Author: Patrick C. Hogan

Obstruction in Romantic Love Narratives as Postcolonial Universal: The Case of Thomas Mofolo’s CHAKA

F. Fiona Moolla, University of the Western Cape (Republic of South Africa)

Love stories would appear to be one of the most universal genres of literary tale-telling. In fact, Patrick Hogan wrily observes that attention to literary representations of romantic love might have obviated “extended” ethnological debates on the cross-cultural and transhistorical prevalence of love (98). Hogan suggests further that the sub-genre of romantic tragi-comedy is a universal narrative structure since “it appears that every tradition tells tales of conflict in two areas – love and political power” (23), and may be found in the drama “from Greece, Rome India, China, and Japan, and in stories from other regions as well” (23). This essay will consider one such tale of conflict between love and political power in Thomas Mofolo’s Chaka, an “epic” novel about the formation of the Zulu nation in southern Africa, arguably one of the earliest African political expressions of modern state formation.

The focus on Chaka occurs in the context of a broader survey of African cultural expressions of romantic love[1]. Africa possesses a vast range of cultures, languages and traditions, but, for the purposes of this essay, only sub-Saharan cultures have been considered through their symbolic representation in oral narratives. The study thus has excluded the oral and written traditions of Arabophone North Africa, as well as that of Ethiopia. The impediment this survey faces at the outset is that published sources of sub-Saharan oral culture, given the multiple mediations of their production involving transcription in artificial settings and translation into European languages, become artefacts, in part, of the modernity which seeks to preserve them. The second obstruction faced by this study is the newly-confirmed recognition that hardly any sub-Saharan oral traditions about love have been recorded and archived. Where love is referred to at all in the folk tales of various cultural groups, it often occurs in an interspecies context signaling cosmogonic myths of primal origin times where the lines between human and animal were still fluid. Yet oral love narratives would appear to have abounded and continue to flourish in contemporary popular forms and media. The now-canonical Ghanaian writer, Ama Ata Aidoo, whose work is dominated by considerations of love in transforming contexts, in the introduction to African Love Stories, suggests that: “… Africa, like all the other regions of this earth, has been and is, full of great love stories” (viii). She speculates that, by contrast, in twentieth-century African literature, the love theme has not been foregrounded since this literature was preoccupied by other social and political questions which appeared more pressing. This does not, however, explain why love stories were not recorded by early anthropologists whose archives for the most part include proverbs, folk tales and epics. Given the dearth of love narratives in folk tales, this study turns its attention to African epics.

The African epic, in the context of the study of world epics, for a long time was a neglected form (Kesteloot 203). Depending on how one defines the epic, the list of African epics may be quite long, running into hundreds, or could be reduced to a limited number divided into “feudal” and “clan” epics (Kesteloot 205), or divided linguistically into epics of Mande-speaking and Bantu-speaking groups (Biebuyck 6). With the increased prominence of African epics in the frame of world literature, probably the most well-known of these, for varying reasons, are the Sunjata epic of west Africa, the Mwindo epic of central Africa, and the Chaka epic of southern Africa. While love may be a prominent theme in many epics, as the example of the romantic interludes in Homer’s Odyssey underscores, love is not foregrounded in the well-known African epics, except for a single complex and interesting case occurring in one of the narratives of the legend of Chaka, king of the Zulu nation.

The context of the emergence of the Chaka epic is not unlike the emergence of text forms of the oral expression of many other world cultures. The historical Chaka, born in 1795, founder of the Zulu kingdom which swallowed up the territories of many surrounding groups, became the stuff of legend, perpetuated especially in izibongo or Zulu praise poetry. The oral tradition which developed around the historical Chaka, augmented by research of other sources, shaped the first script narrative of Chaka’s life and achievements in Thomas Mofolo’s fictionalized biography, Chaka. Chaka which straddles the line between life narrative and novel was written in Mofolo’s first language, Sesotho, in the first decade of the twentieth century, but published only in 1931. This prose narrative was followed by Mazisi Kunene’s 1979 Zulu verse narrative, Emperor Shaka the Great: A Zulu Epic, which, no doubt, was influenced by Mofolo’s novel, but which adheres to the historical record more faithfully than Mofolo’s text. This study considers, specifically, the tragic love story that Mofolo invents in the heroic tale about the founder of the Zulu nation in relation to the concept of obstruction, the sine qua non of the romantic plot. Denis de Rougemont, author of Love in the Western World, a seminal study of romance, identifies the intensification of obstruction as unique to European romance. This essay looks at obstruction in the broader context of the idea of the “postcolonial universal”, deeply explored by Senegalese philosopher, Souleymane Bachir Diagne. This idea occurs, however, in the analyses of many comparativists, including Lalita Pandit’s study of Indian author Rabindranath Tagore, whose “nonimperialist, abstractly utopian idea of universalism … based on the principle of empathy” might be seen similarly to test notions non-hierarchically, assuming a background of commonality which makes lateral testing culturally comprehensible. This essay turns now to obstruction in the romance presented in Mofolo’s Chaka, testing it against De Rougemont’s assertion of the dynamism created by the centrality of obstruction in European romance, imparting a dynamism to the culture of European modernity.

Love in the Western World, De Rougemont’s landmark 1940 study of eros in Europe and, by extension, Europe’s settler colonies around the globe, proposes that obstruction to romantic union is the paradoxical desire of true lovers. The desire for that which thwarts satisfaction in love, so perpetuating desire, generates a drive, which De Rougemont describes as the “demon” (37) of love. The demon of love for De Rougemont is expressed also in the boundary-breaking restlessness of the novel, for many, the cultural form par excellence of European modernity. Shifting to an economic paradigm, the restless dynamism found in love and in the novel, has been regarded also as the unique momentum which drives capitalism (Berman). Obstruction which keeps desire in play thus is presented by De Rougemont as a continental and civilizational particular which through imperialism, colonization and in its current manifestation, globalization, has spread to the rest of the world. The question asked in the context of African orature and literature is whether obstruction in the love narrative is an absolute universal? If it is not absolute, then is it a statistical universal? Or is obstruction not universal at all; in other words, is it wholly particular to the socio-cultural development only of Europe? De Rougemont makes the claim about obstruction based on an interpretation of the archetypal medieval European myth of romantic love, namely, the story of Tristan and Isolde.

The pattern of mediation and remediation of the Chaka legend and Tristan and Isolde  is similar: stories of the historical lives become the material of folklore through fluid oral circulation, which then get fixed in the text narratives of individual authors, which then, in turn, spark a plethora of intertexts. Béroul’s and Bédier’s medieval Tristan is the inspiration of Wagner’s operatic Tristan and many other literary and cultural forms, as Mofolo’s and Kunene’s Chaka is the inspiration for Léopold Senghor’s lyrico-dramatic text, “Chaka”, and the inspiration in the production of many other artists, writers and intellectuals (Gérard).

This study focuses on the love stories in the Chaka narratives. The one love story, which is common across historical and literary narratives, is the story of Shaka’s parents, Nandi, his mother, and Senzangakhona, his father. Both Mofolo’s and Kunene’s texts present Chaka’s parents as being smitten by each other at their first meeting. In both cases, however, the focus falls not so much on the love affair and obstacles that may have existed in the lovers’ path to union. Rather, narrative concentration falls on the couple’s premarital intimacy which results in Nandi’s pregnancy. The issue at stake here is Chaka’s legitimacy, for which various opinions exist on the social acceptance of premarital sexual relationships in the culture at the time, and whether the rules for royalty were different from the rules for commoners. This love story will not be considered here since attention in both “founding” text narratives, namely that of Mofolo and Kunene, falls on the question of Chaka’s legitimacy, rather than the intimate relationship of Nandi and Senzangakhona.

Instead, this essay will consider the second love story, which occurs only in Mofolo’s “factional” representation of Chaka’s life. Mofolo’s novel is remarkable for its complete invention of Chaka’s love affair with the fictionally created heroine, Noliwa. Chaka is born to Nandi, whom Chaka’s father, Senzangakhona, marries, but, nonetheless, is spurned by Senzangakhona’s other wives, forcing Nandi to flee to live with relations. But even in her new home, in Mofolo’s representation of history, malicious rumors about Chaka’s illegitimacy pursue him, making him a despised pariah in the community where he is raised. His strength and bravery, however, result in the admiration of the young women of the village, make him the enemy of the young men whose cowardliness he indirectly shows up. His predestination for greatness is foreshadowed by his encounter with a diviner, Isanusi, another of Mofolo’s fictional creations outside of the historical record. Isanusi allows Chaka to see his persecution as part of a test for the acquisition of hitherto unknown power, giving him the strength to resist his abuse by the village. Because of subsequent threats to Chaka’s life, he is forced to flee, this time to the realm of a neighbouring potentate, Dingiswayo, who immediately is impressed by Chaka’s martial prowess. Mofolo invents a sister for Dingiswayo, namely, Noliwa, who is the one true love of Chaka’s life, aside from whom he generally is dismissive of women.

Noliwa is the favorite sister of Dingiswayo, the king who has taken Chaka under his wing, recognizing his exceptional military prowess. Noliwa is infatuated with Chaka and is disappointed that he never joins the lovers’ games which allow young people to declare their affection. Noliwa employs the “fool” Ndlebe also known as “Mr Ears” (71), one of Chaka’s allies, who deploys the techniques of surveillance suited to an oral community to spy for Chaka. Ndlebe gets Noliwa to declare her love for Chaka, whereupon he gets Chaka to declare his love for Noliwa, unarticulated by Chaka since he assumed that Dingiswayo would never allow him to marry his sister because Chaka is an outsider.  As the “goddess” and “god” of the group who stand out for their nobility, their physical perfection as woman and man, and their embodiment of the gender ideals of the community of feminine grace and masculine valor, Noliwa and Chaka are made for each other and appear to be destined for each other. Ndlebe expresses their mutual enamorment by saying to Chaka that Noliwa loves Chaka “with a love that surpasses your love for her” (74 emphasis in original). Noliwa makes the depths of her feelings known to her brother, Dingiswayo, by hinting that her passion for Chaka is inevitable and inalterable, like death: “I die utterly! I am unable to give you any idea, to find words to make you understand, the manner of my death!” (73). Dingiswayo’s approval of the union is implied, and the couple exchange necklaces, making their affection public, after which they are formally betrothed. Upon the death of Chaka’s father, Senzangakhona, Chaka, by far exceeding the legitimate princes in bravery, is installed on the throne. He also avenges the death of Dingiswayo by a pretender to Dingiswayo’s throne, and rises to the ultimate seat of power of Dingiswayo’s territory also, with the promise that he would marry Noliwa. Isanusi, the diviner, visits Chaka to test his commitment to acquiring power and renown without precedent:


Isanusi: “I understand that you are betrothed to Noliwa. Tell me, do you want to marry her?”

“I love her with all my heart, and I will marry her. But also I am bound to marry her, even if I did not wish to, because I have promised Dingiswayo’s armies that I would.”

“But if they had not bound you with that promise, what were you going to do?”

“I would still have wished to marry her because I love her, and, after all, they spoke to me in that manner after I had already become betrothed to her.”

“If I were you, I would not marry. Marriage splits kingdoms apart, because it always leads to quarrels in one’s house . . . .

Isanusi spoke these words like one who was merely jesting, yet they became a seed which began to grow in Chaka’s heart, especially since he had never really been very fond of women. (98-99)


Isanusi inflames Chaka’s ambition further by suggesting that he could have power greater than the power he had, which already was greater than the greatest kingdom known among their people. To obtain such power would require “medicine” for which Chaka would have to make a sacrifice:


. . . if you want such a kingship, every time you go to meet the enemy, your warriors must eat food mixed with medicines containing the blood of someone you love most dearly, one who is constantly in your thoughts, who is in your heart day and night, whom you love more than all the people in this entire world. It is by means of the blood of such a person that you can obtain the kind of kingship I have just described: I know no other way beside that one. (100-101)


Since Noliwa is his soulmate and the one closest to his heart, Chaka agrees to sacrifice her: “To tell you the truth, in this world there isn’t anything I love other than kingship, war and commanding armies. Therefore I will give you [Isanusi] Noliwa in order to remove any stumbling block from the path leading to my kingship. I have considered this matter and concluded: the medicines will be mixed with Noliwa’s blood” (102).

Paradoxically, the love story is the invented centerpiece around which Mofolo constructs Chaka’s actualization, but it is the crucial heart of the narrative which must be abjured as romance gives way to the epic. While the Tristan myth holds fast to the conventions of romance, Chaka embeds in the narrative (ultimately obstructed) romance as testament to the ruthless ambition of its finally, morally ambivalent epic hero. De Rougemont suggests that European culture, and its imperial-colonial offshoots, are distinct for inventing “passionate love” through the emergence of courtly love in the twelfth century. The heart of passionate love is obstruction, typified in the archetypal myth of Tristan, who invents obstacles where none exist. Obstruction gives love its existential drive.

The love story dimension of Chaka presents a romance with numerous obstructions, leading to the ultimate obstruction in death. Before it becomes patently clear that Chaka is going to sacrifice Noliwa, Chaka has intimate relations with Noliwa, resulting in her pregnancy. (The novel leaves Chaka’s knowledge of the pregnancy in productive indeterminacy.) But true union, as in the Tristan myth, is represented by marriage. What are the obstacles to the love between Chaka and Noliwa? First, it is Noliwa’s uncertainty whether Chaka is attracted to her, and then Chaka’s uncertainty whether Ndlebe’s intimations of Noliwa’s attraction are true. Thereafter, Dingiswayo’s potential rejection of the liaison, since Chaka is an outsider, is presented as an obstruction – but one which again is quite easily overcome. Significant obstacles which delay the union then come into play. Chaka’s father dies leaving him to negotiate the intricacies of succession. Dingiswayo is assassinated, requiring Chaka to avenge his death and ascend to his throne. These obstacles, which delay the union of the lovers ironically also kindle Chaka’s parallel love for power, manifesting in the ultimate obstruction, namely, Chaka’s overarching ambition. Chaka’s ambition leads to his sacrifice of Noliwa. Death of Isolde in the Tristan myth and death of Noliwa in Chaka is the obstruction which apotheosizes love as passion, thriving as it does on barriers, rather than apotheosizing the lovers themselves. However, while it is love of love which is the catalyst of love as passion in the European myth, it is the love of power which generates love as passion in the southern African heroic romance. Thus in both the European and the African narratives we see the emergence of love as passion.

The centrality of love as passion in Mofolo’s novel is underscored by Chaka’s emotions when he kills Noliwa and Noliwa’s response when she recognizes she is being sacrificed to consolidate the power of her lover. Before the killing, the narrative dwells on Noliwa’s infatuation with Chaka, heightened by her pregnancy, and Chaka’s love for her:


Chaka, too, loved Noliwa very much. If Chaka ever loved a woman with true love, we believe that Nandi (sic) was the woman upon whom that love was lavished. All beautiful and worthy things which a true wife might do for her husband, and which Chaka ever experienced, he received from Noliwa. And even as he betrayed her like that and planned her murder, his conscience ate him up and gave him no rest; it told him he had strayed from the straight path of human compassion. Yet, because of his desire for kingship, he suppressed it and pushed ahead, and walked about carrying death on his shoulders. (121)


The significance of love as passion in Mofolo’s narrative is made manifest again when it presents the diviner, Isanusi, giving Chaka one last chance to opt out of the course that will strip him of satisfaction in love and make him suffer emotionally, even as he climbs the ladder of power. Isanusi asks explicitly: “What do you choose for yourself, Noliwa or the kingship? to which Chaka again confirms, “The kingship!” (123). The significance of passionate love is foregrounded also by the fact that it is Chaka himself who kills Noliwa, rather than any of his henchmen, whose obedience to their leader is absolute. Chaka is struck again by Noliwa’s ethereal beauty when the time comes for the murder, and he is struck above all by her eyes: “They were eyes which revealed a message which said: ‘I am yours with all my being, Chaka; I am yours in life and in death” (125-126). Chaka kills Noliwa surreptitiously, using a thatching needle pierced into her underarm, to disguise her murder as illness. Noliwa, however, dies knowing that it is Chaka who has killed her, and, nevertheless, with her dying breath refers to Chaka as her “beloved” (26). Noliwa’s death thus preserves love as passion in the epic narrative about the founding of the Zulu nation.

The status of Mofolo’s Chaka as, in many respects, a liminal text makes its offsetting of passionate love problematic as an assertion of the universality of the principle of obstruction as central to love as passion. For De Rougemont, the contention that passionate love is an invention of European culture, of course, is a claim for much more than merely the “technology” of the romance narrative. It is an assertion of the fundamental dynamism of European culture, which, by implication, is absent in other world cultures. (Even though De Rougemont acknowledges the influence of Andalusian court poetry and sufi mysticism on European medieval culture, nonetheless, the breakthroughs of courtly love are deemed the origins of European exceptionalism in the sphere of the personal relationship which, more than any other personal relationship, embodies European socio-cultural transformations. It is hard to hold Mofolo’s Chaka up as a challenge to De Rougemont since Mofolo as a Christian mission-school-educated writer may have invented and incorporated the Chaka-Noliwa love story as a consequence of cultural influence, or an orientation to European culture acquired at the Morija mission. However, it is salutary to recall that Mofolo was writing about a Zulu legend in Sesotho for a Sesotho audience in the first decade of the twentieth century. His novel would have had to have been persuasive to his Sesotho audience, an audience less culturally influenced by mission Christianity and European culture than he had been. The conclusion one might draw from this is that it is precisely the existence of some form of universal which makes this form of intercultural communication possible.

