Severus Snape & The Sound Of Words

Authors have been doing it for centuries – creating characters whose very name gives you a sense of their personality.

Charles Dickens was a master of the art. He was the man who gave us Fagin (nasty sounding type), John Jarndyce (a kindly, upstanding lawyer, Ebeneezer Scrooge (would you trust him?) and Uriah Heep (can’t you hear him snivelling?)

Across the years and across the genres, authors pick names that sound right for their characters – Lee Child gave us the ex-military, wandering tough man Jack Reacher, while J K Rowling turned to alliteration for the sinister Severus Snape.

severus-snapeAs an author, I know that choosing the names of characters – whether main protagonist or bit part – is very important. I like names that aren’t too long but somehow give an idea of what a person’s like.

For my schoolboy hero in The Vault I picked Adam Strong, while the narrator of Pagan’s Sphinx is overland expedition leader Ben Drummond. (Took me a while to get his name right – he was Will Lewis for a while but even despite my Welsh heritage I knew that couldn’t be his real name.)

But is there more to it than just randomly picking a name that sounds right? What makes a name sound right?

Yesterday, via a post on the Oxford Dictionaries blog, I was introduced to the concept of phonaesthesia. Big word but a curiously simple idea. The basic concept is some individual sounds convey ideas of shape, movement etc.

For example, many words that start ‘fl…’ are to do with airborne movement – e.g. fly, flick, flee, flap. Think about these ones – rubble, rugged, rough, rumble. Any connection? Or these – glitz, glamour, glee, glance and glare.

And it’s clearly not all to do with the fact that many words might derive from a common root. Apparently a study involving both American college students and Tamil speakers showed that when asked to choose which word – bouba or kiki – represents a round boulder and which one a jagged boulder, 95% picked kiki as the jagged shape.

There’s a lot more – fascinating – detail in the Oxford Dictionaries post, which concludes with this:

“A similar test—though far more imaginative—is offered by linguist David Crystal: you have to crash-land your spaceship. Two planets are equally close by. One is inhabited by Lamonians, the other teems with Grataks. Which do you choose?”

You’d have to go with the Lamonians wouldn’t you? The Grataks? Well, they just sound far too gratakly to be safe.

I thought this was an interesting one to share. Might give a new dimension to picking names for characters – see what other words are in the dictionary starting with the same syllable and see how that fits. Could be particularly useful for sci-fi and fantasy writers who are inventing names from scratch – I mean, you’re not going to get very far with a villain called Blumbest or a heroine called Crungle are you?Competition link


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3 responses to “Severus Snape & The Sound Of Words”

  1. Kate Sparkes says :

    I envy JK Rowling’s ability to give characters names that are absolutely perfect for them. I’m terrible at it! Maybe this will help…

  2. Sharon Bonin-Pratt says :

    What an interesting post – I’m also intrigued by the sound of words.

    • Huw Thomas says :

      I’d never really given it much thought before. I knew that some words sound good but I’d not considered that certain sounds might have particular associations.
      Glad you found it interesting.

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