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Submorphemics
Submorphemics and languages other than English

The submorpheme sm-, or how Arabic can help explain English

Georges Bohas
Translated by Nigel Briggs

Abstracts

Line Argoud has demonstrated that the notional load correlated with the English submorpheme sm- includes three notional fields: “to strike a blow”, “activities realized by the labial region”, and “activities linked to the nose as an organ”. I demonstrate that this can easily be explained by adopting the organization set out in the Theory of Matrices and Etymons (TME) which I have proposed for Arabic. The analysis which I have provided for Arabic sheds light on the organization of the meanings of this particular submorpheme in English.

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Editor's notes

Translated by Nigel Briggs, Ecole Normale Supérieure de Lyon.

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1. Introduction: the meanings associated with sm- in English

  • 1 Argoud (2007).

1Line Argoud1 has recently demonstrated that the notional content associated with the word-initial sm- cluster in English includes three main meanings in verbs, meanings which I shall reformulate in my own way as:

1.1. “To strike a violent blow”

2smash—to break in pieces violently; to crush, shatter or shiver

3smite—to administer a blow with the hand, a stick, or the like

4smatter—to break into small pieces; to smash

1.2. “Actions realized by the labial region”

5smack—to open or separate the lips in such a way as to produce a sharp sound

6smile—to assume an expression of pleasure by turning up the corners of the mouth

7smirk—to smile in an affected, smug or silly way

1.3. “Activities linked to the two principal functions of the nose as an organ”

8Olfactory perception stricto sensu:

9smell—to have perception by means of the olfactory sense

10Perception of emanations given off by the object of the sensation:

11smoke—to produce or give forth smoke

12To trouble or block respiration:

13smother—to suffocate

14smoor—to smother, suffocate

15I would add to this third group words with initial sn- which sometimes manifest a phonosemantic alternation with øn- (sniff/øniff, etc.) (Philps, 2002), a few examples of which follow:

16snaffle—to speak through the nose

17sneeze—to expel air suddenly through the nose and mouth with an involuntary movement

18sniff—to inhale through the nose with short or sharp audible inhalation; to detect a smell

19snivel—to emit mucus from the nose

20snot—nasal mucus (now slang)

21niff—to smell, to stink

22nuzzle—to push the nose against something; to thrust the nose/snout into the ground

23In both cases, it is quite clear that we are dealing with a compound, namely: {s + [nasal]}, which means that we are at a level which is more abstract than the phoneme, given the introduction of the [+nasal] feature.

  • 2 See Bohas & Dat (2007).

24I could summarize this by saying that the sm- submorpheme correlates with three notional invariants: “to strike a blow”, “labiality” and “nasality” (in this category I include the perception by the nose: smell, and various natural, extracorporeal phenomena which can be perceived by the olfactory organ (smoke, smoulder, etc.)). The observation which Argoud firmly establishes can be explained by an investigation into the organization of the submorphemic domain. Our research on Arabic2 has demonstrated that this domain is organized into two levels, which I have named the “etymon” level and the “matrix” level. Etymons are binary, non-ordered compounds of phonemes such as {b,t}, and matrices are non-ordered compounds of features such as {[labial], [coronal]}.

2. Three matrices in Arabic

25I shall briefly describe the organization of three matrices in Arabic, starting with the one I have just mentioned: {[labial], [coronal]}.

2.1. The {[labial], [coronal]} matrix (notional invariant: “to strike a blow”)

2.1.1. The phonetic material

2.1.2. Ramifications of the notional invariant

26The semantic load of this matrix, as developed in Bohas & Dat (2007), is quite complex. For the purpose of this article, I shall only reproduce some key elements with illustrative examples. The phonemes within which the features of the matrix are realized appear in boldface.

2.1.2. 0.3 To strike one or several blow(s)

  • 3 This level is common to all the etymons arising out of this matrix. The initial point of departure (...)

