Sound and Fury – The Impact of Phonetics
If you are an expert in phonetic and syntactic iconicity please skip this section. Otherwise, this is one of the most important copywriting lessons you will learn.
If you have taken an introductory linguistics class, you probably learned that ‘language is ambiguous’, that the sounds that make up a word have nothing to do with the meaning of the word. (Your professor may have used ivory tower terms such as ‘an arbitrary relationship between the signifier and signified’.) They likely told you this arbitrariness is true aside from a few exceptions for onomatopoeia (BANG! BOOM! SPLAT!)
However, if you took more advanced linguistics classes or are a Word Nerd or happen to know sign language, you may have been exposed to the wonders of iconicity.
What Does ‘Iconicity’ Mean?
Basically, ‘iconicity’ means that the word itself, the package of the word, means something. The characteristics that make up the word symbolize something; the characteristics of the word (its sounds) carry certain feelings and communicate these emotions or ideas to the person who reads them or hears them.
Sign language is an easy entry point for understanding what ‘iconicity’, means because sign languages have a higher degree of iconicity than spoken languages. That is, sign words are more likely to have a concrete connection to the idea or object they are symbolizing. For example, the sign word for ‘wave’ (as in an ocean wave) in American Sign Language is to gesture a wavelike motion with both hands. The word for ‘you’ is a finger pointed towards the person you are speaking to. This kind of symbolism happens to an enormous degree in spoken language as well but is much better hidden. Look behind this veil and unlock much more powerful copywriting.
What Does This Mean for Copywriting?
Many sounds by their very nature have unconscious symbolisms for us; they convey an emotion or a certain kind of movement or a general characteristic. The reasons for this are complex and often have to do with the way they are formed in our mouths and/or how they combine with other sounds.
For example, the “j” sound is formed quite forcefully in our mouth, and is used to start words for a number of aggressive actions – jab, joust, jerk, jagged, etc.
Long rounded vowels and rounded consonants are often used for words that convey a sense of openness, vastness or rounded physical characteristics – hope, holy, round, moon, hall, hollow.
The “s” sound is fluid and combines easily with many other sounds; it’s used in a very high proportion of words that suggest fluidity – swagger, swing, sway, swivel, slide, slither.
The examples above are all in English, but the principle operates across and between languages; it taps into human universals.
In copywriting, especially for very short wordsmithing such as naming a brand or writing a headline, the phonetic symbolism of the word – the way the sounds make you feel, what they subconsciously suggest – is at least as important, if not much more important, than the literal meaning of the word(s).
So how do you take advantage of this principle?
How to Apply Phonetics as a Copywriting Trick
Before you start to brainstorm potential names, phrases or words you would like to use, think about what sounds best convey the idea you are trying to communicate.
If you’re working on a name for a modern, edgy brand, then you may want to brainstorm around hard, edgy sounds like “z”, “q”, “k”.
If you’re creating a feeling of serenity, use flowing sounds and consonant clusters with glides – “s”, “l”, “w”, “fl”, “sl”, “sw”, etc.
To create more energy, use sharp vowels sound. For a softer feeling or more subtlety, use softer vowel sounds.
All of the above are merely examples – the possibilities are numerous. Where the sound falls within a word – beginning, middle or end – also plays a role in the feeling communicated. Compare an initial “z”, such as “zap” or “zam”, which feels very active and decisive, to a final “z”, which gives the feeling of sustained vibration, e.g. “buzz”, “fizz”, “wheeze”.
Additionally, the meaning in the messenger is not limited solely to the sounds you choose and where they fall within the words, but also the word order and rhythm – which incidentally is called “syntactic iconicity”, in case you ever want to speak intellectually about it.
Taking advantage of phonetic and syntactic iconicity is a skill mastered by many poets. The more you practice sculpting your message with phonetic symbolism in your copywriting, the more you will find yourself doing it intuitively.
Copywriters often flounder when they concentrate too heavily on literal meanings instead of simply focusing on the feeling that should be communicated. Don’t spend too much time seeking out synonyms and researching and brainstorming around a topic while you neglect to craft names that communicate the right feeling to the audience.
When a potential customer encounters your brand name on a brochure cover, it will make no difference at all if you named it after a second-century BC temple to the Egyptian god of energy. The gut impact is what matters; if you want a brand about energy, you’d be better off going with a made up word that feels energetic.
If you want your headline to communicate speed, don’t just talk about speed. Make your reader feel quickness, with a short headline, a bite-sized word or two with short, sharp vowel sounds.