Lexie Kahn: Word Detective, #34: Clink, clank, clunk

In episode #34 Lexie Kahn investigates why fine glassware clinks but armor clanks and bowling balls clunk. For earlier posts visit lexiekahn.wordpress.com.

Continuing the discussion of "click" and similar words in German, French and Spanish, here’s an interesting comment from the Oxford English Dictionary: “In English and Germanic generally, [click] appears to stand in ablaut relation to clack, as expressing a thinner and lighter sound; compare chip, chap, clip, clap, clink, clank.”

“Ablaut” means a change of vowel in related words or forms, such as in irregular verbs like sing, sang, sung. But those are different forms of a verb and we’re talking about onomatopoetic or echoic words: ones that imitate a sound. Changing from a “short i” in click, chip, clip or clink to “short a” as in clack, chap, clap or clank does seem to indicate the same kind of sound but lower pitched and heavier. Clunk is even heavier.

Linguists call the “short i” in click a “high vowel,” meaning the tongue is near the roof of the mouth. The “short a” in clack is relatively low; the mouth is more open. Strangely, however, the higher the tongue, the lower the pitch or frequency of the vowel. Nevertheless, we associate the “short i” sound as in click, tinkle, titter, pin with thin, tinny light things and the “short a” in clank, jangle, laugh and tack with heavier, more substantial things.           

The “uh” sound in clunk is in the middle of the vowel range, but words like clunk, thump, jump, bump, dump, rump and plunk sound heaviest of all—lumbering, cumbersome and klutzy.

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Vickey Kalambakal May 26, 2011 at 08:11 PM
Love that your blog is now online, Lexie! Makes me titter, laugh, and harrumph.
Glenn Willis May 27, 2011 at 07:10 AM
I would "Clap" for this article, but my hands are "Clicking" the keys of the Computer. And, since I am a fairly large man, my "He he he" of laughter is more of a "Huh huh huh." That doesn't mean I am questioning you. Tomorrow, after I have "thunk" about this for awhile, I may make another comment. Thanks for a bright thought at the end of my day. Glenn Willis The Write Stuff editor, Newsletter for the Southwest Manuscripters.
Judy Herman May 30, 2011 at 04:36 AM
Thanks, Vickey & Glenn.
J.P. Van Gordon July 17, 2012 at 08:48 PM
Giggling foolishly; Gush, whut uh load of funk! Or, is it fank... or perhaps fink? Actually, even before Shakespeare, word play has been a mainstay of literature... Play On! Ian Gordon - Ed. Southwest Manuscripters


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