Harman Patil (Editor)

Phono semantic matching

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Phono-semantic matching (PSM) is a linguistic term referring to camouflaged borrowing in which a foreign word is matched with a phonetically and semantically similar pre-existent native word/root.


It may alternatively be defined as the entry of a multisourced neologism that preserves both the meaning and the approximate sound of the parallel expression in the source language, using pre-existent words/roots of the target language.

Phono-semantic matching is distinct from calquing. While calquing includes (semantic) translation, it does not consist of phonetic matching (i.e. retaining the approximate sound of the borrowed word through matching it with a similar-sounding pre-existent word/morpheme in the target language). Phono-semantic matching is also distinct from homophonic translation, which retains only the sound, and not the semantics.


The term "phono-semantic matching" was introduced by Israeli linguist Ghil'ad Zuckermann. It challenged Einar Haugen's classic typology of lexical borrowing. While Haugen categorized borrowing into either substitution or importation, camouflaged borrowing in the form of PSM is a case of "simultaneous substitution and importation." Zuckermann proposed a new classification of multisourced neologisms, words deriving from two or more sources at the same time. Examples of such mechanisms are phonetic matching, semanticized phonetic matching and phono-semantic matching.

Zuckermann concludes that language planners, for example members of the Academy of the Hebrew Language, employ the very same techniques used in folk etymology by laymen, as well as by religious leaders. He urges lexicographers and etymologists to recognize the widespread phenomena of camouflaged borrowing and multisourced neologization and not to force one source on multi-parental lexical items.

Modern Hebrew

Often in phono-semantic matching, the source-language determines both the root word and the noun-pattern. This makes it difficult to determine the source language's influence on the target-language morphology. For example, "the phono-semantic matcher of English dock with Israeli Hebrew מבדוק mivdók could have used – after deliberately choosing the phonetically and semantically suitable root b-d-q בדק meaning 'check' (Rabbinic) or 'repair' (Biblical) – the noun-patterns mi⌂⌂a⌂á, ma⌂⌂e⌂á, mi⌂⌂é⌂et, mi⌂⌂a⌂áim etc. (each ⌂ represents a slot where a radical is inserted). Instead, mi⌂⌂ó⌂, which was not highly productive, was chosen because its [o] makes the final syllable of מבדוק mivdók sound like English dock."

Mandarin Chinese

PSM is frequently used in Mandarin borrowings.

An example is the Taiwanese Mandarin word 威而剛 wēiérgāng (weiergang), which literally means "powerful and hard" and refers to Viagra, the drug for treating impotence in men, manufactured by Pfizer.

Another example is the Mandarin form of World Wide Web, which is wàn wéi wǎng (万维网), which satisfies "www" and literally means “myriad dimensional net”. The English word hacker has been borrowed into Mandarin as 黑客 (hēikè, "wicked visitor").

"Modern Standard Chinese 声纳 shēngnà "sonar", which uses the characters 声 shēng "sound" and 纳 "receive, accept". 声 shēng is a phonetically imperfect rendering of the English initial syllable (although peng, for instance, would have been much worse). Chinese has a large number of homo/heterotonal homophonous morphemes, which would have been much better phonetically (but not nearly as good semantically) – consider the syllable song (cf. 送 sòng ‘deliver, carry, give (as a present)’, 松 sōng ‘pine; loose, slack’, 耸 sǒng ‘tower; alarm, attract’ etc.), sou (cf. 搜 sōu ‘search’, 叟 sŏu ‘old man’, 馊 sōu ‘sour, spoiled’ and many others) or shou (cf. 收 shōu ‘receive, accept’, 受 shòu ‘receive, accept’, 手 shǒu ‘hand’, 首 shǒu ‘head’, 兽 shòu ‘beast’, 瘦 shòu ‘thin’ and so forth)."