27  

2.1.2.1. To strike with a sharp object

28

29 

2.1.2.2. To strike with a pointed object: spear or arrow

30

2.1.2.3. To strike with a whip, a stick, or some other object

31

32   

2.1.2.4. To strike with one’s hand, foot or various other parts of the body

33

34 

2.2. The {[labial], [continuant]} matrix (notional invariant: “labiality”)

35The study of this matrix in still in progress, but enough is known for it to be used here.

2. 2. 1. The phonetic material

36On the phonetic level, this matrix combines one of the three [labial] segments of Arabic – b, f and m – with a constrictive.

2.2.2. The notional invariant is centred on the lips

2.2.2.1. The lips and, by contiguity, the mouth:

37

 2.2.2.2. Specifications of the organ: thick, swollen (of the lips of the mouth or vagina)

 

 2.2.2.3. Production: lip > saliva > to stick, to adhere

38

39 

2.2.2.4. Movement of the lips: smile; speech; suction

40

41 

2.3. The {[nasal], [continuant]} matrix (notional invariant: “nasality”)

2.3.1. The phonetic material

  • 4 For more details, see Bohas & Dat (2007). In Hebrew, for instance, [+continuant] is replaced by [+c (...)

42The phonetic substance of this matrix comprises the two nasals – m and n – and the various fricatives. As described in Bohas & Dat (2007: 179, 220, 221), the feature [+nasal] constitutes the “pivot” of the matrix, while the [continuant] feature constitutes the “satellite” element. The pivot provides the matrix group with its mimophonic load. We can therefore expect to find the same pivot with different satellites4 in other languages.

2.3.2. Notional invariant

  • 5 For a more detailed development, see Bohas (2006).

43For this presentation, I shall only provide partial details of the organization of this matrix.5 The ramifications of the notional invariant are as follows:

2.3.2.1. The nose, the organ itself and what affects it

44  

2.3.2.2. The nose and air: to inhale, to exhale, to perceive odours, to sniff (at)

45 

2.3.2.3. The influence of nose on the voice: nasal sound; similar animal cries (buzzing-grunting)

46 

2.3.2.4. Various secretions (mucus, phlegm) which pass through the nose or liquids which enter the body through the nose

47

48 

3. The explanation

49I shall now return to the sm- submorpheme in English and its homonymically correlated notional invariants, 1) “to strike a violent blow”; 2) “actions realized by the labial region” and 3) “activities linked to the principal functions of the nose as an organ”, with the objective of dissecting it into features.

50The s is analysed as follows: s
[+continuant]
[+coronal]

51The m is analysed as follows: m
[+labial]
[+nasal]

3.1. Matrix analysis

52If we take into consideration the [coronal] feature of the s and the [labial] feature of the m, the compound is a realization of the matrix:

531. {[labial], [coronal]} (notional invariant: “to strike a blow”)

54This explains:

55smash—to break in pieces violently; to crush, shatter or shiver

56smite—to administer a blow with the hand, a stick, or the like

57smatter—to break into small pieces; to smash

58If we take into consideration the [continuant] feature of the s and the [labial] feature of the m, the compound is a realization of the matrix:

592. {[labial], [continuant]} (notional invariant: “labiality”)

60This explains:

61smack—to open or separate the lips in such a way as to produce a sharp sound

62smile—to assume an expression of pleasure by turning up the corners of the mouth

63smirk—to smile in an affected, smug or silly way

64If we take into consideration the [nasal] feature of the n and the [continuant] feature of the s, the compound is a realization of the matrix:

653.{[nasal], [continuant]} (notional invariant: “nasality”)

66(Cf. the nuances provided earlier, which are quite analogous in both languages)

67smell—to have perception by means of the olfactory sense

68smoke—to produce or give forth smoke

69smod—to suffocate

70smother—to suffocate

71smoor—to smother, suffocate

72Not forgetting:

73snaffle—to speak through the nose

74sneeze—to expel air suddenly through the nose and mouth with an involuntary movement

75sniff—to inhale through the nose with short or sharp audible inhalation; to detect a smell

76snivel—to emit mucus from the nose

77snot —nasal mucus (now slang)

78niff —to smell, to stink

79nuzzle—to push the nose against something; to thrust the nose/snout into the ground

3.2 The motivation

80Each of these three meanings is motivated in Arabic and in English. The motivation in these three matrices is particularly obvious.