Diagne extends the idea further: Drawing on Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Diagne suggests that “[t]he postcolonial universal, the non imperial universal is … lateral” (16). The lateral universal is “no longer the overarching universal of a strictly objective method, but a sort of lateral universal which we acquire through ethnological experience and its incessant testing of the self through the other person and the other person through the self” (16). What we see in Mofolo’s African articulation of love as passion, where obstruction is central, may thus more productively be viewed as a lateral universal testing the concept of love as passion across languages, cultures and the epistemologies they intimate.


Works Cited

Aidoo, Ama Ata. African Love Stories: An Anthology. Ayebia, 2006.

Berman, Marshall. All That Is Solid Melts Into Air: The Experience of Modernity. Verso, 1983.

De Rougemont, Denis. Love in the Western World. (1940) Translated by Montgomery Belgion. Princeton UP, 1983.

Diagne, Souleymane Bachir. “On the Postcolonial and the Universal?” Collège international de Philosophie, vol. 2, no. 78, pp.7-18. Accessed 15 May 2022.

Gerard, Albert. “Rereading ‘Chaka’. English in Africa, vol. 13, no. 1, 1986, pp. 1-12. Accessed 10 June 2022.

Hogan, Patrick Colm. The Mind and its Stories: Narrative Universals and Human Emotion. Cambridge UP, 2009.

Kunene, Mazisi. Emperor Shaka the Great: A Zulu Epic. Translated by Mazisi Kunene. Heinemann, 1979.

Mofolo, Thomas. Chaka. (1931) Translated by Daniel P. Kunene. Heinemann, 1981.

Moolla, F. Fiona. “Foundational Fictions: Variations of the Marriage Plot in Flora Nwapa’s Early Anglophone-Igbo Novels.” Routledge Handbook of African Literature, edited by Carli Coetzee and Moradewun Adejunmobi, Routledge, 2019, pp. 290-304.

—. “In the Heart of the Country: The Auto/biographies of Ayesha Dawood and Fatima Meer.” Social Dynamics, vol. 46, no. 1, 2020, pp. 150-163.

—. “Love in a State of Fear: Reflections on Intimate Relations in Nuruddin Farah’s Dictatorship Novels.” Journal of the African Literature Association, vol. 10., no. 1, 2016, pp. 118-130.

—. “The Polygynous Household in Lola Shoneyin’s The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives: A Haven in a Heartless World.” ARIEL – A Review of International English Literature, vol. 48, no. 1, 2017, pp. 71-96.

Pandit, Lalita. “Caste, Race, and Nation: History and Dialectic in Rabindranath Tagore’s Gora.” In Literary India: Comparative Studies in Aesthetics, Colonialism and Culture. Ed. Patrick Colm Hogan and Lalita Pandit. State U of New York P, 1995, pp. 207-233.



[1] Until recently, the cultural, literary and philosophical significance of romantic love has not been a focus of attention of African scholarship. It has, however, been my interest for a number of years where I have considered African oratures, popular cultures, and literatures across the genres of poetry, novel and drama. Some areas of concentration include a focus on love in representations of monogamous and polygynous marriage, the role of love under oppressive regimes, and romance as national allegory. These studies have been published as journal articles and book chapters, such as: “The Polygynous Household in Lola Shoneyin’s The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives: A Haven in a Heartless World”, “Foundational Fictions: Variations of the Marriage Plot in Flora Nwapa’s early Anglophone-Igbo Novels”, “Love in a State of Fear: Reflections on Intimate Relations in Nuruddin Farah’s Dictatorship Novels”, and “In the heart of the country: the auto/biographies of Ayesha Dawood and Fatima Meer.” Lynda Spencer and Martina Vitackova have directed their attention to African popular romance, in particular, and are currently co-editing a special African popular romance issue of the Journal of Popular Romance.

Talking Stories: Encyclopedia of Traditional Ecological Knowledge

Earlier this year (2021), Michelle Scalise Sugiyama (Anthropology, University of Oregon) launched Talking Stories: Encyclopedia of Traditional Ecological Knowledge, an open educational resource that situates the prehistory of literature and science in the oral traditions of our hunter-gatherer ancestors. Based on the premise that oral narrative is one of humanity’s earliest information technologies, the Encyclopedia aggregates stories from diverse hunter-gatherer cultures and explicates the ecological knowledge they encode, with links to articles, books, films, and other pedagogical resources. The site is designed for use by educators seeking to integrate traditional Indigenous literature, philosophy, and science into their courses, and by students and researchers interested in the origins of natural history, symbolic behavior, and cultural transmission.


Reuven Tsur (1932-2021)

I was deeply saddened to learn that the brilliant and warm-hearted Reuven Tsur passed away earlier today. His contributions to the linguistics of poetry–including the study of literary universals–were invaluable. The Literary Universals Project was honored to publish his and Chen Gafni’s “Phonetic Symbolism: Double-Edgedness and Aspect-Switching” just two years ago. This is a great intellectual and human loss.

Call for Chapter Proposals: Postcolonial Bildungsroman

Originally an 18th-century German innovation, the bildungsroman became a popular literary genre across the Anglo-American world during the 19th century. A ‘coming of age’ novel about young adults in search of meaning and happiness, the bildungsroman was the literary medium of choice for many writers – including Twain, Dickens, and Kipling – looking to explore the moral and psychological developments of characters traversing unfamiliar worlds, and thereby, encountering new challenges, experiences, and adventures. Since the 20th century, there has been a revival of interest in this genre in the Global South. Writers and thinkers from post-colonies across Asia, Europe, Africa, the Americas, and New Zealand, have turned to the bildungsroman to explore new stories about belonging, self-determinacy, cultural authenticity and spiritual awakening. South Asian writers such as Amitav Ghosh, U.R. Ananthamurthy, and Anita Desai, for instance, have engaged the genre by drawing on literary tropes, such as the pilgrimage, from classical Hindu, Sufi, and Buddhist literary traditions. They have often deployed the genre to explore how youth in India confront questions of decolonization, independence, and self-determinacy. Similarly, writers from Africa and African diaspora such as Ngugi Wa Thiong’o and Abdulrazak Gurnah have found the bildungsroman to be an effective platform for exploring revolution and radical social change in relation to socio-political developments in Kenya and Tanzania. Maori writers such as Witi Ihimaera have also employed the genre to express conflicts of modernity and tradition facing Maori youth in contemporary New Zealand. Such literary projects have also inspired work in critical theory. The human rights scholar Joseph Slaughter has identified in the bildungsroman an influential model that ‘normalizes the story of enfranchisement’ by making socially marginal figures representative. Similarly, the post-colonialist, Mark Stein, in tracing modern black British fiction’s departure from classical literary models, has argued that the postcolonial bildungsroman should be best understood as a novel of transformation and adaptation rather than as a novel of formation and development. The bildungsroman has likewise become a crucial element of recent Four Nations concerns revolving around, for instance, core and periphery, Irish independence, and Welsh crises of language, class, and identity.

We aim to investigate how a nineteenth-century literary genre, originally meant for expressing local European concerns, has now been resurrected as one of the most cosmopolitan mediums for communicating global ideas. This volume will bring together essays on diverse fields of literature, narrative, and critical theory that interrogate the different articulations of the bildungsroman and examine the intersection of traditional forms with modern questions of identity and disruption. We are particularly interested in projects that explore how the bildungsroman is reimagined by writers from a wide range of formerly colonized regions including (but not limited to) South and South East and East Asia, the Middle East, the US, Latin America, Canada, regions across Africa and the African diaspora, Caribbean, Australia, and New Zealand? Contributors can consider the following questions as possible starting points (without being limited by them): how can focusing on the ‘coming of age’ story-cycle engage, for instance, recent concerns highlighted by eco-critical, queer, and/or Marxist readings of 20th– and 21st century texts; in what ways can the genre informs readings of human rights and personhood; how does examining texts through bildungsroman generic explications amplify voices reacting to colonial pasts?

Please submit a CV and a 300-word abstract by 15th June 2021. Full Drafts of approx. 7000 words will be due in January 2022. We have received positive interest for publication from Routledge. Interested participants may contact co-editors Dr. Arnab Dutta Roy ( and Dr. Paul Ugor (

Counterintuitive Imagery as a Narrative Universal

Tom Dolack, Wheaton College

It has been postulated that religious beliefs “minimally violate ordinary intuitions about how the world is” (Atran, In Gods We Trust 83). This is not to say that religion need be defined by counterintuitive imagery. There is a constellation of behaviors that has been proposed as underlying religion including a “hyperactive agency detection device” (Guthrie), overpromiscuous Theory of Mind, and ritual practices. Nonetheless, counterintuitive imagery appears to be a religious universal. Some research on this topic has noted that counterintuitive imagery is not a priori religious. Specifically, Kelly and Keil have looked at Ovid and the Brothers Grimm; Burdett, Barrett, and Porter have looked at folktales; and Swan and Halberstadt have more recently examined what differentiates religious from fictional counterintuitive agents. Even so, work in the field has mostly focused on the religious domain. What I propose is a research program that explicitly applies insights into religious counterintuitive imagery to narrative more broadly, including modern literature. This is in keeping with the idea that cognitive “templates” for religious concepts, discussed by Pascal Boyer (Religion Explained 78), have application in a wide variety of cultural artifacts.


Art was once thought to be the sole province of Homo sapiens, a cultural Rubicon that only we crossed. But, as has often been the case in recent years, the archaeological record shows that we are not so special. Intentional markings have been found on mussel shells dating back a half million years, which would make the suspected artiste Homo erectus (Joordens et al.). Whether we wish to term these engravings “art” is open to debate, but they seem to be intentional, serve no apparent utilitarian function, and are not random. If not art, then what? Doodle, perhaps, but that would probably be distinction without difference in this context. Our cousins the Neanderthals clearly also “doodled,” as evidenced by cave art in Spain predating the arrival of Homo sapiens (Hoffmann et al.; Hawks). Examples from our own direct ancestors are widespread and found all over the world (Henshilwood et al.; Aubert et al.). But much of the art we find in the record can be described as decorative or mimetic. The type of symbolism or figurativeness we associate with the term “art” in modern times, not to mention with human behavior more generally, is clearly a more recent addition.

Along these lines, the Löwenmensch or Lion-Man, found in the Hohlenstein-Stadel cave in Germany, stands out. Not only is it one of the oldest, if not the oldest, statuette on record; it is also conspicuously not abstract, mimetic, or purely decorative. About a foot in height and carved from a mammoth tusk, the largest piece of the figurine was unearthed in 1939 (smaller pieces were dug up later and the pieces painstakingly reassembled). The Löwenmensch has a human body, with the head of what appears to be a lion. It is unclear if the figurine was meant to be symbolic or religious (theories abound), but it is clearly figurative. Nobody ever saw such a creature. It is all too easy to lose sight of how revolutionary this would have been. It would be unexceptional today in our world of CGI; it would have been unexceptional even thousands of years ago when mythology and tales around the campfire were commonplace. But there was a time when such a hybrid creation was entirely new, and it changed human culture forever.

We don’t know when or where this capacity for imagining hybrids originated, and can only hypothesize about how it came to be (changes to our mental architecture along the lines of Mithen’s “cognitive fluidity”? A tipping point in cumulative cultural evolution?), but however this change occurred, it signals a new ability to envision what did not and could not exist; previously we could either reproduce what we had seen or heard about or make abstract shapes that we found pleasing.

I suspect it is no coincidence that this oldest of all figurative art is a hybrid. Such hybrids are a stock element of religions, mythologies, and folklores the world over. The technical term for them is counterintuitive imagery. What makes these images special is that they violate our natural intuitions. We have innate ontological categories (Atran,“Basic Conceptual Domains”) in our minds such as animal, person, inanimate thing, tool and plant. Each of these categories involves specific expectations regarding our innate knowledge domains of physics, biology, and psychology. A natural object such as a rock does not move on its own, does not grow or reproduce, and does not think. An animal does move on its own, grow, eat, and reproduce, has some mental workings, but does not speak. Humans are like animals biologically, plus have additional psychology faculties, but are restrained by certain physical laws (we can’t fly or walk through walls). Counterintuitive images violate these ontological expectations in one way or another—an animal that talks, a person who doesn’t die, a stick that heals. A table from Justin Barrett covers all of the bases (see Figure 1).

 This table covers the panoply of figures in religions, mythologies, folklores, but also science fiction movies and fantasy novels. A zombie is a person lacking human consciousness (a violation of expectations regarding psychology); a ghost is a person without a body (a violation regarding biology); a talisman is an artifact with magic properties (physics violation); Ents are plants that behave like people (biology and psychology violations); monotheistic gods are often people lacking bodies and with reality-defying powers (psychology, biology, and physics violations). And so on.

A primary postulate for why counterintuitive imagery is so common in the religious imagination is because it is better remembered. But we need not restrict ourselves just to the religious imagination in this regard (Barrett, “Utility” 250). Atran and Norenzayan did experiments where stories with counterintuitive imagery were better remembered after one week (see also Barrett and Nyhof). Perhaps most interesting, they found an ideal ratio of counterintuitive to intuitive imagery (mostly intuitive with some counterintuitive), which accounts for why all or even most religious imagery is not counterintuitive. This is an explanation for its universality – in a tradition lacking writing, imagery that was better remembered would have a Darwinian advantage. And, indeed, such imagery does seem to be universal. Donald Brown lists belief in the supernatural, anthropomorphism, magic (which involves category violations of some sort), and myths all as human universals (139).

This may explain the abundance of spirits, and giants, and witches, and gods and the like – all the mythic figures that populate the religions, folklores and stories the world over, all of which have their roots, if you go back far enough, in the letterless past. But can we say the same about wizards and aliens and all the creations of modern fantasy and science fiction that are solidly within modern times? Clearly memory is no hurdle to the retention of something located conveniently in paperback or blue-ray. Indeed, if we extend our view to incorporate our metaphors (your eyes are like diamonds, a mountain of a man, fast as a cheetah), counterintuitivity pervades all of our narrative, even the most realistic.

This points to a possible need to expand what we mean by the term “supernatural.” Rather than being the domain of magic, mysticism, or the occult, an understanding of our innate folk physics and folk biology lets us understand why exactly we draw a line between natural and supernatural, and that there is nothing inherently religious or magical about things on the other side of that line. As Konika Banerjee notes (Banerjee et al.), in actuality, we likely get the directionality wrong: counterintuitive imagery isn’t religious, there’s just something about it that leads to its overrepresentation in allforms of narrative. The “supernatural” (read: counterintuitive) surrounds us, we just tend to notice only the more extreme examples found in mythology and religion. This meshes quite well with the work of Kelly and Keil that found similar rates of cross-domain transformation in Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Grimms’ Fairy Tales.

But if counterintuitive imagery is so ubiquitous, even (especially?) into the modern day where memory is no longer a restricting factor, what can account for its prevalence? Why would Hinduism, Ovid, and comic books all contain similar imagery? Banerjee uses the phrase “inferentially rich,” which may be on to something. If a novel counterintuitive idea breeds new ideas and images, this may make them more attractive. There is perhaps something more creative about them. This fits with one approach to creativity at the cognitive level that assumes creativity to involve the combination of two previously separate ideas in working memory (Vandervert et al.; Fink et al.). Thus, counterintuitive imagery may force us to be creative in reverse by separating the components of a hybrid that we had not encountered. But much more research is required on this specific question.


An Attempt to Test Some Hypotheses

Based on the standard formulations of the role of counterintuitive imagery in religions, I formulated two hypotheses that could be empirically tested. First of all, if memory is truly the main reason for increased counterintuitive imagery, we should find more of it in oral traditions than written traditions. Second, if there is something religious about counterintuitive imagery, we should find more of it in religious texts than non-religious texts. Obviously, counterintuitive imagery exists in both written and secular texts, but there should be some difference in the rates. With these hypotheses in mind, I and a group of undergraduate students began to tabulate rates of counterintuitive imagery. The project is highly labor intensive and so progress is both slow going and narrowly focused. Consequently, conclusions are so far highly tentative and really only serve as means of directing future research. But the data has been interesting, nonetheless (Dolack). To date we have gotten through the Hebrew Bible and the Harry Potter series, which is only a starting point. Obviously, this choice alone is a delimiting factor in the results, but we believe that at the very least we have established that a fuller empirical study along these lines promises to contribute to worthwhile research programs on counterintuitive imagery and narrative.

What we have done is tabulate all of the characters in both works (over 3,500 total) and, using the rubric established by Boyer and Barrett (“Natural Foundations”), marked which ones had counterintuitive elements. Specifically, we tracked whether each character had some additional, unanticipated domain capacity in psychology, biology, or physics, or whether it lacked such a capacity (marked as +psychology, or –physics, for instance). Some simplification was necessary, especially at this stage. Future work could involve the subtlety built into Justin Barrett’s coding system, particularly his distinction between “counterintuitive” and “counterschematic” (Barrett, “Coding”).

Some of our basic results showed that only 8% of characters in the Old Testament had some form of domain violation. However, if we counted not just characters, but how many times the characters were mentioned, it turns out that 33% of character mentions involve a character with a domain violation. This means that counterintuitive figures were much more likely to be mentioned multiple times than “normal” figures. This fits with the predictions of the theory – there is obviously selection pressure for counterintuitiveness in the Bible.

To test another prediction, we tabulated the percentage of character mentions involving a counterintuitive character per book of the Bible. We did percentage and not raw numbers because otherwise larger books such as Genesis would have an unfair advantage. The results look like Figure 2.

Some books have very high numbers because they only have a handful of people, all of whom are prophets, or fall into some other counterintuitive category. The test here was to see if the earlier books of the Bible (the ones more likely to date back to a purely oral tradition) had higher or lower rates of counterintuitive figures. Dating books of the Hebrew Bible is tricky as there are no exact dates to begin with, but things are further complicated by when texts were written down or edited. But using a rough ordering, my team came up with Figure 3, which shows a general decrease from older to newer texts.