According to Zuckermann, PSM in Mandarin is common in:

  • brand names
  • computer jargon; the aforementioned word for "World Wide Web"
  • technological terms; the aforementioned word for "Sonar".
  • toponyms; e.g. The name 白俄罗斯 Bái'èluósī, "Belarus" combines the word Bái, "White" with the name俄罗斯 Èluósī, "Russia", therefore meaning "White Russia" just like the endonym "Белару́сь".
  • From a monolingual Chinese view, Mandarin PSM is the ‘lesser evil’ compared with Latin script (in digraphic writing) or code switching (in speech). Zuckermann’s exploration of PSM in Standard Chinese and Meiji-period Japanese concludes that the Chinese writing system is multifunctional: pleremic ("full" of meaning, e.g. logographic), cenemic ("empty" of meaning, e.g. phonographic - like a syllabary) and simultaneously cenemic and pleremic (phono-logographic). Zuckermann argues that Leonard Bloomfield’s assertion that "a language is the same no matter what system of writing may be used" is inaccurate. “If Chinese had been written using roman letters, thousands of Chinese words would not have been coined, or would have been coined with completely different forms”.


    In modern Japanese, loan words are generally represented phonetically via katakana. However, previously loan words were often represented by Chinese characters, a process called ateji (when used for sound, or jukujikun, when used for meaning), and some of these continue to be used. The characters chosen may correspond to the sound, the meaning, or both.

    In many cases the characters used were used only for sound or only for meaning. For example, in the word 寿司 (sushi), the two characters are respectively read as su and shi, but the character 寿 means "one's natural life span" and means "to administer", neither of which has anything to do with the food – this is ateji. Conversely, in the word 煙草 (tabako) for "tobacco", the individual kanji respectively mean "smoke" and "herb", which corresponds to the meaning, but they have no phonetic relationship to the word tabako – this is jukujikun.

    In some cases, however, the kanji are sometimes chosen for both their semantic and phonetic values, a form of phono-semantic matching. A stock example is 倶楽部 (kurabu) for "club", where the characters can be interpreted loosely in sequence as "together", "fun" and "place". Another example is 合羽 (kappa) for the Portuguese capa, a kind of raincoat. The characters can mean "wings coming together", as the pointed capa resembles a bird with wings folded together.


    Sapir and Zuckermann (2008) demonstrate how Icelandic camouflages many English words by means of phono-semantic matching. For example, the Icelandic-looking word eyðni, meaning "AIDS", is a PSM of the English acronym AIDS, using the pre-existent Icelandic verb eyða, meaning "to destroy", and the Icelandic nominal suffix -ni. Similarly, the Icelandic word tækni, meaning "technology, technique", derives from tæki, meaning "tool", combined with the nominal suffix -ni, but is, in fact, a PSM of the Danish (or international) teknik, meaning "technology, technique". This neologism was coined in 1912 by Dr Björn Bjarnarson from Viðfjörður in the East of Iceland. It had been in little use until the 1940s, but has ever since become highly common, as a lexeme and as an element in new formations, such as raftækni, lit. "electrical technics", i.e. "electronics", tæknilegur "technical" and tæknir "technician". Other PSMs discussed in the article are beygla, bifra – bifrari, brokkál, dapur – dapurleiki - depurð, fjárfesta - fjárfesting, heila, guðspjall, ímynd, júgurð, korréttur, Létt og laggott, musl, pallborð – pallborðsumræður, páfagaukur, ratsjá, setur, staða, staðall – staðla – stöðlun, toga – togari, uppi and veira.


    "Perhaps the most famous Turkish PSM is the one whose current form is okul "school". It was created to replace Ottoman Turkish mektep, an old loanword from Arabic. Turkish okul was obviously based on French école "school" and might have been influenced by Latin schola "school" (cf. the original Turkish coinage okula(ğ)). On the other hand, the autochthonous co-etymon of okul is Turkish oku- "(to) read", cf. okumak ‘to read, study’, okuma ‘reading’, okur ‘reader’. Note the semantic affinity with Arabic كتب kataba ‘wrote (masculine, singular)’, the ultimate origin of Ottoman Turkish mektep. However, synchronically, Turkish okul cannot be regarded as öztürkçe (pure Turkish) since the final -l is not a Turkish suffix and was imported ad hoc from French. One might claim that the -l is the result of analogy to Turkish words ending in l, e.g. kızıl "red, ruddy", from kızmak "to get angry/hot". There was also a suggestion that the suffix is in fact the Turkic -ul. However, adding the suffix -ul to oku would have yielded *okuyul (cf. Lewis 1999: 118). Diachronically, however, the original form of okul was allegedly okula, in which -la might be explained by analogy to (Ottoman) Turkish kışla "barracks, winter quarters" (cf. kış "winter") and yayla "summer pasture" (cf. yaz "summer"), although these two are not verb-based (ibid.: 117). Refet, the Deputy for the city of Urfa, falsely suggested that okula already existed in the Urfa dialect (ibid.: 118, cf. Heyd 1954: 91). Indeed, purists are likely to apply the method of revitalizing and standardizing dialectal words. However, in the case of okul, such an explanation seems to be no more than a folk etymology. Turkish okul constitutes a successful creational PSM. As Lewis (1982: vi, reprint of 1953) puts it: "Nothing is to be gained by adopting the ostrich-attitude and saying: ‘Okul (‘school’) is a ridiculous hybrid, out of the Turkish oku- ‘to read’, by the French école. We shall ignore it and continue to use the good old Ottoman word mektep.’ Turkish children nowadays don’t go to mektep; they go to okul."


