Donald Norman schrijft,
Tinko and losse are two words in the mythical language Elvish, invented by the British philologist J.R. Tolkien for his trilogy, Lord of the Rings. Which means “metal,” which “snow”? How could you possibly know? The surprise is that when forced to guess, most people can get the choices right, even if they have never read the books, never experienced the words. “Tinko” has two, hard, “plosive” sounds – the “t” and the “k.” “Losse” has soft, liquid sounds, starting with the “l” and continuing through the vowels and the sibilant “ss.” Note the similar pattern in the English words where the hard “t” in “metal” contrasted with the soft sounds of “snow.” Yes, in Elfish, “tinko” is metal and “losse” is snow. The Elfish demonstration points out the relationship between the sounds of a language and the meaning of words. At first glance, this sounds nonsensical – after all, words are arbitrary – just look how difficult it is to learn the vocabulary of a foreign language. But more and more evidence piles up linking sounds to particular general meanings: vowels are warm and soft: feminine is the term frequently used. Harsh sounds are, well, harsh – like the word “harsh” itself – the sound of “sh” in particular. Snakes hiss and slither: and note the sibilants, the hissing of the “s” sounds. Plosives, sounds caused when the air is stopped briefly, then released – explosively – are hard, metallic – the word “masculine” is often applied to them. The “k” of “mosquito” and the “p” in “happy” are plosive. And, yes, there is evidence that word choices are not arbitrary: a sound symbolism governs the development of a language. This is another instance where artists, poets in this case, have long known the power of sounds to evoke affect and emotions within the readers of – or, more accurately, listeners to – poetry.