The overall decrease in the percentage of domain violations fits with the model’s predictions as well. But what happens when we look at a work of contemporary fantasy? Our prediction based on theory was that rates of counterintuitive imagery would be lower, but our instincts said it would be about the same. It turns out that 45% of the characters in the Harry Potter novels are counterintuitive. That’s far higher than the 8% in the Hebrew Bible. If we look at character mentions, the disparity is much less: 49% compared with The Bible’s 33%. The percentage of mentions jumps much less than with The Bible; a counterintuitive character in Harry Potter is only slightly more likely to be seen more often than a non-counterintuitive character. We suggest this difference is because the initial rate in Harry Potter is so high and because The Bible was winnowed down and changed over centuries.

What conclusions can we draw from this admittedly narrow selection of texts? Based solely on this one example we can say that individual, modern, written works can have as much or even more counterintuitive imagery than religious or oral texts. Indeed, this is another sign of the universality of counterintuitive imagery. It also supplies support for the hypothesis that memorability may not be the only reason for the prevalence of such imagery. Harry Potter is not dependent on long-term memory for its propagation, only its appeal to readers. So perhaps counterintuitive imagery is more engaging (or exciting, or rich), and not merely more unforgettable. These results point more to what work needs to be done than to answers to our original questions.


Future Research

This line of research clearly needs more data from as many different sources as possible. There is no way for two works to give an accurate view of the problem; what we have been able to do is more akin to a pilot study that prepares the way for more systematic work. For starters, we should compare rates of counterintuitive imagery in cross-cultural folklore and mythology to see if there are geographical variations in rates or preferences. (Work already appears to show that counterintuitive imagery is cross-cultural. See Boyer and Ramble, and Barrett et al.) Second, we need more work on counterintuitive imagery in literary texts. What are the factors that affect counterintuitivity – genre? tradition? audience? Do counterintuitive elements appear in our metaphors at the same rate as counterintuitive images appear in folklore? Finding counterintuitive imagery in a broad range of works and types of work would suggest that it is fundamental to our imagination. Lastly, these data can be used to investigate why this type of imagery is so pervasive since it seems that memorability alone cannot be the answer. This could be a consequential undertaking, because any line of investigation that gets to a possible common root of religion and the narrative arts could also shed light on the evolutionary origins of both behaviors. Common ancestors are not just valuable in anthropology and paleontology.


Works Cited

Atran, Scott. “Basic Conceptual Domains.” Mind and Language 4.1–2 (1989): 7–16.

Atran, Scott. In Gods We Trust: The Evolutionary Landscape of Religion. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Atran, Scott, and Ara Norenzayan. “Religion’s Evolutionary Landscape: Counterintuition, Commitment, Compassion, Communion.” Behavioral and Brain Sciences 27.06 (2004): 713–730.

Aubert, M., et al. “Palaeolithic Cave Art in Borneo.” Nature 564.773 (Dec. 2018): 254-257.

Banerjee, Konika, O. S. Haque, and E. S. Spelke. “Melting Lizards and Crying Mailboxes: Children’s Preferential Recall of Minimally Counterintuitive Concepts.” Cognitive Science 37.7 (Sept. 2013): 1251-89.

Barrett, Justin L. “Coding and Quantifying Counterintuitiveness in Religious Concepts: Theoretical and Methodological Reflections.” Method & Theory in the Study of Religion 20.4 (2008): 308–338.

Barrett, Justin L.“Exploring the Natural Foundations of Religion.” Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 4.1 (Jan. 2000): 29–34.

Barrett, Justin L.“The (Modest) Utility of MCI Theory.” Religion, Brain & Behavior6.3 (July 2016): 249–251.

Barrett, Justin, and Melanie Nyhof. “Spreading Non-Natural Concepts: The Role of Intuitive Conceptual Structures in Memory and Transmission of Cultural Materials.” Journal of Cognition and Culture 1 (Feb. 2001): 69-100.

Boyer, Pascal. “Evolution of the Modern Mind and the Origins of Culture: Religious Concepts as a Limiting Case.” Evolution and the Human Mind: Modularity, Language and Meta-Cognition. Ed. Peter Carruthers and Andrew Chamberlain. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000, 93–112.

Boyer, Pascal.Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought. New York: Basic Books, 2001.

Boyer, Pascal, and Charles Ramble. “Cognitive Templates for Religious Concepts: Cross-Cultural Evidence for Recall of Counter-Intuitive Representations.” Cognitive Science 25.4 (July 2001): 535–64.

Brown, Donald E. Human Universals. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 1991.

Burdett, Emily, Justin L. Barrett, and Tenelle Porter. “Counterintuitiveness in Folktales: Finding the Cognitive Optimum.” Journal of Cognition and Culture 9.3 (Oct. 2009): 271–87.

Dolack, Tom. “A Quantitative Approach to Counterintuitive Imagery in the Hebrew Bible and the Harry Potter Novels.” Evolution and Popular Narrative. Ed., Dirk Vanderbeke and Brett Cooke. Amsterdam, The Netherlands: Brill Rodopi, 2019, 264-291.

Fink, Andreas, et al. “Stimulating Creativity via the Exposure to Other People’s Ideas.” Human Brain Mapping 33.11 (2012): 2603–2610.

Guthrie, Stewart. Faces in the Clouds: A New Theory of Religion. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Hawks, John. “Neanderthal Humanities.” Darwin’s Bridge: Uniting the Humanities and Sciences. Ed. Joseph Carroll, Dan McAdams, and Edward O. Wilson. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016, 89–100.

Henshilwood, Christopher S., Francisco d’Errico, and Ian Watts. “Engraved Ochres from the Middle Stone Age Levels at Blombos Cave, South Africa.” Journal of Human Evolution 57.1 (July 2009): 27–47.

Hoffmann, D. L., et al. “U-Th Dating of Carbonate Crusts Reveals Neandertal Origin of Iberian Cave Art.” Science 359.6378, 23 (2018): 912–915.

Joordens, Josephine C. A., et al. “Homo Erectus at Trinil on Java Used Shells for Tool Production and Engraving.” Nature 518.7538 (2015): 228–31.

Kelly, Michael H., and Frank C. Keil. “The More Things Change…: Metamorphoses and Conceptual Structure.” Cognitive Science 9.4 (1985): 403–416.

Mithen, Steven J. The Prehistory of the Mind: A Search for the Origins of Art, Religion, and Science. London: Thames and Hudson, 1996.

Swan, Thomas, and Jamin Halberstadt. “The Mickey Mouse Problem: Distinguishing Religious and Fictional Counterintuitive Agents.”PLOS ONE 14.8 (Aug. 2019).

Vandervert, Larry R., Paul Schimpf, and Hesheng Liu. “How Working Memory and the Cerebellum Collaborate to Produce Creativity and Innovation.” Creativity Research Journal 19.1 (2007): 1–18.


Particular Works and Literary Universals: As You Like It

Patrick Colm Hogan, University of Connecticut 

Particular literary works figure in the study of literary universals principally as data from which researchers may abstract cross-cultural principles. However, the isolation of literary universals may also have consequences for our understanding of individual works. Consider story genre. I have argued that a limited number of such genres recur across a range of unrelated traditions (on the nature of these genres, see “Story”; on the cross-cultural evidence for the genres, see my The Mind and Its Stories and Affective Narratology[1]). These are not the only possible genres. However, their cross-cultural recurrence suggests their cognitive and affective salience and even predominance. For this reason, the cross-cultural genres are often more valuable in categorizing literary works or parts of works than are the historical categories to which works were assigned by their contemporaries. (In a similar way, our diagnostic categories are typically more valuable in categorizing illnesses than are the diagnostic categories to which a person’s illness was assigned by his or her contemporaries.) For example, in How Authors’ Minds Make Stories, I have contended that the cross-cultural genres do a better job of organizing Shakespeare’s plays than the traditional, fourfold scheme of comedies, tragedies, histories, and romances.[2]

In the present essay, I set out to consider a single work—Shakespeare’s As You Like It—in relation to cross-cultural story genres. Though his plays are generally open to categorization in one or another dominant genre, it is well known that Shakespeare mixed genres.[3] In the following pages, I will consider the ways in which different story trajectories in the play may be usefully analyzed as instances of different, cross-cultural genres. This analysis allows us, in turn, to isolate some of the play’s stylistic techniques and thematic concerns more clearly and to explore them more fully.[4]

More exactly, one useful method of exploring Shakespeare’s play begins by isolating the various story sequences–the story of Orlando and Oliver, that of Touchstone and Audry, and so on—then identifies their genres and determines how Shakespeare particularized those genres. Such an analysis suggests conclusions about Shakespeare’s story style and about the thematic resonances of the work, both ethico-political and psychological. However, before treating As You Like It, I should outline the main features of the relevant story genres and some of the key principles used by authors in developing particular literary works.

Cross-Cultural Story Genres, Motifs, and Development Principles

It is important to make three general points about literary universals. First, like linguistic universals, literary universals may be absolute (recurring in all traditions), near absolute, statistical (recurring in a significantly greater percentage of traditions than would be expected by chance), or typological/implicational (recurring in traditions of a specified type). Second, “unrelated” means that the traditions have distinct origins and have not influenced one another extensively. Thus, English and Twentieth-Century Chinese literatures are related; evidence for cross-cultural patterns would have to draw on Chinese and European works prior to the period of modern, European colonialism. Third, universals are not exhaustive. One can tell stories about anything. Stories are not confined to the cross-cultural genres. On the other hand, as already noted, the cross-cultural genres tend to be particularly salient and prominent; traditions appear more likely to differ in recurring patterns of particularization than in the main genres themselves.

The mention of particularization leads us to development principles. In How Authors’ Minds Make Stories, I have argued that the creation of particular stories may be understood in part as the application of development principlesto cross-cultural genre prototypes. These development principles comprise principles governing specification (where abstract elements in the prototype, such as “lovers,” are given particular features), completion (the filling in of ellipses), extension (the combination of different prototypes or motifs), and alteration (deviation from a prototype). Development principles may bear on the story itself (as just indicated) or on aspects of discourse, thus the narrational point of view, the emplotted order of information (e.g., strictly chronological or partially chronological with flashbacks), and so on.

 In analyzing As You Like It, I will be concerned with three cross-cultural story genres (romantic, heroic-usurpation, and familial) and one cross-cultural motif (remorse and conversion). In The Mind and Its Stories and Affective Narratology, I have argued that cross-cultural genres prototypically involve one or two protagonists pursuing some goal. The goal is defined by an emotion system or some integration of emotion systems. The cross-cultural elaboration of the story trajectory functions to intensify the outcome emotion. In the full, comic form of each genre, this leads to the apparent loss of the goal in the middle of the story.

The romantic genre develops out of the integration of attachment and sexual desire (as well as the reward system) in romantic love. The romantic story prototype forms around two people falling in love, but finding their union prevented by society (commonly intensified by making the blocking figures loved ones, such as parents). This social interference commonly involves a rival and thus a love triangle, and the apparently permanent separation of the lovers (often through rumors of death). However, in the full, comic version, the lovers are ultimately united and social rifts overcome.

The heroic genre is based on the emotions of pride, shame (thus a violation  of pride), and anger (due to shame), bearing on characters and on groups. In its prototypical form, this genre has an individual part and a collective part. The collective part involves a threat to the hero’s in-group (commonly the nation) from some enemy out-group. The individual part prototypically treats the usurpation of a leader’s rightful position, a usurpation often emotionally intensified by making the usurper an attachment object, such as a sibling. In the comic version, the story is commonly resolved through combat in which the usurper is defeated (often killed) and the legitimate authority reinstated.

The familial genre is based on attachment feelings. It concerns the separation and reunion of family members. The separation may be intentional on the part of the parents or children, and the reasons for the separation vary. The reunion is often less joyous than one might anticipate, given that the parents’ age may imply that this reunion will soon be cut short by their death. It may also involve feelings of guilt and remorse for the initial separation.

Finally, in The Mind and Its Stories, I distinguish story genres from story motifs. Story genres are derived from emotion-defined goal pursuit, as just explained. Motifs, in contrast, are types of event sequence that may be incorporated into various genres as they are not linked intrinsically with any genre-defining goal.[5] Like genres, some particular motifs are cross-cultural, while others are not. For example, the quest is often cited as a cross-cultural literary structure.[6] In my account, a quest does not define a genre, but a cross-cultural motif that may be incorporated into any genre. For example, the usurped hero or the struggling lover or the abandoned child—that is, types of character from the universal genres (heroic, romantic, and familial, respectively)–may undertake a quest in the service of regaining his or her kingdom, being joined in marriage with his or her beloved, or being reunited with his or her family. (A motif may, of course, be elaborated into a full story. But that is only because anything may be elaborated into a full story. That does not make everything into a cross-cultural genre.) In As You Like It, the motif I have in mind is, roughly, that of remorse leading to self-reformation or “conversion” in a broad sense. This motif often appears at the conclusion of heroic works in what I have called the “epilogue of suffering” (see chapter four of The Mind); it leads to the hero’s abandonment of the very goals he or she had striven for (and even achieved) in the rest of the story.

The Stories of As You Like It

The first scene of the play introduces us to the story of Orlando and Oliver, a reduced or deflated version of the heroic usurpation story. It is “reduced” in the sense that it concerns family relations rather than a nation. However, it involves the same denial of social position and even a murder (or assassination) plot. This scaling down of the heroic usurpation is facilitated by the fact that the national usurpation story is often intensified by being familial in the sense of involving betrayal of the hero by a family member. For simplicity (and as a sort of homage to Russian formalist practices), I will refer to the narrative trajectories through abbreviations. This first heroic usurpation story is HU1 (“heroic usurpation 1”).

One stylistic feature of Shakespeare’s writing is his tendency to develop parallel story sequences. Sometimes he invents them; sometimes he draws them from his sources (which he presumably found appealing in part due to the parallel stories). He frequently treats these parallel stories in contiguous scenes. In keeping with this, I.ii introduces the backstory to a more standard heroic usurpation story (HU2), also one involving brothers, that of Dukes Frederick and Senior. In addition, it introduces our first family separation story (FS1), that of Rosalind and Duke Senior, which results from HU2. This scene continues HU1 as well, by thwarting Oliver’s plot to have Orlando killed. The combat between Oliver and the wrestler is drawn from the source, with the important difference that the latter is (presumably) not killed.[7] This allows the possibility that no irreversible damage is done by the main characters in the course of the play (a point that bears on Shakespeare’s development of heroic stories, as we will see). This wrestling match is not only part of HU1, but also part of the first romantic story of the play (R1)—that of Rosalind and Orlando. In the love story, it represents the common device of a contest in which the lover impresses the beloved with his manly skills. Shakespeare not only parallels, but also frequently integrates his separate story sequences, as in this crossing of HU1 with R1. We find another case of this sort when Duke Frederick suggests that Orlando’s father sided with Duke Senior in Duke Frederick’s usurpation. This intertwining of HU1 and HU2 will be extended later in the play.

The third scene allows Rosalind and Celia to elaborate on Rosalind’s feelings for Orlando (thus R1). It also introduces the exile of Rosalind. This initially raises the possibility of Rosalind and Celia being separated. But Celia protests that “thou and I am one” and thus should not be “sund’red” (I.iii.95, 96). They therefore determine to go together into exile. Though little developed in what follows, this does introduce a second familial separation sequence (FS2), that between Celia and Duke Frederick.

Having introduced the exile of Rosalind and Celia, Shakespeare turns in II.i to the prior exiles of HU2—Duke Senior and his companions. An interesting element of this scene involves Jaques’s (reported) objection to hunting and his “weeping” over a deer that they have killed (II.i.65). Jaques “swears” that the hunters “do more usurp” than Duke Frederick (II.i.27). Here, Shakespeare draws on the model of the heroic prototype to consider hunting and tacitly analogizes Jaques’s grief (see II.i.26) to the remorse felt by the heroes in the heroic epilogue. This is then the first suggestion of the conversion motif, CM1. The motif will recur in the stories of Oliver and Frederick. It is an instance of Shakespeare’s multiplication of parallel story sequences and is not found in the source. As we will see, unlike the conversions of Oliver and Frederick, that of Jaques appears to concern promiscuity or hedonism, rather than usurpation; however, in this scene, Shakespeare connects Jaques’s conversion with usurpation in a way that appears very much like remorse.

The second scene of act two fundamentally serves to inform us that Rosalind and Celia have followed through on their plans to leave. It thereby establishes the separation of Duke Frederick and Celia, FS2. In his usual, tidy manner, Shakespeare moves in II.iii to the exile of Orlando, when faced with another assassination plot from his usurping brother. Finally, in II.iv, we see Rosalind, Celia, and Touchstone in the forest, simply shifting the narrational point of view regarding HU2, FS1, and FS2.

II.v serves to develop Jaques’s melancholy, which is consistent with his motivic role relating to remorse and conversion. and II.vii principally elaborate on the condition of the exiles of HU2. II.vii further integrates the story sequences of HU1 and HU2 by having the exiles—Orlando, Duke Senior, and so on—meet. This scene also includes some slight hints of Jaques’s backstory, that he lived riotously before he became somber and reflective (see II.vii.62-69). This too points toward a (subdued) motif of remorse and conversion (CM1), already hinted at in the report of Jaques’s grief over the deer (II.i.65).

