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Onomatopoeia Across the World

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Rebekah Skinner

on 20 August 2013

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Transcript of Onomatopoeia Across the World

Onomatopoeia Across Languages
And which came first, the sound or its perception?
glou glou gloup
chiku taku chiku taku
kotsu kotsu
I called in the reinforcements to find out what ducks and clocks and chickenpox said in world languages.
Classmates from l'Universite Rennes II in Bretagne, my brother in a US Air Force language school, the German woman who shops with us- all were fair game. I messaged and emailed until I had collected my own data bank of animal sounds and common onomatopoeias in other languages.
Animal noises spoken by children around the world:

Database of animal noises and animal commands:

World language speakers pronouncing animal noises

MOMA: extensive database of children making animal and vehicle noises

Japanese animal onomatopoeias, common and uncommon

French: three onomatopoeic dictionaries

We expect grammar to be diverse:
ex: to be --> I am
ser --> yo soy
(I'm hungry)
(I'm tired)
Notice how the conjugated verb "to be" can be two words to two, one word to two, or as in Turkish, exist only as a suffix whose main vowel must be adjusted to harmonize with the others.
We have various ways of expressing the
universe of ideas
at our disposal
So purely imitative words should be different too, right?
kap kap
Or should they?
After all, when a person from Germany, Turkey, or Indonesia describes the croak of the a frog they're all describing the same sound, right?
ex: croa croa, quak, qua qua, gero gero, guh-ah,
ghe-goo, kwook, air air
So what accounts for the differences?
Assaneo, Nichols, and Trevisan cite phonetic differences and limitations.
"An approach to the
imitative components of language is therefore a challenging
question that has been cast aside, due in part to the very different
acoustical properties of non-human sounds like collisions, bursts
and strikes compared to the string of vowels and consonants
forming their onomatopoeias...

The human vocal system is incapable of
generating exact copies of a given sound. It is constrained both
by the anatomy and physiology of the human vocal system and by
the phonetic space of the speakers’ native language that shapes the
sounds that are better produced and perceived...

Onomatopoeias aim at imitating sounds produced by people,
animals, nature, machines and tools. The last three categories are
particularly challenging for imitation, as sounds are not produced
by another vocal system and therefore imply strong imitative

Assaneo et al take as an example the sounds of a knock on a door and a click on a mouse, which are relatively easy to imitate. According to Assaneo, the main sound in each is the stop. Look at the similarities across languages:
knock, toc toc, tock tock tock, took took (тук тук), kon kon, tok tok tok

