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Phono-semantic matching

Phono-semantic matching (PSM) is the incorporation of a word into one language from another, often creating a neologism, where the word's non-native quality is hidden by replacing it with phonetically and semantically similar words or roots from the adopting language. Thus, the approximate sound and meaning of the original expression in the source language are preserved, though the new expression (the PSM) in the target language may sound native.

Phono-semantic matching is distinct from calquing, which includes (semantic) translation but does not include phonetic matching (i.e. retaining the approximate sound of the borrowed word through matching it with a similar-sounding pre-existent word or morpheme in the target language). At the same time, phono-semantic matching is also distinct from homophonic translation, which retains the sound of a word but not the meaning.



The term "phono-semantic matching" was introduced by linguist and revivalist Ghil'ad Zuckermann.[1] It challenged Einar Haugen's classic typology of lexical borrowing (loanwords).[2] 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.[3] 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 HebrewEdit

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."[4]

Mandarin ChineseEdit

PSM is frequently used in Mandarin borrowings.[5][6]

An example is the Taiwanese Mandarin word 威而剛 wēi'érgāng (wei'ergang), which literally means "powerful and hard" and refers to Viagra, the drug for treating impotence in men, manufactured by Pfizer.[7]

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”.[8] The English word hacker has been borrowed into Mandarin as 黑客 (hēikè, "wicked visitor").[9]

"Modern Standard Chinese 声纳 shēngnà "sonar", which uses the characters shēng "sound" and "receive, accept". 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. sòng ‘deliver, carry, give (as a present)’, sōng ‘pine; loose, slack’, sǒng ‘tower; alarm, attract’ etc.), sou (cf. sōu ‘search’, sŏu ‘old man’, sōu ‘sour, spoiled’ and many others) or shou (cf. shōu ‘receive, accept’, shòu ‘receive, accept’, shǒu ‘hand’, shǒu ‘head’, shòu ‘beast’, shòu ‘thin’ and so forth)."[10].

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"[11] 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”.[12]


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 & 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.[13] 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". Tækni 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".[14] 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.[15]


In the vegetable name Jerusalem artichoke the first word part was altered to match Jerusalem exactly, although it actually derives from Italian girasole 'sunflower'.

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",[16] 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".[17]


A 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 jeruzalemartisjok (“Jerusalem artichoke"), the first word part was modified from Italian girasole in the same way as in English;
  • 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 witbier the first word part was modified from the German word Weizen ("wheat") to resemble wit ("white");
  • 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.[18]
  • Dutch dictionary Van Dale describes balkenbrij as a particularly notable example.
  • Other examples are angstvallig, dukdalf, geeuwhonger, hagedis, hondsdraf, penthouse, rederijker, rendier and zondvloed.


Mailhammer (2008) "applies the concepts of multisourced neologisation and, more generally, camouflaged borrowing, as established by Zuckermann (2003a) 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."[19]


Zuckermann (2009, p. 60) analyses 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:

English word Unarabicised import Arabicised word Pre-existing root (meaning)
Technology tiknulugiyah تقانة taqānah t-q-n (skill)
Mitochondria الميتوكُندريات mītūkundriyah متقدرة mutaqaddirah q-d-r (power)
Machine مكنة makinah m-k-n (capacity)

Marketing namesEdit

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).[7]


According to Zuckermann (2003a), 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:

Expressive loanEdit

An expressive loan is a loanword incorporated into the expressive system of the borrowing language, making it resemble native words or onomatopoeia. Expressive loanwords are hard to identify, and by definition, they follow the common phonetic sound change patterns poorly. [20] Likewise, there is a continuum between "pure" loanwords and "expressive" loanwords. The difference to a folk etymology is that a folk etymology or eggcorn is based on misunderstanding, whereas an expressive loan is changed on purpose, the speaker taking the loanword knowing full well that the descriptive quality is different from the original sound and meaning.