The third act begins with a further integration of the two usurpation sequences, HU1 and HU2, as Frederick threatens Oliver with dispossession if he does not capture or kill Orlando. In terms of emplotment, this revives the suspense of HU1 as it poses a new threat to Orlando, whom we might otherwise have assumed to be out of danger. The second scene involves many elements, principally developing character, provoking mirth, and serving other purposes. For our interests, the second scene most importantly sets up the relation between Oliver and Ganymede. This sequence draws on a motif found in some romantic stories (such as Shakespeare’s own Cymbeline), where one of the lovers determines to test the sincerity and durability of the other’s affection, though it recasts that motif as a sort of open joke.[8] At times, however, the joke seems to shift into a nearly real seduction of the lover being tested.[9] 

By the beginning of the fourth act, the relation between Orlando and Rosalind—in the guise of Ganymede–almost appears to constitute another story of romantic love (R2).  Of course, this is not a different love story for Rosalind, who is continuously enamored of Orlando. The question concerns just what Orlando’s feelings might be for the person he identifies as Ganymede, not Rosalind. This is particularly significant as the relation between these two is developed somewhat differently in the source. At least in my reading, Lodge’s Orlando (there called “Rosader”) is more clearly playacting. Indeed, after their first recitation of poetry in the assumed roles, Rosader asserts the falsity of their pretense. Shakespeare makes their connection—a matter of wooing “every day” in her “cote” (III.ii.417)–more evidently romantic and thus ambiguous on Orlando’s side. For example, Orlando’s phrase, “fair youth” (III.ii.377) suggests an appreciation of Ganymede’s physical beauty, in contrast with Rosader’s “gentle swain” (Lodge). Orlando speaks directly to Rosalind/Ganymede of kissing her/him rather than merely talking (IV.i.68), whereas Rosader’s only reference to kissing occurs in a poem and refers (somewhat confusingly) to “Love” kissing “roses” (Lodge). In connection with this, there seems to be some bawdy ambiguity in Orlando’s plea to “have me” (IV.i.111) following Ganymede’s “more coming-on disposition” (IV.i.106-107), and his subsequent urging of Celia/Aliena, “Pray thee marry us” (IV.i.120). In contrast, when Lodge’s Aliena suggests a mock marriage, Rosader agrees and “laugh[s]”; moreover, the entire business is characterized as a “jesting match,” again stressing the distance between the people (Rosader and Ganymede) and the roles they are playing (Rosader and Rosalynde).

Punctuating the development of R2 (Orlando and Ganymede), Shakespeare indulges his penchant for parallel story sequences. One of these is drawn from the source. In III.v, we find the love triangle of Silvius, Phebe, and Ganymede (R3). Before this, in III.iii, we find the romantic story of Touchstone and Audry (R4), added by Shakespeare. This is a very minimal story in that the obstacles to their union seem to be largely a matter of getting the marriage ceremony set up. Though parallel with the story of Orlando and Rosalind (R1), both these stories are deromanticized. Phebe seems to have no interest in Silvius whatsoever. In the end, she marries him because she lost a bet. As to Touchstone and Audry, the former makes a mockery of the entire process from start to finish. This is not to say that their marriage is doomed. Touchstone is certainly sharp-tongued, but he seems fundamentally benevolent. Mockery is his profession; as he himself says, “we that have good wits have much to answer for. We must be flouting; we cannot hold” (V.i.11-12). The audience should probably not take that mockery too seriously with respect to his marriage. Nonetheless, we might infer from these cases that the romanticization of love may be mistaken—even in the case of Rosalind and Orlando (as well as Celia and Oliver, to which we will turn shortly). The idea is consistent with some suggestions of the larger organization in story trajectories, as we will see.That deromanticization may be suggested also by the odd scene, IV.ii, in which Jaques makes jokes about cuckoldry and horns—a tiresomely repetitive form of humor that Shakespeare incomprehensibly found irresistible.

The third scene of the fourth act resolves HU1. This occurs when Oliver’s life is endangered. Orlando is tempted by “revenge” (IV.iii.129), thus the violent response to usurpation, the usual development of the heroic plot. But he foregoes this response, saving his brother’s life. This leads to Oliver’s “conversion” (IV.iii.137). Thus, we have a second instance of the conversion motif (CM2), in this case operating not as an epilogue for the heroic story, but as the resolution to that story itself, a resolution that substitutes for the violence and destruction that would have given rise to the epilogue’s remorse. In How Authors’ Minds Make Stories, I argued that Shakespeare’s use of the heroic structure may allow a genuinely comic conclusion insofar as no irreversible loss—most obviously, death–has occurred. His ideal outcome appears to be a matter of forgiveness and reconciliation, not violent retribution.  (As Oliver puts it, “kindness” is “ever nobler than revenge” [IV.iii.129].) In this case, the main events and possible motives or outcomes (e.g., Rosader/Orlando taking “revenge”) are largely found in the source for the play. Moreover, in Lodge, Oliver (there called “Saladyne”) does experience remorse and a sort of conversion (cf. his resolution to do “penance” and be a pilgrim to “the Holy Land” [Lodge]). This does not make the point any less Shakespearean, since there must be aspects of a source work that drew Shakespeare to it initially. Moreover, in Shakespeare’s play, the motif recurs not only in HU1, but more importantly in HU2, the other heroic usurpation sequence, as we will see. Here, as elsewhere, the enhanced story symmetry or multiplication of story parallels is characteristic of Shakespeare, no less than the thematic preference.

This scene also introduces us to yet another love story (R5). This one is between Oliver and Celia. Moreover, in the typical, Shakespearean fashion, it is integrated with HU1, as it is allowed by the resolution of the brother conflict in that story.

The first scene of the final act develops the Touchstone-Audry love story (R4) by introducing and summarily dismissing a rival. The second scene elaborates on the Oliver-Celia romance (R5). That scene ends with a sort of cliffhanger bearing on the possible marriages in the stories R1 (Rosalind-Orlando), R3 (Phebe-Silvius), and R5 (Celia-Oliver). The following scene simply extends this cliffhanger to R4 (Touchstone-Audry).

The final scene resolves most of the story sequences in short order. Rosalind reveals her identity, which leads to her official reunion with her father and the resolution of the Silvius-Ganymede competition. This, in turn, enables the marriage of Silvius and Phebe, who are wed at the same time as Orlando and Rosalind, Touchstone and Audry, and Celia and Oliver. This resolves FS1, R3, R1, R4, and R5 simultaneously, leaving only HU2 (Duke Senior’s usurpation), FS2 (the separation of Celia and her father), and perhaps R2 (the [imaginary?] relation between Orlando and Ganymede).

Before going on to these, I should remark briefly on one peculiar aspect of the resolutions we have already treated. In Shakespeare’s play, Rosalind encounters her father well before she reveals herself to him (see III.iv.32-36). It is not at all clear why she did not reveal herself to her father when they first met.[10] The male disguise was supposedly for her and Celia’s protection (I.ii.106-120), though they did have a male companion in the form of Touchstone. But this is clearly unnecessary when her father and his retinue are present. The most obvious explanation has to do with her testing of Orlando. There may, however, be other possibilities, suggested by unresolved parts of the work. (We will return to this point.)

The Frederick-Senior usurpation story (HU2) is resolved in a striking departure from the source text. Specifically, Lodge presents us with a typical heroic resolution in which combat leads to the death of the usurper. But, in Shakespeare, the usurper is “converted” (V.iv.161) to a religious life. He abandons the world and returns the kingdom to the legitimate leader, Duke Senior. This is a third instance of the motif of conversion (CM3). Like the story of Oliver, it recalls the heroic epilogue, but in fact replaces the heroic ending, and thus avoids the violence that entails a remorseful epilogue. Moreover, in keeping with CM1, Jaques leaves the rejoicing society to join the converted Duke Frederick. Thus, two of the three “converts” (Frederick and Jaques) retreat from the world into spiritual pursuits. Indeed, the third convert, Oliver, though now married, has also determined to abandon wealth and worldly things to live a pastoral life with Celia (V.ii.12), aptly-named for Heaven.[11] These points are consistent with the generally critical attitude Shakespeare took toward heroic violence.[12] They suggest a thematic repudiation of revenge (by the usurped heroes) and an advocacy of moral self-examination (by the usurping villains). In terms of emotion, love, compassion, and remorse seem to be prized in these stories (HU1 and HU2), not the usual heroic sentiments of anger and pride. Indeed, in both cases, the resolution is more familial than heroic, as the alienated brothers are directly or indirectly reconciled.[13]

On the other hand, Duke Frederick does not rejoin the group and this reminds us that the second family separation story (FS2)—that of Celia and her father—remains unresolved. This may be merely an oversight on Shakespeare’s part. But I will conclude by considering another possibility which connects this unresolved separation with other peculiarities of these stories—the apparent romance of Orlando and Ganymede (R2), the delay of Rosalind in revealing her identity, and the emotionally unsatisfactory quality of the Silvius-Phebe resolution.

Specifically, Celia chooses to be separated from her father in order not to be “sund’red” from her “sweet girl,” Rosalind (I.iii.96), as “thou and I am one” (I.iii.95).[14] Removed from the identity and situation of the speakers, such an appeal would most obviously be taken to express romantic love. Hyperbole of this sort may of course found in friendship. In consequence, I do not wish to make too much of it on its own. But, in relation to the other unexplained or unresolved story sequence in the play—the hint of homoerotic feelings on the part of Orlando for Ganymede–it would appear reasonable to think of it as involving at least a suggestion of romance.[15] In this case, Rosalind would be the forbidden beloved; the separation of Rosalind and Celia would represent the separation of the lovers, and so on. Construed in this way, the exile of Celia is not most importantly part of a familial story, but of a semi-concealed romantic story (R6)—indeed, a romantic story that is relatively prototypical. Of course, in romantic works, parents and children are often reconciled eventually. The possibility of such a reconciliation remains open in this case, particularly given that both Celia and her father appear to be remaining in the forest. However, such a reunion is not so important to the romantic story as it would be to a family separation story; thus, its explicit articulation is less necessary.

As to the Silvius/Phebe/Ganymede story (R3), I suspect that most recipients of the play—audience members or readers–would agree that it is emotionally unresolved (even though we are given a narrative conclusion). There is, indeed, something almost distressing about Silvius and Phebe marrying for no apparent reason other than Phebe losing a wager. The future is hardly promising for either the husband or the wife, given this start to their union. One way of reading their wedding is not as a comic resolution of a Silvius/Phebe love story (where Ganymede is the rival), but as the tragic conclusion of a Phebe/Ganymede love story (where Silvius is the rival), thus R7. Moreover, it does not take a great deal of hermeneutic subtlety to see homoerotic elements here. Phebe’s radical change from a votary of Diana to one of Venus may have to do with the appeal of Ganymede’s presumably feminine features.[16]

Understood thus, the overall pattern of story resolution and non-resolution in the play might be taken to suggest something along the following lines. Orlando and Celia have both heterosexual and same-sex romantic feelings, represented in the hazy, uncertain R2 and R6. The heterosexual feelings (R1 and R5) are clear and explicit. The same-sex feelings, however, are unclear—suggested, but obscurely. It is precisely these implicit, indirectly acknowledged feelings that are sustained, in their ambiguous state, by the preservation of Rosalind’s disguise, itself made possible by her unexplained delay in revealing her identity to her father. It is also precisely these same-sex trajectories that remain unresolved, perhaps because they were unresolvable—either for social reasons or simply because some of our choices in life preclude the pursuit of other interests, or both.[17] A similar pattern is to be found in R3 and R7, the stories of Silvius, Phebe, and Ganymede/Rosalind. The difference here is that it is never clear Phebe has heterosexual feelings at all; related to this, the heterosexual story sequence (R3), though superficially resolved, is unsatisfying. It is resolved formally–in terms of what happens in the story, including Phebe’s statement about a (very speedy) change in her “fancy” (V.iv.150)[18]—but it is not really resolved emotionally, at least for any audience member who reflects on the marriage.

A Note on Future Research

A great deal of literary study involves the careful analysis or interpretation of individual works. Research on literary universals necessarily considers broad patterns beyond individual works. However, this does not mean that universals are irrelevant to particularistic analysis or interpretation. There is clearly a great deal of scope for future treatment of universal story structures and motifs in individual works. In addition, while focusing on story—thus, the actions and events that constitute “what happens” in As You Like It–I set aside the “discourse” aspects of the work, which is to say, the plot selection (what is presented from the story and when it is presented) and the manner of presentation (e.g., depicted onstage or reported by a character). Research on cross-cultural aspects of discourse too should prove a fruitful area for articulating general principles and for analyzing particular works.


We began with the question of to what extent the study of universals might contribute to our understanding of individual works in their particularity. I focused on story universals—genres and motifs—which allow us to isolate particular story trajectories and to consider the ways in which such trajectories repeat, specify, complete, integrate, or alter universals. Considering As You Like It in these terms, and in relation to Shakespeare’s source for the play, we were able to see some patterns in Shakespeare’s story style as well as some thematic concerns that may have been less clear, or even obscure, otherwise.

The stylistic patterns include the multiplication of parallel story sequences, sometimes with a systematic alteration, such as heavily ironic deromanticization, as in the Touchstone-Audry love story. They also include the causal intersection of distinct story lines. The multiplication may be an instance of a more abstract and universal stylistic technique of symmetry enhancement, which may apply not only to sequences of events, but to scenes, the structure of dramatic acts, the generation of characters, or such verbal practices as parallel phrasing.

The thematic concerns include Shakespeare’s preference for repentance and examination of conscience, or “conversion,” over revenge and violence—or, alternatively, his preference for familial reconciliation rather than heroic victory. Perhaps more significantly, somewhat unexpected patterns in the resolution and non-resolution of story sequences may suggest a subdued, partially denied concern with the place of same-sex romantic love in the lives of individuals and in the practices and possibilities offered by society.[19] In short, the preceding analysis suggests that the study of universals, though by its nature general, can and does have consequences for our understanding of particularity. That particularity includes style and theme. It also includes what some psychoanalytically-influenced critics refer to as “symptomatic” elements, concerns that haunt an author, but that he or she has not been able to work through in a systematic and clarifying manner, either for others or for himself or herself.

But that is not all. This examination of As You Like It suggests more general, theoretical ideas as well. Specifically, I take the general structure of the universal story prototypes to tell us something about the ways in which our emotions systems and our processes of simulation (or imagination) operate.[20] In its complex patterns of resolved and unresolved story sequences, As You Like Itindicates some further points about these systems and processes. Specifically, the preceding analysis suggests that we all are regularly engaged in multiple, simultaneous or alternating forms of simulation or imagination. These forms of simulation partially overlap, but also diverge from one another in some respects. Thus, Orlando has complex and various imaginations of Rosalind (whom he has apparently seen only briefly and in the past); these partially converge with his simulations of the features and behavior of Ganymede, as well as his possible interaction with Ganymede. (The same general points hold for other characters as well.)

These various simulations are necessarily interwoven with emotion, including attachment feelings and sexual desire. That interweaving is inevitable because simulation is motivated and emotion systems provide us with motives for both action and thought. The variability of our simulations is in part cognitive, but in part emotive, suggesting that we think of various people in often contradictory ways and emotionally respond to them in often ambivalent ways. Indeed, in some degree, we may respond to a given person as masculine in one context and as feminine in another context; perhaps there is even a sense in which we may sometimes tacitly respond to someone as alternatively male and female (not just masculine and feminine), even if we would never self-consciously affirm such variability.

Finally, some of these simulated trajectories (or imagined stories) may be resolved, while others are not open to resolution. That irresolvablility is sometimes social, as when same-sex union is not accepted. But it is sometimes personal or psychological, in the sense that one sometimes cannot in practice satisfy all one’s emotion systems and simulations. For example, Orlando cannot be united with both Ganymede and Rosalind; similarly, Phebe cannot have the socially acceptable union with Ganymede along with the socially unacceptable union with Rosalind. In a sense, then, none of these stories is fully resolved. But Orlando seems pretty well satisfied with Rosalind alone, thus giving his story a high degree of resolution. The situation is very different with Phebe.[21]


Works Cited

Booker, Christopher. The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories. New York: Bloomsbury, 2005.

Danson, Lawrence. “The Shakespeare Remix: Romance, Tragicomedy, and Shakespeare’s ‘Distinct Kind.’” In Guneratne, 101-118.

de Grazia, Margreta and Stanley Wells, eds. The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2001.

DiGangi, Mario. “Queering the Shakespearean Family.” Shakespeare Quarterly 47.3 (1996): 269-290.

Gilman, Albert, ed. As You Like It. New York: New American Library, 1986.

Guneratne, Anthony, ed. Shakespeare and Genre: From Early Modern Inheritances to Postmodern Legacies. New York: Palgrave, 2012.

Hogan, Patrick Colm. Affective Narratology: The Emotional Structure of Stories. Lincoln, NE: U of Nebraska P, 2011.

Hogan, Patrick Colm. How Authors’ Minds Make Stories. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2013.

Hogan, Patrick Colm.The Mind and Its Stories: Narrative Universals and Human Emotion. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2003.

Hogan, Patrick Colm. “Story.” The Literary Universals Project(2016),

Hope, Jonathan and Michael Witmore. “The Hundredth Psalm to the Tune of ‘Green Sleeves’: Digital Approaches to Shakespeare’s Language of Genre.” Shakespeare Quarterly 61 (2010): 357-390.

Lodge, Thomas. Rosalynde or, Euphues’ Golden Legacy. Ed. Edward Baldwin. Boston: Ginn, 1910. (Unpaginated Kindle edition.)

Marcus, Leah. “Anti-Conquest and As You Like It.” Shakespeare Studies 42 (2014): 170-195.

McEvoy, Sean.Shakespeare: The Basics. 3rded. New York: Routledge, 2012.

Nardizzi, Vin. “Shakespeare’s Queer Pastoral Ecology: Alienation around Arden.” ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment 23.3 (2016): 564–582.

Neely, Carol Thomas. Distracted Subjects: Madness and Gender in Shakespeare and Early Modern Culture. Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 2004.

Segal, Janna. “‘And Browner Than Her Brother’: ‘Misprized’ Celia’s Racial Identity and Transversality in As You Like It.” Shakespeare 4.1 (2008): 1-21.

Snyder, Susan. “The Genres of Shakespeare’s Plays.” In de Grazia and Wells, 83-97.