3.2.1.

81In the case of the first matrix, {[labial], [coronal]} (notional invariant: “to strike a blow”), we argued, in Bohas & Dat (2007), the case for acoustic motivation: the muffled loud noise produced by the contact of two objects, as manifested in pat and tap, is actualized in the concepts: “to strike a blow, to hit”.

3.2.2

82As for the matrix {[nasal], [continuant]} (notional invariant: “nasality”), we would like to quote Allott (1973):

This special relationship between the pattern for a word and its meaning can have different forms depending on the category of word involved:
—the simplest case is for words referring to the human body, to parts of it or to actions referable to the human body. In this case, the pattern underlying the word is typically the product of the state of brain organisation that accompanies movement of the part of the body involved, indication of that part e.g. by pointing or more generally that accompanies awareness of that part of the body or of a specific body feeling;
—in this most straightforward case, the relation between the articulatory pattern for the word and the pattern of brain organisation for movement of the part of the body referred to exists because the brain is a single organ which operates integrally. A movement of a part of the body modifies the set of the rest of the body, including the articulatory organs and muscles;
—there is similarly usually a specific, non-arbitrary relation between words referring to acts of perception (hearing, seeing) and the particular percept which is the meaning of a particular word. So the hearing of a sound produces a pattern of brain organisation which is transposed into an articulatory process producing a word naming the particular sound.

83The combination of the [nasal] sound and the “nasality” notional invariant referring to everything concerning the nose definitely appears to be situated at what Allott has called the “simplest” level.

84To be absolutely clear, the motivations mentioned so far have nothing to do with the onomatopœic formulations such as glug-glug, tweet-tweet or tick-tock that Saussure discussed. When we say that šamma “to sniff (at)” (2.3.2.2.) is motivated because it is a development of the {[nasal] [continuant]} matrix, this contains no onomatopœia, contrary to glug-glug. The motivation is to be found in mimophonics.

85This motivation is derived from the very organization of the human being and, more often than not, it is subconscious, making it easier for people to ‘swallow’ the idea of the arbitrary nature of the sign. However, it is possible to make people aware of this non-arbitrary motivation, a mission we are doing our utmost to accomplish. Is it not strange that there is a nasal in the following words: Frenchnez, Italian, naso, English, nose, Arabic ’anf, Turkish burun? Is it not strange that the same can be said for a large number of languages listed below?6

  • 7 Pronounced nos.

Afrikaans

Neus

Albanian

Hundë.

Bosnian

Nos

Breton

Fri

Catalan

Nas

Czech

Nos

Danish

Næse

Dutch

Neus

English (Old English)

Nosu

Esperanto

Nazo

Faeroese

Nøs

Finnish

Nenä

Frisian

Noas

German

Nase

Greek

Μήτη

Hungarian

Orr

Icelandic

Nef

Italian

Naso

Latin

Naris; Nasus

Malay

Hidung

Norwegian

Nese

Papiamento

Nanishi

Polish

Nos

Portuguese

Nariz

Romanian

Nas

Russian

Нос7

Scottish Gaelic

Sròn

Spanish

Nariz

Sranan

Noso

Swahili

Pua

Swedish

Näsa

Tagalog

Ilóng

Turkish

Burun

Maya Yucatec

Ni’

  • 8 I would like to thank my colleague Frédéric Wang for providing this information.

86In the above list, the nasal is absent only in Hungarian, Swahili and Breton. The Chinese pi or bi could represent an objection. Admittedly, there is no [nasal] feature, an absence which can be explained by the fact that the word is related to the conceptual area of the “movement of air8, another aspect of mimophonics.