South-eastern Finnish, for example, has many expressive loans. The main source language, Russian, does not use the front rounded vowels 'y', 'ä' or 'ö' [y æ ø]. Thus, it is common to add these to redescriptivized loans to remove the degree of foreignness that the loanword would otherwise have. For example, tytinä "brawn" means "wobblyness", and superficially it looks like a native construction, originating from the verb tutista "to wobble" added with a front vowel sound in the vowel harmony. However, it is expressivized from tyyteni (which is a confusing word as -ni is a possessive suffix), which in turn is a loanword from Russian stúden' .[21] A somewhat more obvious example is tökötti "sticky, tarry goo", which could be mistaken as a derivation from the onomatopoetic word tök (cf. the verb tökkiä "to poke"). However, it is an expressive loan of Russian d'ogot' "tar".[22]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Zuckermann 2003a.
  2. ^ Haugen 1950.
  3. ^ Zuckermann 2006.
  4. ^ Zuckermann 2009, p. 59.
  5. ^ Zuckermann 2003b.
  6. ^ Zuckermann 2004.
  7. ^ a b Zuckermann 2003a, p. 59.
  8. ^ See CEDICT or the MDBG Chinese-English Dictionary.
  9. ^ Gao 2008.
  10. ^ Zuckermann 2003a, p. 57.
  11. ^ Bloomfield 1933.
  12. ^ Zuckermann 2003a, p. 255.
  13. ^ Sapir & Zuckermann (2008, p. 36): see also 爱滋病 aìzībìng (lit. "a disease caused by (making) love"), another PSM of AIDS, in this case in Modern Standard Chinese.
  14. ^ Sapir & Zuckermann (2008, pp. 37-38), cf. تقنيّ taqni/tiqani (lit. "of perfection, related to mastering and improving"), another PSM of technical, in this case in Modern Arabic.
  15. ^ Sapir & Zuckermann 2008.
  16. ^ "Bowfin Anglers". Archived from the original on 2007-07-12. Retrieved 2007-07-15.
  17. ^ Wynia 2011.
  18. ^ van Dale 2015.
  19. ^ Mailhammer 2008, p. 191.
  20. ^ Laakso 2010.
  21. ^ Jarva 2001.
  22. ^ Jarva 2003.
  • Bloomfield, Leonard (1933). Language. New York: Henry Holt. p. 21.
  • van Dale, Johan Hendrik (2015). Groot woordenboek van de Nederlandse taal (in Dutch) (15th ed.). Utrecht: Van Dale Uitgevers. ISBN 9789460772221.
  • Gao, Liwei (2008). Language change in progress: evidence from computer-mediated communication (Speech). 20th North American Conference on Chinese Linguistics. Ohio State University.
  • Haugen, Einar (1950). "The Analysis of Linguistic Borrowing". Language. 26 (2): 210–231. JSTOR 410058.
  • Heyd, Uriel (1954). Language reform in modern Turkey. Jerusalem: Israel Oriental Society. OCLC 3816059.
  • Mailhammer, Robert (2008). "The Wolf in sheep's clothing: Camouflaged borrowing in Modern German". Folia Linguistica. 42 (1): 177–193. ISSN 0165-4004.
  • Laakso, Johanna (2010). "Contact and the Finno-Ugric languages". In Hickey, Raymond. The Handbook of Language Contact. Wiley.
  • Lewis, Geoffrey L (1977) [1953]. Turkish. Teach Yourself Books. London: Hodder, Stoughton. ISBN 0340058285.
  • Jarva, Vesa (23 August 2003). "Väitös: Tökötti tököttää, tytinä tytisee (Jarva)" (in Finnish). Archived from the original on 2006-10-10.
  • Jarva, Vesa (2001). "Some expressive and borrowed elements in the lexicon of Finnish dialects". In Voeltz, Erhard Friedrich Karl; Kilian-Hatz, Christa. Ideophones. John Benjamins.
  • Sapir, Yair; Zuckermann, Ghil'ad (2008). "Icelandic: Phonosemantic Matching" (PDF). In Rosenhouse, Judith; Kowner, Rotem. Globally Speaking: Motives for Adopting English Vocabulary in Other Languages. Clevedon-Buffalo-Toronto: Multilingual Matters. pp. 19–43 (Chapter 2).
  • Wynia, Richard (March 2011). "Plant fact sheet for Osage orange (Maclura pomifera)" (PDF). Manhattan, KS: USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, Manhattan Plant Materials Center. Retrieved December 16, 2015.
  • Zuckermann, Ghil'ad (2003). Language Contact and Lexical Enrichment in Israeli Hebrew. Palgrave Macmillan. ISBN 978-1403917232.
  • Zuckermann, Ghil'ad (2003). "Language Contact and Globalisation: The Camouflaged Influence of English on the World's Languages – with special attention to Israeli (sic) and Mandarin". Cambridge Review of International Affairs. 16 (2): 287–307. doi:10.1080/09557570302045.
  • Zuckermann, Ghil'ad (2004). "Cultural Hybridity: Multisourced Neologization in 'Reinvented' Languages and in Languages with 'Phono-Logographic' Script". Languages in Contrast. 4 (2): 281–318. doi:10.1075/lic.4.2.06zuc.
  • Zuckermann, Ghil'ad (2006). "'Etymythological Othering' and the Power of 'Lexical Engineering' in Judaism, Islam and Christianity. A Socio-Philo(sopho)logical Perspective". In Omoniyi, Tope; Fishman, Joshua A. Explorations in the Sociology of Language and Religion. Amsterdam: John Benjamins. pp. 237–258.
  • Zuckermann, Ghil'ad (2009). "Hybridity versus Revivability: Multiple Causation, Forms and Patterns" (PDF). Journal of Language Contact. Varia 2: 40–67.

External linksEdit