Shakespeare, William. As You Like It. In Gilman, 35-140.

Traub, Valerie. “Gender and Sexuality in Shakespeare.” In de Grazia and Wells, 129-146.

Wells, Stanley. Shakespeare, Sex, and Love. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2010.


[1] The latter book also includes some (admittedly brief) references to other work in narrative theory (Greimas, Propp, Genette, and others) in relation to the study of emotion and story universals.

[2] For a clarifying, historical account of the traditional genre classification, see Snyder.

[3] Danson goes so far as to say that “the mixed mode is the Shakespearean default mode” (102).One referee for this essay suggested that the traditional classification has perhaps been supported by the statistical analyses of Hope and Witmore. Since this essay is not about the classification scheme for Shakespeare’s plays (being an interpretive analysis of one play), I cannot treat the issue at length here. However, it is worth making three points. First, my claim here is about story structures, specifically that the best way to categorize the story structure of the plays is by reference to the cross-cultural genres. There could of course be other patterns to the plays, depending on the period when they were written, the sceneswhere they are located, or other variables. Second, Hope and Witmore do not in fact find that stylistic features perfectly align with traditional genres. For example, they find “the early history plays massing in one part of the diagram” and “the later history plays, along with some of the tragedies, clustering in another” (390). Finally, even Hope and Witmore findapparent anomalies. For example, Othello clusters with comedies. This is, of course,not because it has a happy ending or makes us laugh. It is, however, related to the fact that most of the works traditionally categorized as comedies are at least in part romantic works (in the cross-cultural scheme)—and so is Othello. In this respect, then, the cross-cultural scheme may fit even Hope and Witmore’s analysis better than the traditional categories that Hope and Witmore presuppose.

[4] By “theme,” I mean implications of the play that are designed to systematically affect the audience’s thought about or response to the real world, the world outside the theater—for example, their judgments about political events. However, by “designed,” I do not mean that the author has self-consciously articulated a thematic concern to himself or herself. Rather, I take it that authors have some sense of whether a particular version of the work is “right,” thus whether it seems likely to produce the (implicitly and often vaguely) desired effects. But the author need not be able to articulate those effects, and may even be mistaken if he or she undertakes to do so. Theme is that part of the desired effects that bears systematically on the audience’s thought about or response to the real world.

[5] One referee worried that my “approach” to motifs differs from that in folklore studies and that I should make this clear. In fact, I would not say that I am treating the same category of object as folklorists, but adopting a different theory. Rather, I am simply using the word “motif” in this particular manner. It is true that my usage is related to my theory of narrative universals (e.g., the motif of the quest is bound up with my account of how space is organized in stories). But the fact that I am using the same term as another writer does not mean that we are talking about the same object. Indeed, that is the point of defining how I use the term, “motif.”

[6] See, for example, chapter four of Booker.

[7] For the most part, the similarities and differences between Shakespeare’s play and Lodge’s work are not consequential for the main purpose of the present essay. The study of universals is or not significant for our interpretation and analysis of individual works—either Shakespeare’s or Lodge’s—independent of whether a particular event is or is not shared by the two of those works. After all, a particular event in Shakespeare’s play is there and bears on interpreting the play, whether Shakespeare got the idea for it from Lodge, some biographical experiences, a free associative process, or something else. On the other hand, the relation between Shakespeare’s and Lodge’s works is important for other considerations, such as claims about Shakespeare’s style or about distinctive features of either work.

[8] The relevance of this motif is perhaps more evident in the source, where Ganymede expresses doubt about whether Rosader/Orlando is “deeply enamoured” of Rosalynde (Lodge), and urges him to turn his attention toward Alinda/Celia instead.

[9] The homoerotic quality of this relation has, of course, been developed by directors and analyzed by critics. For an account of a particularly influential staging of the play, see McEvoy (78-82). As to critics, Wells for example summarizes a common view, writing that “Shakespeare shows us Orlando becoming confused between desire for an imaginary Rosalind and for the boy Ganymede whom the real Rosalind impersonates. It is an ambivalence that would have been enhanced when the real Rosalind was played by a boy, and that would have been signaled and emphasized by the use of the name ‘Ganymede,’ a common term for a man’s young male sexual partner” (106-107). However, as far as I am aware, such analysis has not been developed in relation to prototypical story sequences and their associated expectations. Indeed, the theoretical context for such readings has been very different, as suggested by Segal’s brief summary statement that “As You Like It has become a centrepiece in feminist and/or queer discussions concerning early modern English gender and sexual prescriptions and the theatre’s role in contesting or reconsolidating a patriarchal and/or heteronormative social structure” (1). To some extent, the present reading contests such analyses, in that it does not construe the thematic or emotional points at issue in the same terms; however, I take it that the present analysis is more often complementary to such feminist and queer interpretations.

[10] In Lodge, there is a problem also, though it is slightly attenuated. Upon meeting her father, Rosalynde soon reveals herself. But it is not clear why she does not seek to meet him earlier, since she learns of his whereabouts from Rosader/Orlando, who explains that he is living in the company of “the unfortunate Gerismond [Senior]” (Lodge).

[11] Jay Farness pointed out to me that there is some ambiguity as to whether or not Oliver will follow through on this resolution in the changed circumstances of the ending. Jaques does suggest that Oliver will be returning to his lands (V.iv.189). But the counter-argument here is that Jaques has no reason to know about Oliver’s intentions. Moreover, Oliver had said that he was handing over the family estate to Orlando; this indicates that he was opting for the pastoral life even if he could return to the estate (V.ii.10-12), in which case the changed circumstances should not matter.

[12] With the exception of Henry V; see Hogan, How 56-58.

[13] Other critics have noted that there is something un-heroic and un-military about Shakespeare’s play. For example, Marcus interprets the play as involving a critique of colonialism, with Jaques as a sort of repudiated colonial figure. I obviously believe Marcus was onto something. However, by relating the story sequences of the play to cross-cultural prototypes, I have come to a much different interpretation of these un-heroic aspects of the play, and of Jaques’s retreat at the end. I take it that my interpretation is incompatible with Marcus’s view of Jaques, but it is at least potentially compatible with her more significant claims about anti-colonialism.

[14] This echoes Celia’s/Alinda’s even more suggestive assertion in the source that the two share “a secret love” and that they “have two bodies and one soul” (Lodge).

[15] This has been stressed by some recent critics, though (again) in a different theoretical context, which leads to different development of the shared idea (see, for example, Nardizzi).

[16] This is clearer in Lodge, through Phoebe’s stress on Ganymede’s “beauty.”

[17] Again, prior critics have recognized the homoerotic elements in the play; however, they have not analyzed these elements in relation to the genre of particular story sequences. In part for this reason, and in part because their theoretical presuppositions are very different from my own, their conclusions about these elements is often quite different from mine. For example, in a pathbreaking essay, DiGangi maintains that “the marriages succeed to the extent that premarital female homoerotic desire and post-marital male homoerotic desire have been successfully banished” (271). My view is rather that most of the characters in the play have some degree of bisexual desire, manifest in different romantic storylines, more or less following a romantic prototype; however, social constraints and the limitations imposed by life choices prevent the homoerotic storylines from reaching a resolution. This leads to unresolved heteroerotic storylines only in the case of Phebe, for in her case the heteroerotic storyline is not reciprocal; again, she has been married off to the undesired rival, not the beloved. Despite these and other differences, however, I believe that the present reading is more complementary to DiGangi’s than contradictory of it. Certainly, his highly informative treatment of the literary and social history that contextualize Shakespeare’s play adds greatly to our understanding of same-sex desire in the play, and it does so in a way that would not really be possible for an interpretation based solely on literary universals. On the other hand, the point of the present essay is not that interpretation based on literary universals is sufficient or complete, merely that it provides insights not readily available otherwise.

[18] Some critics have seen such swift alterations as part of the play’s “destabilizing” of hegemonic norms of gender and sexuality. Though I am very skeptical of such a conclusion on this particular point, it is clear that the play can serve to challenge some rigid assumptions about gender and sexuality (for a nuanced discussion of this topic, see chapter four of Neely).

[19] Of course, this analysis in terms of particular, same-sex, romantic storylines can be developed only if one first recognizes that “homoerotic desire is evinced in Shakespeare’s plays” (Traub 142). But this initial recognition seems to be more a matter of not suppressing relatively clear indications, rather than one of particular hermeneutic insight.

[20] I have treated these topics at length in The Mindand Howrespectively.

[21] An earlier version of this essay was part of the seminar on As You Like It seminar of the 2019 annual convention of the Shakespeare Association of America. I am grateful to the seminar participants for their comments, questions, and suggestions.

Phonetic Symbolism: Double-Edgedness and Aspect-Switching

Reuven Tsur, Tel Aviv University and Chen Gafni, Bar-Ilan University

This article proposes a structuralist-cognitive approach to phonetic symbolism that conceives of it as of a flexible process of feature abstraction, combination, and comparison.[1] It is opposed to an approach that treats phonetic symbolism as “fixed relationships” between sound and meaning. We conceive of speech sounds as of bundles of acoustic, articulatory and phonological features that may generate a wide range of, sometimes conflicting, perceptual qualities. Different relevant qualities of a given speech sound are selected by the meaning across lexical items and poetic contexts. Importantly, speech sounds can suggest only elementary percepts, not complex meanings or emotions. Associations of speech sounds with specific meanings are achieved by extraction of abstract features from the speech sounds. These features, in turn, can be combined and contrasted with abstract features extracted from other sensory and mental objects (e.g. images, emotions). The potential of speech sounds to generate multiple perceptual qualities is termed double-edgedness, and we assume that the cognitive mechanism allowing us to attend to various aspects of the same speech sound is Wittgenstein’s aspect-switching.

We discuss examples of phonetic symbolism in poetry, lexical items across languages, and laboratory experiments, and show how they can be accounted for in a unified way by our cognitive theory. Moreover, our theory can accommodate conflicting findings reported in the literature, e.g. regarding the emotional qualities associated with plosive and nasal consonants.  Crucially, the theory is scalable and can account for general trends in poetry and lexical semantics, as well as more local poetic effects. Thus, the proposed theory can generate predictions that are testable both in laboratory experiments and in formal literary analysis.



Many current studies in phonetic symbolism begin with a list of recent works on phonetic iconicity, that allegedly challenge de Saussure’s arbitrariness conception of the linguistic sign, followed by a series of experiments that establish a statistical relationship between phonemes (or groups of phonemes) and meanings or emotional qualities. In these works iconicity is assumed to be somehow given; very few of them go systematically into the structural relationship between the phonemes and the meaning or emotional qualities. In this practice, we strongly disagree with them on three issues.

First, we argue that literary phonetic symbolism does not challenge the arbitrariness hypothesis, but rather confirms it: sound-symbolic effects are attributed to verbal constructs after the event. Second, we believe that research based on stimulus–response questionnaires is, in itself, unsatisfactory. A cognitive approach should include a hypothesis, based on cognitive and linguistic research, to account for the structures in our mind that mediate between stimulus and response. Third, many of those stimulus–response studies take it for granted that rigorous quantitative analysis is the only valid way to evaluate empirical data. Furthermore, many such studies are interested only in global, gross effects (e.g. whether the frequencies of certain phoneme groups alone can account for the perception of poems as ‘happy’ or ‘sad’). We have pointed out a welter of incongruent statistical results in phonetic symbolism (Tsur & Gafni, forthcoming). The confusion in this domain originates in the neglect of a systematic theoretical framework. This neglect may manifest, among other things, in failure to treat sound–meaning relationships at a sufficiently fine-grained level, insufficient awareness of the complexity of the subject matter, as well as confusion whether sound-symbolic effects are motivated by acoustic, articulatory or phonological aspects of speech sounds.

The aim of this article is to present a comprehensive theoretical and analytic approach to sound–emotion relationships in poetry. At the basis of our investigation are earlier works by Benjamin Hrushovski (“interaction view”; 1980) and Iván Fónagy (“Communication in Poetry”; 1961), followed by Tsur’s work in the nineteen-eighties. Both Hrushovski and Fónagy revealed, by different methods, important relationships between speech sounds and their perceived effects.

In a structuralist theoretical discussion of sound–meaning relationships in poetry, Hrushovski explored the complexity of the subject, pointing out sources of complexity, of which we shall discuss here only one: what we call the “double-edgedness” of sibilants: that in some contexts they may express noise of varying intensity, in some — a hushing quality. Alternatively, they may be “neutral”, not related to “meaning” or attitudes at all. Consider the following excerpts:


  1. When to the sessions of sweet silent thought

       I summon up remembrance of things past,

       I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought

       And with old woes new wail my dear time’s waste

       (Shakespeare, “Sonnet 30”)


  1. And the silken, sad, uncertain rustling of each purple curtain

       Thrilled me — filled me with fantastic terrors never felt before;

       So that now, to still the beating of my heart, I stood repeating,

       “‘Tis some visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door —

       Some late visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door; —

       This it is and nothing more.”

       (E.A. Poe, “The Raven”)


  1. [ . . ] the deep sea swell

       [ .. .] A current under sea

       Picked his bones in whispers,

       (T. S. Eliot, “The Wasteland,” IV)


  1. And swell renews the salt savour of the sandy earth

(T. S. Eliot, “Ash Wednesday”)


In Excerpt 1, the sibilants have a hushing quality; in Excerpt 2, they imitate the rustling of the curtains. In Excerpt 3 “there is a transition from the powerful noise of a sea swell to the sound of whispers”. In Excerpt 4, in the “patterning of sibilants hardly a trace of either sound or silence remains” (Hrushovski, 1980: 41). Hrushovski (following Kreuzer, 1955) takes it for granted that in Excerpt 1 the sibilants have a hushing effect. Intuitively this seems right. He also argues that this hushing quality focuses the sound pattern on the meaning of the words “sweet silent”. But he does not explain what it is in the sibilants that invests them with this hushing quality. We shall explore, on a more fine-grained level, how they can express such opposite qualities.

In his “Communication in Poetry”, Fónagy examined the relative frequency of phonemes in six especially tender poems and six especially aggressive poems by four poets in three languages (Hungarian, German and French). Most phonemes occur with the same frequency as in general; but the nasals and liquid [m, n, l] occur more frequently in the tender poems in all three languages, whereas the voiceless plosives [k, t] occur more frequently in the aggressive poems. [r] is aggressive in Hungarian and to some extent in German, but not in French. His method is used today frequently in research, but Fónagy’s use differs from the more recent uses in several respects. Most importantly, he did not assume some rigid iconic relationships between specific speech sounds and emotions where one may predict the emotional quality of the poem from the recurring speech sounds, as some present-day researchers do (e.g. Auracher, Albers, Zhai, Gareeva, & Stavniychuk, 2011). Rather, he probed into the possibility that there may be some significant correlation between pairs of opposite emotional qualities and pairs of opposite phonemes (or groups of phonemes). This was a ground-breaking idea at his time. He did not regard his findings as the “inmost, natural similarity association between sound and meaning” (Jakobson & Waugh, 2002: 182), but as possible examples for a principle.

Tsur, in his earlier works (e.g. Tsur, 1992), went one step further beyond Hrushovski’s and Fónagy’s works. For instance, Hrushovski defines expressive sound patternsas follows: “a certain tone or expressive quality abstracted from the sounds or sound combinations is perceived to represent a certain mood or tone abstracted from the domain of meaning”. Tsur asked the question, how can “a certain tone or expressive quality [be] abstracted from sounds or sound combinations”. In his answers, he relied on distinctive features, and on speech research done mainly at the Haskins Laboratories. The present article provides the answers to such questions as part of a comprehensive theory.


Cognitive Theory

Structural Model of Speech Sounds

In this article, we shall point out the complexity of phonetic symbolism at several levels, and propose a cognitive mechanism that may handle it. The basis for our theoretical account is a structural model of speech sounds: we assume that speech sounds are bundles of features, on the acoustic, articulatory and phonological levels, and that the various features may have different expressive potentials. Thus, we claim that the various phenomena related to phonetic symbolism result from the way speech sounds are coded and organized in our mental database. Here, we focus on the features of consonants.

Consonants can be abrupt: plosives (p, t, k, b, d, g) or affricates (as ts [in tsar), dž [in John or George], or pf [in German pfuj]); or, they may be continuous, as nasals (m, n), liquids (l, r), glides (w [as in wield], or y [as in yield]); or fricatives (f, v, s, š [as in shield]).[2] Continuous sounds may be periodic (nasals, liquids, glides) or aperiodic (fricatives). In periodic sounds, the same wave form is repeated indefinitely, while aperiodic sounds consist of streams of irregular sound stimuli. Consonants can be unvoiced or voiced. All nasals, liquids and glides are voiced by default. Voiced plosives, fricatives and affricates (e.g. b, v, ž, and dž) consist, acoustically, of their unvoiced counterpart plus a stream of periodic voicing. These are objective descriptions of the consonants; all language-users have strong intuitions about them, but frequently they cannot put their finger on precisely what is the object of their intuition.

The structural model described above organises consonants in our mental database in terms of acoustic features. We believe that it is the acoustic level that best accounts for the emotional and imitative aspects of sound-symbolic effects (see also: Aryani, Conrad, Schmidtke, & Jacobs, 2018; Knoeferle, Li, Maggioni, & Spence, 2017; Marks, 1975; Ohtake & Haryu, 2013; Ultan, 1978). Accordingly, we will use this organisation to account for evidence in the study of phonetic symbolism. Note that the proposed model relies on categorical acoustics features (e.g. abrupt/continuous). However, some studies explain phonetic symbolism in terms of continuous acoustic features, such as pitch and intensity (Aryani et al., 2018; Knoeferle et al., 2017). Here we assume a categorical acoustic theory of phonetic symbolism, but keep in mind that a continuous theory of phonetic symbolism can be perfectly consistent with ours.