87Why can we observe such unanimity? Why can this correlation between the nose and the presence of a nasal in the word designating the nose be observed in nearly every language? Besides invoking the historical relationship underlying such words as Italian naso and French nez, the supporters of the arbitrary nature of this relationship would have to answer this question by invoking chance and coincidence – not a very plausible “explanation”! One can be led to discover the existence of the relationship between the presence of a nasal and the nose and its specific actions (odour, breathing, smelling). Yet whether this awareness occurs or not, it does nothing to change the fact that this motivation exists, a motivation which we can even describe as intrinsic.

88In the case of onomatopœia, on the other hand, it is understood that there is a conscious evocation by the speaker of a salient feature of the entity that is named; in this case we have spoken of “accidental motivation”. One cannot blame Saussure for not having access to this first type of motivation: the science of cerebral organization is a recent development. But one can blame those epigones who have not progressed one iota regarding this point and who still only envisage glug-glug and tweet-tweet type motivations while totally ignoring intrinsic motivation, which is obviously the only motivation capable of fundamentally calling into question the postulate of the arbitrary nature of the sign.

  • 9 Migeon (2010).

89The intrinsic motivation of the linguistic sign which we have just evoked affects another debate which regularly appears in works of scientific popularization, namely the issue of the mother language, an instance of which can be found in the August-September 2010 issue of Les cahiers de Science et vie9. In his 1994 work entitled, The Origin of Language. Tracing the Evolution to the Mother Tongue, Ruhlen identifies 27 roots which might belong to the mother language, claimed to be the primordial language which engendered all of the world’s languages. According to the summary provided in the above-mentioned issue of Les cahiers de Science et vie, one of Ruhlen’s “global etymologies” is Čun(g)a ‘nose; to smell’. This is claimed to be attested in the following language groups:

Khoisan

Nilo-Saharan

Afro-Asiatic

Kartvelian

Dravidian

Eurasiatic

Dene-Caucasian

Austric

Indopacific

Australian

Amerind

čiũ

čona

suna

sun

čuṇṭu

snā

suŋ

iĵuŋ

sinna

mura

čuna

90In Ruhlen’s book, the inventory of data actually covers two pages. It is worth observing that all these examples include a segment with the [+nasal] feature and a segment with the [+continuant] feature. As in Arabic, we have the combination of the [+nasal] sound and the notional invariant “nasality”, which is located at what Allott calls the simplest level.

  • 10 The Holy Bible, Revised Standard Version, Genesis, 11, 1.

91What is at work here is the organization of the human being, not an avatar in scientific guise of the old myth from the Book of Genesis: Now the whole earth had one language and few words10. In other words, if we find an n in all these words, this is not because of the existence of a mother language, but rather because all humans have noses.

3.2.3

92Finally, if we consider the {[labial], [continuant]} matrix )notional invariant: “labiality” ) and its pivotal feature, [labial], it seems obvious that the relationship between [labial] and everything pertaining to the lips is of exactly the same nature as the relationship we have just identified between [nasal] and everything pertaining to the nose. The motivation is once more rooted in what Allott calls the simplest level.

4. Conclusion

93Given that analysis at the submorphemic level is in its initial phases, I am fully aware that this is trail-blazing work which could be described as a dangerous adventure. First of all, it would be wise to avoid confusing the issues involved. The reader of this presentation should not conclude that the submorphemes of English and the etymons of Arabic, as defined in my research, are one and the same thing. In the Theory of Matrices and Etymons (TME), the etymon is a genuine base for derivation. When the etymon is realized as a radical, it is always enveloped within a vowel structure: for example, the etymon {k,f} may be realized in kaffa “to push away, to repulse” whereas the two phonemes of the submorpheme are always contiguous as in smell and sneeze.

  • 11 Further research into English and other languages characterized by the existence of submorphemes co (...)