    A few PSMs exist in English, based on French loanwords; the mispronunciation of chaise longue as "chase-lounge" is a familiar example. The French word choupique, itself an adaptation of the Choctaw name for the bowfin, has likewise been Anglicized as "shoepike," although it is unrelated to the pikes. The French name for the Osage orange, bois d'arc (lit. "bow-wood"), is sometimes rendered as "bowdark."


    A small number of PSMs exist in Dutch as well. One notable example is hangmat ("hammock"), which is a modification of Spanish hamaca, also the source of the English word. Natively, the word is transparently analysed as a "hang-mat", which aptly describes the object. Similarly:

  • in ansjovis ("anchovy"), the second part was modified to resemble vis ("fish"), although the word originates in Spanish anchova;
  • in scheurbuik ("scurvy"), the word parts were modified to resemble scheur- (stem of scheuren, tear open) and buik ("belly, stomach"), although the word originates in Middle Low German schorbuck;
  • in sprokkelmaand (an alternative name for februari, "February"), the first part was modified to resemble sprokkelen ("gather wood"), although the word originates in Latin spurcalia;
  • in zijdenhemdje (a variety of apple with a very soft, thin, yellow skin), the word parts were modified to resemble zijden ("silken") and hemdje ("shirt; small shirt; vest"), although the word actually denotes the place Sydenham where the apple originates from.
  • German

    Mailhammer (2008) "applies the concepts of multisourced neologisation and, more generally, camouflaged borrowing, as established by Zuckermann (2003) to Modern German, pursuing a twofold aim, namely to underline the significance of multisourced neologisation for language contact theory and secondly to demonstrate that together with other forms of camouflaged borrowing it remains an important borrowing mechanism in contemporary German."


    Zuckermann (2009) analyzes the evolution of the word artichoke. Beginning in Arabic الخرشوف ('al-xarshūf) "the artichoke", it was adapted into Spanish Arabic alxarshofa, then Old Spanish alcarchofa, then Italian alcarcioffo, North Italian arcicioffo > arciciocco > articiocco, then as the internationalism phonetically realized in English as artichoke. The word was eventually phono-semantically matched back into colloquial Levantine Arabic (for example in Syria, Lebanon and Israel) as أرضي شوكي arḍī shōkī, consisting of أرضي arḍī "earthly" and شوكي shawkī "thorny".

    Arabic has made use of phono-semantic matching to replace blatantly imported new terminology with a word derived from an existing triliteral root. Examples are:

    Marketing names

    Viagra, a brand name which was suggested by Interbrand Wood (the consultancy firm hired by Pfizer), is itself a multisourced neologism, based on Sanskrit व्याघ्र vyāghráh ("tiger") but enhanced by the words vigour (i.e. strength) and Niagara (i.e. free/forceful flow).


    According to Zuckermann, PSM has various advantages from the point of view of the puristic language planner:

  • recycling obsolete lexical items
  • camouflaging foreign influence (for the native speaker in the future)
  • facilitating initial learning (mnemonics) (for the contemporary learner/speaker)
  • Other motivations for PSM include the following:

  • playfulness (cf. midrashic tradition of homiletic commentary, cf. the Jewish pilpul)
  • Apollonianism (the wish to create order/meaningfulness, cf. folk etymology, etymythology, paronymic attraction)
  • Iconicity (the belief that there is something intrinsic about the sound of names.)
  • political correctness / rejective lexical engineering
  • attracting customers (in the case of brand names)
  • References

    Phono-semantic matching Wikipedia

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