We should note that there are additional theories of phonetic symbolism (see review in Dingemanse, Blasi, Lupyan, Christiansen, & Monaghan, 2015). Like the above-mentioned acoustic theories, articulatory theories of phonetic symbolism assume that there is an iconic relation between sound and meaning. However, while acoustic theories assume a direct mapping of acoustic features, articulatory theories assume that iconicity stems from articulatory sensations, such as the size of the oral cavity (A. Fischer, 1999). Finally, phonological-distributional theories attribute phonetic symbolism to systematicity. According to such theories, phonological regularities in the lexicon cue non-arbitrary mappings between sound and meaning, e.g. different distributions of consonants in nouns and verbs (Monaghan, Christiansen, & Chater, 2007). Importantly, symbolic relations resulting from statistical regularities in the lexicon are language-specific (and, in a sense, arbitrary), although some of them can be grounded in perception or articulation. According to our conception, phonetic symbolism is triggered by acoustic features, articulatory features, and phonological regularities, in descending order of importance.


The Expressive Potential of Speech Sounds: Double-Edgedness and Aspect-Switching

The structure of speech sounds determines their expressive potentials. Just a few hints: Periodic consonants are more like music, aperiodic consonants more like inarticulate noise; this difference affects their expressive potentials, smooth or rough to some extent or other. This can explain why some studies found that “tender emotions” or their hyponyms are best expressed by periodic consonants. In gestaltist terms, plosives have sharply-defined boundaries, and are perceived as less penetrable and “harder” than continuants. At the same time, they consist of energy transmitted outward as a shockwave, and so forth. Thus, they have various perceptual potentials: in changing contexts, listeners may switch between passive hardness and active shockwaves. Voiced stops are ambiguous: they consist of an abrupt plosive plus voicing, that is periodic. In the perceived quality of voiced plosives, the voicing stream may add resonance to the plosive element, or a more massive presence. Thus, in empirical tests, participants may give at least two systematically different responses to plosives in general, and additional two systematically different responses to voiced plosives.

One of the main questions in the study of phonetic symbolism is how the same speech sounds give rise to fundamentally different effects. We attribute this flexible affective potential of speech sounds to what we call double-edgedness[3]: speech sounds have multiple features, each having its own expressive potential. In any given context, the expressive potential of one feature can be emphasized at the expense of the potentials associated with the other features. The cognitive mechanism to handle changing sound effects and relationships, we claim, is Wittgenstein’s (1976) aspect-switching.[4] According to Wittgenstein, aspect-switching is the capability of understanding the request “pronounce the word ‘till’ and mean it as a verb or a preposition, or the word ‘March’ and mean it as a month name or an imperative verb” (1976: 214e). In the present context, aspect-switching is the capability of attending to different features of the same phones. Here we will demonstrate the notions of double-edgedness and aspect-switching in relation to two classes of speech sounds: voiced plosives and voiceless fricatives ([f] and the sibilants ([s] and [š]).[5]

We have argued that voiced plosives are ambiguous: they consist of an abrupt plosion plus voicing, that is continuous and periodic; consequently, they are double-edged. In the perceived quality of voiced plosives, the voicing stream may add resonance to the plosive element or a more massive presence. In physical terms, we define ‘resonant’ as ‘tending to reinforce or prolong sounds, especially by synchronous vibration; full-bodied, vibrant’; in phonetic terms, as ‘where intense precategorical auditory information lingers in short-term memory’. In the ‘tender’ context, the voiced stops [d] and [g] seem to have a fuller, richer, more resonant, more rounded body. The ‘tender’ context seems to increase the share of the periodic ‘voiced’ feature in them. By contrast, in the ‘angry’ context, they are perceived as more compact and abrupt unitary speech sound.

Hrushovski points out that sibilants may both induce a hushing psychological atmosphere, or may imitate noises of varying intensity. How can sibilants express hushing or noise? We claim that the double-edgedness of sibilants is related to different aspects of the same noises. Sibilants are continuous but not periodic, a stream of irregular noises. We propose to point out three different perceptual potentials in this structure: it is perceived as fluid, as fricative (rough) or as unpredictable (and as such, threatening). The tender or hushing quality of [s, š] may have to do with their fluidity aspect. The Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary defines ‘fluid’ as “having particles that easily move and change their relative position without a separation of the mass; capable of flowing; subject to change or movement; characterized by a smooth easy style”. This physical description of liquid substances (e.g. hot pitch) draws attention to two apparently contradicting aspects: their smoothly-moving overall mass and their particles that are easily moving and relatively changing their position. This is a convenient metaphor for the contradictory effects of the voiceless sibilants (and of [f]). Language users switch between these two aspects, according to the context. When a mother hushes her baby by sounding a prolonged [š], they both attend to the smoothly-moving mass of the fluid ššššš.

The “noisy” quality of voiceless sibilants and [f] is likely related to their fricative (or aperiodic) aspect. “Fricative” denotes a type of consonant made by the friction of breath in a narrow opening, producing a turbulent air flow. In “And the silken, sad, uncertain rustling of each purple curtain”, listeners attend to the randomly changing particles of the fricatives, imitating noise. Thus, different meanings may foreground a smooth or a turbulent aspect of fricatives.


Encodedness of Speech Sounds and Modes of Speech Perception

So far, we seemed to have taken for granted that speech sounds have expressive potential and that listeners are able to switch between different potentials. Yet, we have not explained how these expressive potentials are perceived and how they are related to the primary use of speech sounds – conveying lexical meaning. In short, we claim that the two functions of speech sounds are related to different modes of auditory perception. Liberman and his colleagues (e.g. Liberman & Mattingly, 1985) distinguish between the speech mode and the non-speech mode. In the auditory, or non-speech mode, we hear, as in the sonar, the sound shape as shown by the machine. In the phonetic, or speech mode, listeners hear speech sounds categorically, i.e. as unitary phonemes. In this mode, speech sounds are typically encoded: the precategorical acoustic information that transmits the speech sounds is restructured into an abstract phonetic category and excluded from consciousness. Tsur (1992) assumes that there is a third, poetic mode of speech perception. In the “poetic” mode, some of the precategorical sound information reaches awareness from behind the unitary linguistic category. We claim that attending to this precategorical auditory information is what enables listeners to attribute emotional effects to speech sounds independently of semantic effects. Moreover, we claim that whether precategorical auditory information can reach awareness depends on the degree of encodedness of speech sounds.

Consonants are encoded to varying degrees, that is to say, in some consonants one may consciously perceive only a hard and fast category, not the precategorical auditory information that transmitted it. Voiceless plosives are “thoroughly encoded”, that is, no precategorical acoustic information reaches awareness (hence compact, tight, and solid in perception). Voiced plosives are also highly encoded. For example, if you ask “which one is acoustically higher, [ba], [da], or [ga]”, most people will answer that they don’t know what you are talking about.

However, in some consonants, some of the precategorical auditory information does reach awareness. If you ask which one is higher [s] or [š] most people will easily answer that [s] is higher. This is because some of the precategorical sound information does reach awareness from behind the unitary speech category. In other words, voiceless sibilants are less encoded than plosives. In sibilant continuants, more of the rich precategorical information is available than in most of the consonants, and is more apt to draw attention than in nasals or glides, for instance. This may explain how very different perceptual qualities can be associated with voiceless sibilants.

The foregoing discussion on encodedness can benefit from an interesting analogy from personality psychology. Psychologists of perception-and-personality put forward a series of personality dichotomies, such as levelers and sharpeners, or rigid and flexible: one pole tends to be more rigid, the other more flexible. Persons at the rigid pole tend to be intolerant of meaningless sense perceptions, as the following paragraph by Richard Ohmann may indicate:

The leveler is more anxious to categorize sensations and less willing to give up a category once he has established it. Red is red, and there’s an end on’t. He levels (suppresses) differences and emphasizes similarities in the interest of perceptual stability. For him the unique, unclassifiable sensation is particularly offensive, while the sharpener at least tolerates such anomalies, and may actually seek out ambiguity and variability of classification. (Ohmann, 1970: 231)

Briefly, categories afford greater perceptual stability; readiness to abandon oneself to unique, unclassifiable sensations suggests greater emotional receptiveness. Tender attitudes are characterized by openness to rich sensory information; rigid attitudes tend to cling to abstract categories. Going back to the double-edgedness of sibilants: as opposed to the rigid linguistic category, the stream of rich precategorical auditory information available in [š] has a flexible, soothing effect, and babies seem to be sensitive to it.[6] Thus, the tender or hushing quality of [s, š] may have to do with their fluidity aspect, treated as unique, unclassifiable sensations in the stream of rich precategorical auditory information. The “noisy” quality of these sibilants springs from the aperiodic nature of the very same sensory information, a stream of irregular noises; we are switching from one aspect to another of the auditory stream.


Phonetic Symbolism in the Lexicon and in Poetry

In this section, we will demonstrate how our cognitive model can account for cases of phonetic symbolism found in the lexicons of various languages and in literary pieces.


Phonetic Symbolism in the Lexicon

The claim Tsur has elaborated in his 1992 book (Tsur, 1992)[7] is that in different contexts, different potentials of the various features of the same sounds may be realized. Thus, for instance, the sibilants [s] and [š] may have at some level of description features with noisy potentials, as well as features with hushing potentials. Evidence for these opposite potentials can be found cross-linguistically in lexical items related to both silence and noise. In such lexical items, the meaning picks out the appropriate meaning potential from a number of meaning potentials of its speech sounds. For example, in English, ‘silence’, ‘hush’, ‘still’, but also ‘rustle’, ‘shout’ and ‘scream’ contain sibilants; the German words for silence are Stille and Schweigen; in Hebrew, two words for silence contain sibilants, šɛkɛt, has; in Japanese, Shizukesa means something like ‘calmness’, ‘tranquillity’ or ‘stillness’; in Chinese, sùjìng means ‘silence, solemnly silent, peaceful’, while shāshā and shēng mean ‘rustle’. In Hungarian, the word for silence is csend, beginning with the affricate [tš], csitt! means ‘whisht!’, kuss! means ‘shut up!’, ‘zaj’, ‘nesz’ mean noise, the verbs suhog, susogzörg mean ‘rustle’, and pisszen in negative sentences suggests ‘slightest noise’ (‘does not make even the slightest noise’).


Literary Phonetic Symbolism

As we said in the introduction, many scholars take phonetic symbolism as counter evidence for the arbitrariness of the relation between sound and meaning. Our approach to the question of arbitrariness can be exemplified by the first line of Excerpt 2, repeated here.


  1. And the silken, sad, uncertain rustling of each purple curtain

       Thrilled me — filled me with fantastic terrors never felt before;

       So that now, to still the beating of my heart, I stood repeating,

       “‘Tis some visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door —

       Some late visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door; —

       This it is and nothing more.”

       (E.A. Poe, “The Raven”)


The word “rustling” involves onomatopoeia proper. In the string “silken, sad, uncertain”, the alliterating speech sounds are arbitrary; only after the event they become non-arbitrary icons of the noise. It is only the unforeseeable combinations of symbolic language that afford the generation of this sound effect. It does not challenge de Saussure’s “arbitrariness” conception, but rather, supports it. Yet, even in literary phonetic symbolism, it is not the case that “anything goes”. In the next paragraph, we will apply the proposed cognitive theory to account for what may seem like arbitrary use of phonetic symbolism in poetry.

The double-edgedness of voiced plosives can explain one of Fónagy’s most intriguing findings regarding the relative frequency of /g/ and /d/ in Victor Hugo’s and Paul Verlaine’s poems. /g/ occurs over one and a half times more frequently in Verlaine’s tender poems than in his angry ones (1.63:1.07), whereas we find almost the reverse proportion in Hugo’s poems: 0.96% in his tender poems, and 1.35% in his angry ones. As to /d/, again, the same sound has opposite emotional tendencies for the two poets, but with reverse effects. For Verlaine it has a basically aggressive quality (7.93:10.11), whereas for Hugo it has a basically tender quality (7.09:5.76) – again, in almost the same reverse proportion.

There are two ways to account for this discrepancy between Hugo’s and Verlaine’s handling of the emotional quality of [d] and [g]. One possibility is that it is sheer arbitrary, idiosyncratic attribution of emotional qualities to the phonemes that has nothing to do with systematic phonetic symbolism: that anything goes, provided that it is statistically significant. Another possibility is that Hugo and Verlaine make use of the afore-said universal ambiguous structure of voiced plosives combined with aspect-switching. In Wittgenstein’s terminology, we may rephrase the request “pronounce the phoneme /d/” as “pronounce the phoneme /d/, and attend to the massive presence bestowed on it by voicing, or to the resonance of voicing”. In all instances the pronunciation is the same; there is a mental shift.[8] If you attend to the massive-presence aspect of /g/ or /d/, they may have a strong aggressive potential; if you attend to their resonant aspect, they may contribute to a tender quality. Obviously, Hugo and Verlaine applied the same cognitive mechanism to these voiced stops, but with a reverse focus. This finding supports our claim that sound symbolism relies on sometimes conflicting latent qualities, and the poet has freedom which one to realize. Obviously, the voiced plosives [d] and [g] have two conflicting potentials each, and the two poets realized them in opposing ways. Thus, the poets’ preferences are idiosyncratic, but rely on an objectively describable ambiguity.


Phonetic Symbolism in the Laboratory

In this section, we describe results of laboratory experiments related to the issue of phonetic symbolism. We discuss studies demonstrating the cognitive mechanisms assumed to underlie phonetic symbolism, as well as studies directly related to phonetic symbolism. The results of these experiments will be discussed in relation to the cognitive model proposed in this article


Experimental Evidence for the Cognitive Model Underlying Phonetic Symbolism

There is rich experimental evidence for aspect-switching in speech perception, namely that speakers are capable of switching between hearing a speech sound as a unitary phoneme or a phoneme plus precategorical information.[9] Repp (1981) found that subjects could be trained to perceive some of the precategorical sensory information behind a s–š continuum. In this study, subjects listened to pairs of SV stimuli, where S was a synthesised fricative along the s–š continuum (7 artificial categories with different spectral properties), and V was a vowel ([a] or [u]) isolated from natural speech. The task was to decide whether the fricatives in a pair were identical or different, disregarding the vocalic context. It was found that most participants performed poorly at this task and their responses relied mostly on whether the vocalic contexts were similar or different across the stimuli in the pair. Such performance pattern was referred to as categorical perception, and it was attributed to the lack of ability to segregate the fricative noise from the vocalic context. However, after some training that included listening to the isolated fricatives, most participants improved significantly in the discrimination task in a vocalic context; that is, they were able to focus on the acoustic properties of the fricative noise. This pattern of performance was referred to as noncategorical perception. Thus, there is evidence that listeners are able to switch between modes (or aspects) of speech perception.

There is also compelling experimental evidence that listeners have subliminal access to precategorical auditory information in identifying voiced (but not voiceless) plosives. In a series of meticulously controlled experiments, Louis C. W. Pols (1986) presented subjects with spoken Dutch sentences or with vowel-plosive-vowel segments isolated from the spoken sentences. The recorded stimuli were modified in several ways, including deletion of the plosive burst and deletion of the transition between the plosive and one or both of the surrounding vowels (deletion means replacing the modified section with a silent interval of the same duration). The task was to identify the plosive out of several candidates. It was found that in natural sentences (as opposed to isolated VCV segments) the burst is less important than the vocalic formant transitions for the identification of voiced plosives (but not of voiceless plosives) (p. 149–150).[10] Thus, the perception of the formant structure is not merely possible, but necessary for the identification of plosives.

We further investigated the idea that people have access to pre-categorical features of speech sounds in a pre-aesthetic experiment (Gafni & Tsur, forthcoming). We asked participants to read out loud pairs of consonant-vowel sequences (e.g. maba) and compare the consonants on various bipolar perceptual scales (e.g. whether sounds smoother and sounds jerkier, or vice versa). Our experiment was designed specifically to test the hypothesis that voiced plosives are double-edged by contrasting them with voiceless plosives, on the one hand, and with nasals, on the other hand. Our hypothesis was largely supported. On the smoothness scale, we obtained a three-way contrast that was statistically significant: nasals were perceived smoother than voiced plosives that, in turn, were perceived as smoother than voiceless plosives. On other scales, we obtained only partial contrasts (possibly due to lack of statistical power): nasals were perceived as having fuzzier boundaries than voiced plosives that, in turn, were perceived as having fuzzier boundaries than voiceless plosives. However, the latter contrast was only ‘near significant’. In addition, we received two one-sided contrasts: first, voiced plosives were perceived as harder than nasals, but voiceless plosives were not perceived as harder than voiced plosives. Second, voiced plosives were perceived as thicker than voiceless plosives, but nasals were not perceived as thicker than voiced plosives. Whether these imperfect results reflect the true state-of-affairs or not, they clearly demonstrate that voiced plosives are perceptually ambiguous: in certain contexts, they contrast with nasals and, in others, with voiceless plosives.

Our experiment also yielded a puzzling finding. Voiced plosives were perceived as having more resonance than voiceless plosives, though the result was only near significant. This was well expected. However, contrary to expectation, voiced plosives were also perceived as having more resonance than nasals (the result fell short of statistical significance after correction for multiple comparisons).[11] A simple explanation for this unexpected result is that the task was not clear to the participants. As a matter of fact, two participants commented that they had trouble evaluating resonance, and, in general, it became clear to us that many people don’t know what resonance means. However, there is also a possibility that the results are genuine, namely that voicing couples with plosion and endows voiced plosives with a resonating quality, which can be perceived, at least in controlled experiments, out of context. This hypothesis is supported by experimental evidence that voiced plosives are perceived as larger than voiceless plosives cross-linguistically (Shinohara & Kawahara, 2016).

