… Even apart from the direct mimicking of speech baulked or bulked by oral pleasure, the m sound may be regarded as a primary phoneme — one which human children across many different cultures produce earlier and more easily than many other sounds. [ ... ] The vocable um, which functions in English as a linguistic placeholder, is a kind of silence made audible — the sound of not speaking, that keeps the channel open when where there is no communication. It is a vocal noise that impersonates voice.
… The plumped out pause that is the um is perhaps a minor form of the Big Nothing embodied in the mystical vocable Om, or Aum, that is supposed simultaneously to saturate and evacuate the thoughts of the meditator.
… The magical thinking expressed through the letter m is reinforced by the fact that a large group of words in the lexical field related to magic employ it: myth, music, meditation, magic, mysticism, dream, imagination, the mantic, the numinous (indeed, something of the incantatory power attaching to the words phenomenon and phenomenological indicate their affinity to this phonaesthetic cluster, despite the fact that the phenomenon is the opposite of the noumenon). It is perhaps the prominence of the m-sounds in Coleridge’s ‘five miles meandering with a mazy motion’ in ‘Kubla Khan’ that makes this line seem mimetic, the suggestion perhaps being that mazes and maziness that are confusing to the eye have a stupefying effect.
… Freud called magical thinking ‘omnipotence of thoughts,’ for the belief in magic is a belief in the magical power of thinking to make the world conform to it. But magical thinking is also often characterized by its conviction, or at least assertion, of the limits to thought, along with the irrational curtailing of the powers of reason, and the deliberate projection of mysterious powers or realities that lie beyond it: if you cannot know what you cannot know, you can still relish the delicious assurance that you cannot know it. Words that rumor of the numinous and the mysterious are often the carriers of this thought that assiduously keeps itself at a distance from itself, while remaining serenely confident nevertheless of its power to take the measure of the immeasurable, imagine the fact of unimaginability, name the unnameable. Magical thinking operates in the mode of amplified murmur, of assertion without articulation, of mime and intimation, lullabied by the slumberous humming of these nasals.
… In this sense, the um is another diagram of the mouth as such, abstracted to its twin actions of opening and closing. The noises of the voice are the voice of the vocal apparatus itself heard in parallel and in excess to the voice. Where the voice seeks to shape the mouth and the speaking voice in accord with meaning, these noises seek to pull the meaning back into the shape of the speaking apparatus, to draw the whole round world into the hollow O of the mouth. And the most mouthy sound of all is the one that seems to draw everything back into the mouth, the m.
… writers have been drawn to the strong implication of the lips produced by m sounds. Dylan Thomas’s ‘The Force That Through the Green Fuse Drives the Flower’ mimes different kinds of mouths at work in speaking, sucking, leaching and finally, devouring. There is a force that ‘dries the mouthing streams’; the speaker is ‘dumb to mouth’ to his veins that ‘the same mouth sucks’ as sucks at a mountain stream and is equally ‘dumb to tell’ (unable to tell, or dumb in order to indicate dumbly) how ‘the same crooked worm’ (tongue, finger, pen, penis) is at work in his writing. Joyce’s ‘allwombing tomb,’ the equivalence of life and death, is carried through the poem’s humming labials. To be ‘dumb to tell’ implies both that the speaker is unable to tell, and therefore dumb, and also that being dumb might itself be a kind of telling, mutism being assimilated to utterance.
… If it is true that langauge is in essence and in itself fundamentally arbitrary, with no given or necessary relationship between particular sound-forms and particular areas of reality or experience, it is also true that human users of language, who are also, by that very token, human producers and transformers of it, are powerfully influenced by conscious and unconscious assumptions about the relations between sound and sense, many of them magical. As a theory of the essential nature of langauge, phonosemantics may be — no, certainly is — erroneous, but the error has a distinctive form and force. Like many other forms of magical thinking, it is a form of error that bends things into its image, insisting itself into a kind of truth. So I am arguing, not for the simple actuality of the effects of the bilabial nasal, considered as what Margaret Magnus calls a ‘god in the word,’ or consonantal ‘archetype,’ but for the reality of the fact that we seem, in our uses of and attitudes towards language, to assume this actuality.
[line break added to make this easier to read online] Rather than a mythic actuality, it is therefore a mimic or as-if actuality. Possibly swallowing, or myself being taken in by phonaesthetic fantasy, I have had to assimilate myself to the mimic magic, the magical mimesis, of this taking-to-be-true. The magic of sound iconicity and its associated forms of mouth-mysticism are ultimately founded on– nothing; founded, that is, on the fact that the source of this magical power is just noises made by air, cartilage and saliva. The mouth is magical because, as the vehicle of speech, it constantly translates hardware into software, making something (meaning) out of nothing (mere sounds), and nothing (idea) out of something (matter). But is the fact that people believe in something that has nothing to it itself something, or nothing? If the primal cavity of the speaking mouth has indeed so often seemed to be full of magic, this may be literally enough because there is nothing in it.