94The components of the etymon, like those of the matrix, are not ordered, which implies that they can be realized in both directions: {b,t} can be realized as “batta” (‘to cut’) and as “tabba” (‘to cut’), whereas *msell and *nseeze are strictly agrammatical. Unlike the submorpheme, the etymon is not necessarily located at the beginning of the word but may receive various affixes or increments: for example, in nakafa “to go away”, the n prefix is added to the {k,f} etymon and confers upon it the grammatical meaning “reflexive”, something which appears inconceivable for the submorpheme. Although we are at the infra-morphemic level in both cases, the two conceptions are indisputably different11. However, we should not forget Allott’s remark (1973 and 2001):

Where resemblances are observed between vocabulary in different languages, these are not necessarily an indication that the languages are related by descent or have a similar vocabulary as a result of diffusion. The resemblances may be the result of a natural appearance of similar words for similar perceptions by physically similar people in similar circumstances.

95The fact that submorphemic manifestations can be motivated in the same way in two languages which are as different as Arabic and English leads us to postulate that, for languages which have retained a submorphemic level, the organization of this level could be universal. I have specified “for languages which have retained a submorphemic level”, since one may easily conceive that there are languages in which this level no longer exists, given that languages are not equal with regard to the demotivation of signs; these would be languages in which the relationship between the linguistic sign and the referent is completely demotivated – the dream of Saussure.

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Bibliography

The Holy Bible, Revised Standard Version.

Allott, Robin. The Physical Foundation of Language. The Exploration of a Hypothesis. 1st edition. Sussex: Seaford, 1973. Knebworth, Hertfordshire: Able Publishing, 2001.

Argoud, Line. “Approche lexico-cognitive des ‘mots en kn-’ du vocabulaire anglais.” Anglophonia/Sigma 22. Toulouse: Presses Universitaires du Mirail, 2007, 129-143.

Bohas, Georges. “De la motivation corporelle de certains signes de la langue arabe et de ses implications”. Cahiers de linguistique analogique 3 (2006): 11-41.

--- , Dat, Mihai. Une théorie de l'organisation du lexique des langues sémitiques : matrices et étymons. Lyon: ENS Édition, 2007.

Migeon, Christophe. “Quand les langues cherchent leur mère”. Les cahiers de Science & vie 118 (2010): 28-33.

Philps, Dennis. “Le concept de ‘marqueur sub-lexical’ et la notion d’invariant sémantique”. In La notion d’invariant sémantique, Pierre Larrivée (dir.), Travaux de linguistique 45 (2002): 103-123.

Ruhlen, Merritt. The Origin of Language. Tracing the Evolution to the Mother Tongue. New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1994.

Saussure, Ferdinand (de), 1916, Cours de linguistique générale, publié par Charles Bailly et Albert Séchehaye, éd. critique préparée par Tullio de Mauro, post-face de J.-L. Calvet. Paris: Payot, 1995.

http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/nose

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Notes

1 Argoud (2007).

2 See Bohas & Dat (2007).

3 This level is common to all the etymons arising out of this matrix. The initial point of departure for all the semantic chains is the meaning “to strike a blow, to hit”.

4 For more details, see Bohas & Dat (2007). In Hebrew, for instance, [+continuant] is replaced by [+consonantal].

5 For a more detailed development, see Bohas (2006).

6 Taken from http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/nose, with no modification of the transcriptions.

7 Pronounced nos.

8 I would like to thank my colleague Frédéric Wang for providing this information.

9 Migeon (2010).

10 The Holy Bible, Revised Standard Version, Genesis, 11, 1.

11 Further research into English and other languages characterized by the existence of submorphemes could lead to a more nuanced expression of this point, since a vowel does in fact occur between n and s in nose and nasal, for instance.

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References

Electronic reference

Georges Bohas, « The submorpheme sm-, or how Arabic can help explain English », Miranda [Online], 7 | 2012, Online since 09 December 2012, connection on 24 March 2017. URL : http://miranda.revues.org/4294 ; DOI : 10.4000/miranda.4294

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About the author

Georges Bohas

Professor
École Normale Supérieure de Lyon
Georges.bohas@ens-lyon.fr

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