To conclude, there is experimental evidence supporting the cognitive mechanisms we claim to underlie phonetic symbolism, including both double-edgedness and aspect-switching. To be sure, these experiments do not prove that these mechanisms are directly involved in phonetic symbolism. However, they do demonstrate that participants have access to information underlying phonemic categories. We argue that having access to such precategorical information is the basis of phonetic symbolism.


Experimental Evidence for Sound Symbolism

One of the most discussed examples of phonetic symbolism is that of sound-shape symbolism. Back in the nineteen twenties, Köhler (1929) took two nonsense words, takete and baluma, and asked people to match them with two nonsense figures, one with angular edges and one with rounded edges (see Figure 1). An overwhelming majority of respondents matched takete with the angular shape, baluma with the rounded shape.[12] Since Köhler’s study, there were many replications of this effect, including a study by Ramachandran & Hubbard (2001), which used the nonsense words bouba and kiki. So, this effect came to be called the ‘bouba/kiki’ effect.

Recent studies have used more systematic manipulations in attempt to account for the ‘bouba/kiki’ effect. For example, participants in a study by Knoeferle et al. (2017) heard non-word sequences of consonant + vowel (e.g. /ba/, /ni/) and were asked to rate each sequence on a scale. One end of the scale indicated greater association with an angular shape and the other end indicated greater association with a rounded shape. It was found that when the stimulus contained a glide (w, y) or a liquid (l, r), participants tended to associate the stimulus with a rounded shape. This tendency was reduced for stimuli containing a voiceless fricative (f, s) or a nasal (m, n), followed by stimuli containing a voiced fricative (v, z) or a voiced plosive (b, d), followed by stimuli containing a voiceless plosive (p, t). The results are summarised in Figure 2.[13]

We can use the structural theory of speech sounds to account for these results. The left end of this figure is marked by [+abrupt], that is, [–continuous,–periodic]. This acoustic characteristic of voiceless plosives is analogous to the contour of angular shapes, which involves abrupt changes of direction. By contrast, the right end of Figure 2 is marked by [+continuous, +periodic]. This acoustic characteristic of glides and liquids is analogous to the smooth, gradually changing contour of rounded shapes. Thus, we can account for the tendency to associate voiceless plosives with an angular shape and glides and liquids with a rounded shape.

Let us now turn from the edges of the scale in Figure 2 towards the middle, ignoring fricatives for a moment. Nasals, like glides and liquids are continuous, periodic and voiced by default. Accordingly, they are associated more with a rounded shape than with an angular shape. It is not entirely clear why nasals would be rated lower on the scale than glides and liquids. One possibility is that another feature is at play here. For example, in articulatory terms, liquids are [+continuant], while nasals are [-continuant], since air flows continuously through the oral cavity in liquids but not in nasals. Thus, nasals might be considered more abrupt than glides and liquids, presumably since the nasal cavity is narrower and more disruptive for airflow than the oral cavity.

Moving further left on the scale, we see that voiced plosives are associated more with an angular shape than with a rounded shape. Like with voiceless plosives this can be attributed to their abrupt nature. But voiced plosives are ambiguous: they consist of an abrupt plosion and voicing, which is continuous and periodic. Thus, they are relatively abrupt, but not quite as voiceless plosives, and this difference is reflected in their rating on the shape scale.

We have replicated the results reported by Knoeferle et an experiment that was designed specifically to test the contrast between voiceless plosives, voiced plosives, and nasals (Gafni & Tsur, forthcoming).[14] In addition to establishing the effects of abruptness and voicing, we also found an effect of place-of-articulation. Labels containing labial consonants (b, p) were judged as more appropriate names for the rounded shape, compared to labels containing alveolar (d, t) or velar consonants (g, k). The results are illustrated in Figure 3. The source of this effect could be either acoustic or articulatory (Knoeferle et al., 2017). An articulatory account builds on analogy between lip rounding and a rounded shape. An acoustic account might be based on spectral differences among different places of articulation. A support for this view can be found in previous studies, e.g. “In /k, g/ spectral energy is concentrated, whereas in /t, d/, and /p, b/ is spread, with an emphasis on lower frequencies in /p, b/ and on higher frequencies in /t, d/… [velar stops] display a stronger concentration of explosion [than labials and dentals]” (Jakobson & Waugh, 2002).

It is interesting to note that the basic demonstration of the bouba/kiki effect (Hung, Styles, & Hsieh, 2017; Ozturk, Krehm, & Vouloumanos, 2013; Ramachandran & Hubbard, 2001) contrasts a voiceless velar plosive (k) with a voiced bilabial plosive (b). The on-going discussion over the effect of place-of-articulation can explain why /b/ was preferred over other voiced plosives in these demonstrations (but note that this choice inadvertently introduces a confounding factor to the experiment). In addition, the effect of place-of-articulation might help explaining the difference between liquids and nasals found by Knoeferle et al. (if it was, indeed, significant). Both experiments included bilabial (m) and alveolar (n) nasal consonants that were analysed as one group. In our experiment, was rated higher (i.e. closer to the rounded shape) than (mean ratings: 4.07 and 3.93, respectively, on a scale of 1-5), and was rated slightly higher than (mean rating: 4.09). Although the differences were not significant, it is possible that lip rounding (or its acoustic correlates) should be included in the structural model of phonetic symbolism.

At this point, let us reintroduce fricatives to our discussion. As can be seen in Figure 2, voiceless fricatives tended to be associated with a rounded shape more than with an angular shape. One possible explanation for this finding is that shape judgments are somehow affected by relative encodedness. As mentioned earlier, glides, liquids, nasals, but also voiceless sibilants are unencoded relative to plosives. In other words, rich precategorical auditory information is more accessible in the voiceless fricatives, liquids, nasals and glides than in plosives. Perception of this information seems to blur the sharp outlines of the categories, rendering these phonemes more appropriate to designate rounded than angular shapes (that is also one reason why they are perceived as ‘softer’).

However, if shape judgments depend on encodedness, one might ask, why voiced fricatives do not group with their voiceless counterparts. In the voiced fricatives, there are two parallel continuous streams, one periodic (voicing), and one aperiodic (friction); one might cautiously speculate that the two kinds of parallel streams blur each other and their perceived shape is less pronounced. This would suggest that the perceived roundness of speech sounds might be correlated with the relatively clear perception of the precategorical auditory information lingering in short-term memory.


Resonance, Co-Articulation, and Precategorical Perception

As we have said, resonating phones promote the perception of precategorical auditory information. Yet, there is evidence that the effect of resonance is modulated by context. For example, it was found that vowels in consonantal context are perceived more linguistically than isolated vowels (Rakerd, 1984); that is, precategorical sensory information can be better perceived in isolated vowels than in consonantal context. In other words, co-articulation seems to prevent access to precategorical auditory information. Some symbolist poets exploited this property of isolated speech sounds, to amplify the resonance of their poems. The French symbolist poet, Arthur Rimbaud, wrote in his sonnet “Voyelles”:


  1. A noir, E blanc, I rouge, U vert, O bleu: voyelles

       (A black, E white, I red, U green, O blue, vowels)


The Hungarian symbolist poet, Dezső Kosztolányi, wrote in a poem on his wife’s name, “Ilona”:


  1. Csupa l,       It’s all l

       csupa i,            all i,    

       csupa o,           all o,

       csupa a.           all a.


Thus, the examples above demonstrate that access to precategorical information, both in vowels and voiceless sibilants (and, probably, in liquids and nasals too), depends on isolating the vowels from the consonants, generating a resonating effect. Such a strategy would not work, however, with voiced plosives, because they cannot be pronounced without any vocalic context; in fact, formant transitions — that give information about plosives — give, by the same token, information about the adjacent vowels (speech researchers call this “dual transmission”). Nevertheless, the results of our experiment (Gafni & Tsur, forthcoming), demonstrated that, in minimal contexts (consonant-vowel sequences), voiced plosives can be perceived at least as resonant as nasals (though these results should be regarded with caution). We then thought to test whether voiced plosives are perceived differently in a reverberating or non-reverberating context, using an implicit task that does not require participants to have an explicit concept of resonance (see descriptions of such tasks in the next section). Consider Tennyson’s line and John Crowe Ransom’s rewriting of it:

  1. And murmuring of innumerable bees
  2. And murdering of innumerable beeves

There is general consensus that in the sound structure of Excerpt 7 the repeated nasals and liquids are perceived differently from Excerpt 8. In 8 “the euphony is destroyed […] we lose the echoic effect” (Abrams & Harpham, 2009). This is not only because in 7 there is one nasal more than in 8, but also because in 7 the meaning foregrounds the resonant quality of voicing, so that the nasals and the liquids have a fuller, richer, more resonant body. There is an intuition that even [b] is perceived as more resonant in Excerpt 7 than in Excerpt 8. To put it bluntly, in Excerpt 8 it sounds hard and compact as plosives are supposed to sound; in Excerpt 7 it drifts slightly toward the more resonant quality of [m]. This intuition is supported by our experiment. However, testing it explicitly is more difficult because the effect of the phonological context (reverberating/non-reverberating) is confounded with the meaning of the line. Thus, if [b] is perceived as less resonant in 8, it could be due to the change of phonological context or the change of meaning.


Phonetic Symbolism, Innateness, and the Brain

The Bouba/kiki effect (see earlier) has been demonstrated cross-culturally, even with Himba participants of Northern Namibia who had little exposure to Western cultural and environmental influences, and who do not use a written language (Bremner et al., 2013). Thus, the tendency to associate certain shapes with certain speech sounds is a cross-cultural phenomenon. Moreover, the effect has been demonstrated not only in forced-choice matching tasks, but also with implicit interference tasks. In a study by Westbury (2005), participants performed a lexical decision task on words and nonwords presented within curvy and spiky frames. Within each lexical category (word and nonword), some stimuli contained only stop consonants (e.g. toad and kide), some stimuli contained only continuous (e.g. moon and lole), and some stimuli that contained both stops and continuous sounds (e.g. flag and nuck). It was found that responses were faster for congruent shape-string pairs (continuous sounds in curvy shapes, plosives in spiky shapes) than for incongruent pairs.[15] Using a masking technique, Hung, Styles, & Hsieh (2017) showed that the mapping for the bouba/kiki effect occurs prior to conscious awareness of the visual stimuli. Under continuous flash suppression, congruent stimuli (e.g. “kiki” inside a spiky shape) broke through to conscious awareness faster than incongruent stimuli. This was true even for participants who were trained to pair unfamiliar letters with auditory word forms. These results show that the effect was driven by the phonology, not the visual features, of the letters.

In another study, Ozturk, Krehm, & Vouloumanos (2013) presented 4-month-old infants with pairs of shapes and auditory stimuli. They found that the infants looked longer at the screen during trials with incongruent pairs (i.e. ‘bubu’ with an angular shape or ‘kiki’ with a curvy shape) than during trials with congruent pairs (i.e. ‘bubu’ with a curvy shape or ‘kiki’ with an angular shape). This finding, together with cross-cultural evidence, suggests that at least some aspect of sound-shape symbolism is pre-linguistic, perhaps even innate. But which aspect exactly? We claim that what is innate is not the symbolic relation per se, but rather the propensity to extract, abstract and compare abstract features from sensory stimuli. In what follows, we discuss other manifestations of this principle.

Roman Jakobson (1968) has shown that children’s acquisition of the phonological system of their mother tongue, the universal structure of phonological systems, as well as aphasic breakdowns are governed by the same principles based on abstracting and contrasting distinctive features. Assuming that we have similar capabilities with semantic and visual features, this would suggest that, whatever the brain processes involved, there is a universally available cognitive mechanism of abstracting, comparing and contrasting features that may be responsible for generating an indefinite number of unforeseeable sound-symbolic combinations.

One of the most striking pieces of evidence for our innate ability to contrast and combine abstract features in different domains can be seen in Synaesthesia. Synaesthesia is intersense perception, in which a person experiences sensations in one modality when a second modality is stimulated (Ramachandran & Hubbard, 2001). For example, a person may experience a specific colour whenever seeing a specific numeral (Galton, 1880). This trait seems to run in families, suggesting that it has a genetic and, thus, innate basis (Ward & Simner, 2005). In addition, neuroimaging studies have confirmed that synaesthesia is genuine, namely that the sensory experiences reported by synaesthetes are accompanied by activation in the related sensory cortical areas. Moreover, there is evidence that synaesthesia is related to an increase in structural connectivity among cortical areas involved in the synaesthetic experience (Rouw & Scholte, 2007).

Mature consciousness is based on the dissociation of the senses, but certain cognitive tasks, e.g. the bouba/kiki experiment still rely on synaesthetic mechanisms. Thus, although many adults do not experience synaesthesia on a regular basis, the cognitive mechanisms underlying synaesthesia seem to be present universally. Moreover, many languages have metaphors derived from the field of two senses, as in soft colour and warm sound— these are fossilized synaesthetic metaphors. The existence of such metaphors depend on, and attest to, the ability of individuals to extract and combine abstract features from different sensory and conceptual domains.

The use of such synaesthetic metaphors can be further extended in literary works via literary synaesthesia. Literary synaesthesia combines terms derived from different senses in unpredictable phrases, as in Keats’s “And taste the music of this vision pale”, where terms derived from three different senses are combined to suggest some elusive, nameless experience. Phonetic symbolism in poetry is a special case of literary synaesthesia, where the imitative sound patterns are generated by unpredictable combinations of words. In Tennyson’s “And murmuring of innumerable bees” sound imitation is generated by repeating the speech sounds of murmur in innumerable— a word that has nothing to do with sounds.

Thus, it seems that writers have access to cognitive mechanisms, similar or identical to those involved in synaesthesia. Note, however, that despite the common surface similarity between “real-life” synaesthesia and literary synaesthesia, there is an important difference between the two phenomena. “Real-life” synaesthesia is automatic and involuntary, and involves stable and fixed cross-modal associations. By contrast, literary synaesthesia is a conscious, productive process that can give rise to an indefinite number of associations.


Objections to the Foregoing Conception

Auracher et al. (2011) criticized our conception that sound-symbolic effects are generated by an interaction between phonetic and semantic features as follows:

One plausible solution to cope with the contradictions between single studies is to follow Tsur’s (2006) and Miall’s (2001) hypothesis. Both authors conceive “speech sounds as of bundles of acoustic and articulatory features each of which may have certain (sometimes conflicting) combinational potentials, which may be activated, after the event, by certain meaning components” (Tsur, 2006, p. 905). However, this would not explain the high significance of the results within most studies. Why, as an example, would randomly chosen poems from different language families apply the same sound structure, expressing the same emotions, if the sound–meaning relation is content-dependent? (p. 22)

Part of our answer to this objection runs as follows: first, this question has a false presupposition, namely that poems that apply the same sound structure express the same emotions. It is false even with reference to the state of the art in our Western tradition. Auracher et al. found that sadness (and negative emotions in general) are best expressed by nasals, joy (and positive emotions in general) by plosives, whereas Fónagy (1961) found that tender emotions (that can be positive or negative) are typically associated with nasals, aggression (which is a negative emotion) with plosives.

Second, the “content-dependent” argument seems to us particularly invalid. Auracher et al. seem to assume that sounds express emotions irrespective of meaning (indeed, they hope to predict the emotion of a poem from the sound patterns). Furthermore, they seem to take Tsur’s (2006) claim as suggesting that sound-meaning relations in phonetic symbolism are arbitrary. Accordingly, they claim that if one takes the position that “sound–meaning relation is content-dependent”, one should not expect sound effects to be translated from one language to another or from one culture to another. In their view, the fact that different studies on phonetic symbolism obtain significant results supports a notion of pre-defined sound-meaning relations. However, this is a misinterpreation of Tsur’s claim.

We don’t expect that “all aspects of [the word’s] meaning be deduced from its sounds”. We assume, rather, that phonetic symbolism can generate, at best, some vague psychological atmosphere, which the referent can individuate into a specific emotion by feature transfer from the meaning. This is part of our linguistic creativity. The results of such creativity may, indeed, fossilize into convention, e.g. a lexical entry; but in the bouba/kiki experiment, for instance, no convention is involved, both the words and their referents are unfamiliar, but participants do it spontaneously, and agree cross-culturally.

For example, let us consider the Japanese word ‘kirakira’. This word contains two elements that have iconic meaning crosslinguistically, reduplication and the vowel [i]. Crosslinguistic lexical surveys and laboratory experiments have demonstrated that reduplication can be associated with concepts such as ‘repetition’, ‘distribution’, and ‘intensification’ (O. Fischer, 2011; Imai & Kita, 2014)[16], and the vowel [i] can be associated with concepts such as ‘smallness’, ‘brightness’, and ‘sharpness’ (Blasi, Wichmann, Hammarström, Stadler, & Christiansen, 2016; Lowrey & Shrum, 2007; Newman, 1933). Indeed, ‘kirakira’, which means “glittering”, “shows sensory sound-symbolism in that reduplication in the word is associated with a continuous meaning and the vowel [i] is associated with brightness” (Lockwood & Dingemanse, 2015: 3). We propose that the above-mentioned meanings, associated with the reduplication pattern and with the vowel [i], are all present in the sound pattern of ‘kirakira’, and that the semantics picks out two of them (i.e. ‘repetition’ and ‘brigthness’) and eliminates the others (e.g. ‘smallness’, ‘sharpness’). Lockwood and Dingemanse suggest that “the vowel [i] is associated with brightness, but it also has conventionalized aspects in that not all aspects of its meaning can be deduced from its sounds”. We propose to handle the issue slightly differently. “Glittering” does not merely tilt the meaning in favour of brightness and repeated events (e.g. shimmering); it individuates the referent within the semantic field of light.

