). I can just flumf on the bed. Which in fact I did, and remained there for a halcyon hour.

And now you have had a nice brief lesson in the nature and function of phonaesthetics. Want more? Lots more? I wrote a whole master’s thesis on it. The official conferral of my Master of Arts in linguistics is this Tuesday, June 21. Don’t bother coming (I’ll be at the office). Just read the thesis. Or anyway the abstract. Or the conclusion, which is better. It’s pages 141–144 here: http://www.harbeck.ca/James/Harbeck_James_C_2016_MA.pdf