The stem “kiru”, in contrast to “kirakira”, means “to cut”. Here the meaning of /i/ is tilted toward sharpness and individuated as a specific, non-repeated action. Briefly, in phonetic symbolism, the sound structure of a nonsense word may pick out the appropriate unfamiliar referent in a forced choice; in a familiar lexical word, the meaning may pick out the appropriate meaning potential from a number of meaning potentials of its speech sounds. In a cross-cultural perspective, too, “the sound–meaning relation is content-dependent”. In Japanese, the principle works exactly as in English. Only in Japanese and Vietnamese there are formalized linguistic categories based on reduplication, whereas reduplications like “murmur” in English, or “rišruš” (rustling) in Hebrew, or “froufrou” in French, “ityeg-fityeg” (dangle repeatedly) in Hungarian are sporadic.

“The sound–meaning relation is content-dependent”, then, because the meaning components available in the semantic dimension of the text activate a subset of potentials derived from the universally available phonetic and acoustic features of the sound dimension. Characteristically, Auracher et al. rely on circumstantial evidence in the Stimulus–Response mode, “different cultures”, rather than cognitive evidence: whether semantic and phonetic information processing is similar or different in various cultures. This argument of Auracher et al.’s seems perfectly logical when treated on a wholesale, statistical level. But breaks down when treated at a more fine-grained, structural level.

A referee for this article made the following comment on our argument: “I don’t see how this claim [that the relation between sound and meaning is arbitrary] is consistent with the authors’ finding that ‘The structure of speech sounds determines their expressive potentials.’” However, we don’t agree with this objection. The following observation by the same person is a clear support for our argument.

Neologisms and relatively recent creations like English “splat,” which have no etymologies of the usual kind, are of very minor interest in the study of literature, but they pose severe problems for the claim that meaning has nothing to do with linguistic sound. According to Fidler (2014: 229), this is expected, since OpEs (onomatopoetic expressions) provide “the simplest way to express effectively maximum information with minimal effort and the simplest way for the hearer to process the information intuitively and with minimum effort.”

How do we produce and understand neologisms? How does “the simplest way to express effectively maximum information with minimal effort and the simplest way for the hearer to process the information intuitively and with minimum effort” work? We argue that speech sounds are part of a phonological system, and are bundles of phonological, acoustic and articulatory features. According to Jakobson (1968), the child’s language has two stages: first a babbling period, in which the child experiments with the articulation and the acoustic qualities of the speech sounds, which are emotionally charged; then the arbitrary referential use of the same speech sounds, governed by the will. Mastering the arbitrary referential use is perceptually governed, by maximum contrast. The first syllable children in all languages master for referential use is Pa, which consists in maximum opening and maximum closure of the lips; from this they derive “papa”. The reduplication indicates here that this time the articulation of speech sounds is no mere pleasurable experimentation with speech sounds, but used for arbitrary reference.

Then they master the contrast between labial and dental consonants, obtaining “tata”. Then they master the contrast between oral and nasal consonants, obtaining “mama” and “nana”, and so forth. The process is not iconic, but perceptual and articulatory; meaning is attached in an arbitrary manner. There is no iconic relationship between “papa” and the male parent, or “mama” and the female parent, the terms and references are derived from the system. But then, perhaps, children have an intuition that mothers are contrasted to fathers in being softer, assigning nasals to mothers and plosives to fathers rather than vice versa.

We argue that in adult language, speech sounds, as part of the phonological system, serve for arbitrary reference. The acoustic and articulatory features have a wide range of incongruent, dormant expressive potentials. When a label consisting of a sequence of speech sounds is arbitrarily attached to a meaning, it may (or may not) activate, after the event, some of the dormant expressive potentials. In the word “splat” and “splash” meaning activates certain expressive potentials of the speech sounds; in “split” or “plush” it does not. All language users have access to those dormant acoustic and articulatory features, so that they may activate them creatively and differentially. Sibilants have both hushing and noisy features; that is why they may abound, universally, both in words meaning noises of varying amplitude, or silence. That is why “Onomatopoetic expressions provide ‘the simplest way to express effectively maximum information with minimal effort and the simplest way for the hearer to process the information intuitively and with minimum effort.’” The alleged protolanguage is said to have been entirely onomatopoetic; symbolic language is typically arbitrary. Computer simulations show that iconicity is favoured in small systems, but arbitrariness has greater advantages as the system expands (Gasser, 2004). There is experimental evidence that iconicity facilitates for children the acquisition of a small, elementary vocabulary, but it obstructs the acquisition of a large and versatile vocabulary (Imai & Kita, 2014). Onomatopoetic words have two characteristics. First, their referents are sounds, so that the speech sounds may directly imitate them; second, in onomatopoetic words the fluid creative process described above has fossilized into a dictionary entry.


Future Research

Some of our experimental results were indecisive, owing to insufficient number of participants, or participants’ difficulty to understand such tasks as resonance judgment. We intend to repeat some of our experiments with a greater number of participants, and using interference tasks, where participants need not understand such elusive notions.

We assume that sound-symbolic and metaphoric productivity are driven by a homogeneous set of principles. Both are based on unpredictable feature interaction — one of phonetic and semantic features, the other of conflicting semantic features. We intend to explore this similarity.

Another future research plan aims to improve experimental methodology for literary studies, by exploiting new technologies. In recent years there has been an increase of literary studies employing experimental methods from social sciences, such as stimulus—response questionnaires. Such studies typically ask participants to evaluate entities on various pre-defined scales (e.g., rate how sad a poem is). Pre-defined evaluation scales are useful for answering specific research questions. However, such scales might be less suitable for evaluating the effects of aesthetic objects, since they can capture only a limited portion of the subjective experience and thus may predetermine the evaluated scales, missing important aspects of the aesthetic effect. Fortunately, recent advances in methods of natural language processing allow for sophisticated automatic analysis of texts. Such methods can be incorporated in experimental studies using, open-ended questions to evaluate aesthetic objects. Thus, instead of asking participants to rate poems according to pre-defined evaluative terms, the researcher can ask participants to provide their impression of the poem. Subsequently, using automatic text analysis methods, one can obtain a detailed, unbiased profile of the subjective experience. We plan to investigate the utility of such methods for analyzing responses to poetic text.


To Conclude

In this article, we reviewed three types of evidence for phonetic symbolism. First, certain types of phones tend to correlate with certain meanings cross-linguistically (e.g. the frequent occurrence of sibilants in word related to silence and to noise). Second, laboratory experiments demonstrate that participants tend to form consistent associations between speech sounds and concepts from various domains (e.g. made-up names assigned to rounded shapes tend to contain nasal and liquid consonants, while names assigned to angular shapes tend to contain voiceless plosives). Third, various literary devices (e.g. sound repetition) use sound patterns, detached from semantics, to induce a general psychological atmosphere in poems.

We claim that the various cases of phonetic symbolism can be accounted for in a unified manner via a structuralist-cognitive theory. Central to this theory is the innate, general-purpose human capacity to extract abstract features from sensory objects (e.g. sounds, shapes). This capacity, together with our ability to combine and compare abstract features, allows us to attribute meaning potentials to speech sounds based on structural similarities to various objects. Importantly, the cognitive model does not determine sound-meaning associations, but rather constrain them. A given phone can have multiple, sometimes conflicting, meaning potentials, such that different aspects of the same phone are highlighted across lexical items and semantic contexts.

We referred to the multiple meaning potentials of speech sounds as double-edgedness, and proposed that people can shift their attention from one potential meaning to another via the cognitive mechanism of aspect-switching. We described some empirical results supporting the ideas of double-edgedness and aspect-switching. Moreover, we claim that these mechanisms can account for conflicting, or seemingly arbitrary, findings in the literature, such as the conflicting associations of nasals and plosives reported by Fónagy (1961) and Auracher et al. (2011).

The double-edgedness of voiced plosives was of special interest to us. Previous studies, as well as our own experiments, demonstrate that voiced plosives can behave like their voiceless counterparts in certain contexts, while in other contexts they behave more like sonorous consonants.[17] Our structural analysis and experiments suggested that voiced plosives are double-edged. Some of these experimental results, however, may be due to participants’ misunderstanding of the task. More reliable is the fact that voiced plosives yielded significant results in experiments in which they were opposed to continuous phonemes, but also in experiments in which they were opposed to voiceless plosives. Likewise, a structural analysis showed, how [d] and [g] in poems by Verlaine and Hugo could be used to opposite effects. All this suggests that double-edgedness and aspect-switching may have psychological reality. However, more research is needed to investigate the cognitive mechanisms of double-edgedness and aspect-switching.


Appendix A: Double-Edgedness of the “Rolled” [r]

Across languages, rolled [r][18] is frequently associated with noise. Many linguists believe that in some time in the past was rolled in English, French, and Hebrew.[19] English, French and some German dialects have lost their rolled [r] but, as the following examples witness, their lexicons still retain them as onomatopoeia (usually in combination with voiceless fricatives) for noise: In English, “rustling” and “whisper” contain /s/ and /r/. In French, bruit, froufroucrissement, and susurrermean “noise”, “rustle”, “screech”, “to rustle, whisper”, respectively. In German, knistern and raschelnd mean “rustle, rustling”. In Hebrew, raʕaš and rišruš (in phonetic transcription) mean “noise” and “rustle”, respectively. sarasara in Japanese means “murmuring, rustling” (in both cases, reduplication indicates sound symbolism). Iván Fónagy writes to this effect:

Selon une tradition qui remonte à l’antiquité, le est associé […] au combat. […] La distribution de fréquence des phonèmes dans les poèmes appartenant à deux populations sémantiques différentes, dans les poèmes belliqueux d’une part, dans les poèmes idylliques d’autre part, reflète en effet une forte tendance à associer les à la violence […]. Le français déjà «affaibli» à l’époque de Victor Hugo, n’est plus associé à la violence […]. Cette dureté de apical semble qualitativement différente de la dureté des occlusives sourdes […]. Les R «sont les vrayes lettres Héroïques», écrit Ronsard dans la préface de la Franciade (1587, Œuvres complètes, Paris, 1914, VII, p. 93). (Fónagy, 1983: 96)

According to a tradition that goes back to antiquity, the is associated […] with combat. […] The distribution of the frequency of phonemes in the poems belong to two semantic populations the bellicose poems on the one hand, and the idyllic poems on the other, reflects, as a matter of fact, a strong tendency to associate the rs with violence […] French r, already “weakened” by Victor Hugo’s time, is no longer associated with violence […]. This hardness of the apical seems to be qualitatively different from the hardness of voiceless stops […] The Rs “are the true Heroic letters” wrote Ronsard in the preface to la Franciade (1587, Œuvres complètes, Paris, 1914, VII, p. 93). (Fónagy, 1983: 96)

Thus, [r] serves as onomatopoeia for noise as in roar, rustle. Yet, in the same languages, [r] may have a soothing effect as in Lili Marleen. Our cognitive theory of phonetic symbolism can account for this affective duality of [r]. The rolled [r] is periodic and multiply interrupted, thus, it is double-edged. Its abrupt nature makes it suitable for denoting noisy and hard qualities, but, in other contexts, its periodicity can induce a tender effect.


Appendix B: Articulatory Aspect-Switching

In this article, we discussed the mechanism of aspect-switching in the perception of voiced plosives. There is another theoretical possibility, namely that the pronunciation itself changes with context, emphasising either the plosion or the voicing. Alternatively, one may speculate that perhaps different acoustic cues for phonological voicing are at work here. There are several acoustic cues for a voiced stop, usually used in conjunction:

“In distinguishing between voiced and voiceless plosives, the exact moment at which periodicity begins is among the cues used by the listener. [… and] the distinction between post-vocalic voiced and voiceless sounds is carried very largely by the relative duration of the vocalic and the consonantal parts of the syllable; in /bi:t/ (beat) the vocalic part is relatively short and the interruption caused by the consonant is long, while in /bi:d/ (bead) the reverse is the case” (Fry, 1970: 36).

Assuming that both kinds of cues work in conjunction, speakers might, involuntarily, emphasize one or the other cue, voice onset time or vowel length. As a rule, there is trade-off between competing acoustic cues for phonemes.[20]

With that said, note that although it is possible that the switch between alternative qualities of voiced stops is done by modifying their pronunciation, there is no evidence that the poets intended their poems to be read with such an overt articulatory aspect-switching, and there is no empirical evidence that readers actually do read the poems this way.


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[1]This article is derived from our book in progress on “Sound–Emotion Interaction in Poetry”, based on a group of chapters on phonetic symbolism.

[2]The term ‘continuous’ refers to airflow in general. This should not be confused with the phonological feature [Continuant], which refers only to airflow in the oral cavity. Nasal consonants are continuous but not continuant.

[3] We have borrowed the term “double-edgedness” from Ernst Kris, who speaks of the “double-edgedness” of the comic: a comedy about a cuckold may be very funny; but a husband in the audience, who suspects his wife is unfaithful, may find it offensive rather than funny. In poetry, double-edgedness is generated by changing contexts.

[4]The following anecdote can illustrate our ability to switch between alternative perceptions of the same speech sound (in this case, liquid). When Tsur was on a sabbatical in Yale, he was robbed at gunpoint on the parking lot of the foreign scholars’ lodgings. When his wife told their Japanese neighbour the story, he was shocked and exclaimed: “Vat, viz a livorvel?!” Later, Tsur told this story to Professor Yehoshua Blau, president of the Academy of Hebrew Language, and added: If he can say consistently the wrong phoneme, it means that he doesdistinguish between them. He answered “It is, rather, your ear that made the distinction. He probably pronounced each time the same speech sound, somewhere between [l] and [r]. When you expected a [r], it sounded too much like a [l]; when you expected a [l] it sounded too much like a [r]”.

[5]In Appendix A, we will also discuss double-edgedness of the trilled (“rolled”) [r].

[6]In the Rorschach test, for instance, responses based on colours and shadings (as opposed to shape responses) indicate emotional responsiveness.

[7]First published in 1987.

[8]There is another theoretical possibility, namely that the pronunciation itself changes with context. We elaborate more on this possibility in Appendix B.

[9]Although experimental studies have yet to demonstrate aspect-switching in plosives, evidence from other phoneme classes suggests that plosives are likely to show aspect-switching, as well.

[10]Formants are concentrations of overtones that uniquely identify vowels. Formant transitions are the rapid change in frequency of a formant for a vowel immediately before or after a consonant, and give information about the vowel and the consonant simultaneously.

[11]A priori, nasals are expected to be judged as more resonant than their oral counterparts since, in the nasals, the nasal cavity vibrates, in addition to the sound articulated by the oral stop.

[12]In the second edition of his book, Köhler (1947) changed baluma, for by now obvious reasons, to maluma.

[13]To be precise, all the effects of phonemic contrasts reported by Knoeferle et al.were calculated with glides as a baseline group. Thus, we only know for certain that liquids were NOT significantly different from glides while all the other classes WERE significantly different from glides. The distribution depicted in Figure 2 reflects our own interpretation of the results.

[14]We did not test glides and fricatives in our experiment. In addition, in our experiment the non-word labels were presented in a written form rather than in a spoken form. Also, the labels we used were disyllabic rather than monosyllabic, and each label contained two identical consonants but two different vowels (e.g. mamu, pupa).

[15]Note that stimuli in this study mixed voiceless and voiced plosives, affectively treating them as one group. As we have mentioned in several places, there is evidence that voiced plosives, and specifically /b/, are ambiguous. They can be grouped with voiceless plosives in certain contexts, and with sonorants, in other contexts. The Westbury study seems to force voiced plosives to be grouped with voiceless plosives.

[16]But also with completely opposite concepts such as diminutive and attenuative meanings.

[17]Note that Westbury (2005) puts voiced plosives in one bin with voiceless plosives, contrasting them to continuants, whereas Hung et al. (2017) and Ozturk et al. (2013) contrast the voiced plosive [b] with the voiceless plosive [k]. Köhler too puts [b] in one bin with [l] and [m] in “baluma”, contrasting them with the voiceless plosives in “takete”

[18]An alveolar trill, in more technical terms.

[19]It is unknown when exactly the quality of [r] had changed in these languages. Therefore, the ongoing discussion is somewhat speculative. For that reason, we decided to bring the analysis in an appendix.

[20]“While a listener typically perceives only a single change—viz., one of phonetic category—the physical changes that led to this unitary percept can only be described in form of a list with multiple entries. […] If one cue in such an ensemble is changed to favor category B, another cue can be modified to favor category A, so that the phonetic percept remains unchanged.” (Repp, 1983: 342)


Etiological Animal Tales as a Typological Universal (Lecture Video)

Michelle Scalise Sugiyama, University of Oregon

Abstract. Hunting demands extensive knowledge of animal behavior, characteristics, and habitat, raising the question of how foragers acquire this knowledge. One potential source is etiological animal tales (EAT), which are pervasive in forager oral tradition and explain the origin of a species’ distinctive physical and/or behavioral traits. If these stories serve as a repository for traditional zoological knowledge, we would expect them to contain information about traits that are useful for identifying, predicting availability of, locating, killing, processing, and/or avoiding dangerous encounters with the animal. These predictions were tested in an earlier study that used story collections from 64 diverse hunter-gatherer societies (Scalise Sugiyama 2017). For each collection, one EAT was chosen at random for content analysis; all 64 stories evinced the predicted information, showing a strong cross-cultural trend. Here I present the results of a follow-up study that examines whether this pattern holds across all EAT within a given culture. For this analysis, ten cultures were selected from the original sample (two from each of five world geographic regions). All EAT from each culture were analyzed for the presence of information about the animal’s availability, behavior, diet, habitat, interspecies relationships, physical traits, sign, techniques used to hunt/process the animal, and hazards associated with the animal. Results suggest that EAT are an important vector of zoological knowledge transmission across forager groups.

This video lecture was prepared for the Literary Universals Workshop at the University of Connecticut, which took place on 24 May 2019. It is housed off-site and is available through the following link: Etiological Animal Tales as a Typological Universal.