high heels:
töck töck töck, tcok tcok (цок цок), kotsu kotsu/katsu katsu, pada pada, ddo-bak ddo-bak OR Ddok Ddok (dd =d&t), tak tuk tak tuk, plock plock, tok took
my example
But what about something more difficult to represent, like a snore or a laugh?
: kusu kusu, ufufu, niya niya,
ron pish ron pish, zzzzzzzz,
d-r-rung, hula hula
How do you even HEAR that in a laugh?
What if we're not all hearing the same sound?
Could our phonetic backgrounds be changing our perceptions?
After all, it has been shown that after 12 months babies lose the ability to distinguish between allophones that are not used in their language
(Language Files, 322).
[pel] = moment (unaspirated)
[pʰel] = fruit (aspirated)
(Language Files, 110)
So, could we really be perceiving bangs and barks and hoots differently?
Hugh Bredin in "Onomatopoeia as a Figure and a Linguistic Principle" says no, and here's why:
The actual resemblance of onomatopoeic words to their referents is loose at best. Words like POP seem apt, until we realize that the noise released by a balloon makes one sound, not two, as our two hefty bilabial stops would make it seem. (And ribbit? REALLY??)
The route we take to onomatopoeia is more often indirect than not. We often depend more on the connotations and images contained within the word more than the actual sound it brings to mind. As Ross Smith notes in Fitting Sense to Sound: Linguistic Aesthetics and Phonosemantics
in the Work of J.R.R. Tolkien. "It seems that we unconsciously regard these phonemes as being apt for the phenomena they relate to. There are hundreds of such examples, some more iconic, some more indexical. Many occupy a middle ground between the two, such as the sequence splash, spatter, splatter, splosh, slosh (plus perhaps spurt, sprinkle, spout), which seem onomatopoeic until one considers the fact that the noise water makes when it hits a hard surface is never actually ‘splash’ or splosh,’ or anything of the sort."
Onomatopoetic sounds have been conventionalized (let's not forget Assaneo's comment about translating non-vocal noises into strings of vowels and consonants) to the point that they take inflections and tenses. (There were sudden bangs, the hot pipes hissed threateningly, and the cats ran meowing in all directions.)
As human beings we want our language to be onomatopoeic. Consider poetry, literary analysis, and character names. "Indeed, many Tolkienian names could be used themselves as evidence in favor of phonosemantics. One merely has to think of how apposite the name “Withywindle” is to a slow, winding, magical river overhung by willows, or how well the name “Tom Bombadil” fits its jolly, rumbustious owner. Looking at the matter from the opposite angle, could the broad and majestic Anduin ever have been called the Withywindle? Or can we imagine the brooding Lord Denethor being named Lord Bombadil? The idea is so absurd as to be comical, but for no reason other than, in this case, severe phonetic unfitness."
Well, maybe not so
But what, then, accounts for the differences?
These are my hypotheses:
the diversity of phonetic capabilities
language root (Note that in the introductory video the young woman from Canada uses some of the French terms as her sounds).
seizing on different parts of the same sound to imitate. (quotation on whispering and barbisio.)
After all, we are imitating sounds that were produced without the aid of any vocal tract. We can't do it.
In which case, universal perception started it, but SOUND finishes it. Diverse sound words are what we use everyday. Now sounds actually trigger our perception of the original noises!
This is a
that Bredin
moving from sound transparency
to opacity.
Usually we don't notice the sound of the words spoken to us, just their message.
Unless we're hearing a foreign language, of course. Every language student knows the thrill of a previously incomprehensible wall of words suddenly winking to glass, through which the action can be seen.
The Gods Must Be Crazy
It's all Greek
to me.
Il y a pas trop...
C'est quoi alors?
Bredin argues that this is the process that onomatopoeic words undergo every time we use them, only in reverse.
We notice their sound.
And what's more, we want to.
"From a phonosemantic viewpoint, the phonemes in wilwa and wilwarin
have evidently been chosen with care. On an entirely subjective level,
I can say that to me the name wilwarin sounds well suited to the insect
which in English we call a butterfly. From an objective viewpoint, we can
observe that the source verb wilwa, as Tolkien tells us, indicates a “fluttering
to and fro” action (i.e., a repetitive up-and-down or side-to-side
action). The two phonetically similar syllables (wi and wa) are therefore
used deliberately to reflect the repetitive nature of the action: in English,
we find similar repetition, for instance, in the phrase “to-and-fro” and the
verbs “zigzag” and ‘crisscross,” which also denote a repetitive side-to-side
movement or form. It should be noted that this device is also used in the
name “Withywindle” mentioned earlier, to reflect the winding, side-toside
course of that river. Tolkien’s choice of phonemes, therefore, met
a double purpose. On the one hand, he “found” a beautiful name for a
beautiful creature; on the other, he used phonetic resources that can be
readily recognized by the language processing centres in our minds to
convey the kind of movement which that creature makes."
- Ross Smith "Fitting Sense to Sound: Linguistic Aesthetics and Phonosemantics in the Work of J.R.R. Tolkien"

Let's take the example of the walls and windows again. Let's say a giant frog was standing outside your window, or better yet, a giant whisper. The whispering frog is too big to see all of it at once. The size and shape of your window determine what you notice and what you refer to when you speak of him.
We get used to this aspect of the whispering toad and the word becomes conventionalized.
As a real-life example, my mother remembers learning as a child what the different animals "say."
Ascribing meaning to sounds AFTER we make up the words is not a new phenomenon.
Linguists describe these patterns as phonaestemes in the domain of sound symbolism. Phonoaestemes are unusually frequent roots or clusters of consonants that aren't onomatopoeic exactly, but always relate to a certain meaning.
"These theoretical considerations reinforce what must be regarded as
a common-sense view of sound and meaning. Evidently, pure onomatopoeia
(moo, cuckoo) is a case apart, but what about such strings of terms
as glisten, glimmer, glitter, glow, gleam, glint, glare, all of which refer to light,
or lump, bump, rump, hump, stump, mumps, which all contain the ‘ump’ syllable
and refer to some kind of protuberance? It seems that we unconsciously
regard these phonemes as being apt for the phenomena they
relate to."
-Ross Smith "Fitting Sense to Sound..."
In "Onomatopeoia," J Sadler shares some of these roots:

fl- having to do with flight. As in flip, flutter, flit, flimsy, float
gl- having to do with light and brightness: glisten, glitzy, glamorous, gleam
sn- having to do with the nose: sniff, snuffle, snout, snort
ash- is a lingering sound or action: smash, crash, bash, lash, mash
And this property is centered in the design feature of productivity of language.
For example, my 13-year-old brothers thought themselves mind-numbingly clever when they came up with the term "snarf," to indicate snorting pop back through their noses when laughing at dinner. Little did they know they were firmly in the sn- sound root of nostril-related words.
Another example would be "Jabberwocky," Lewis Caroll's famous poem
And so we are left with
Oh what BOLBOUS toes he has!
Oh, what terrifyingly poisonous spots it has!"
"Aww, listen to the sweetums talk. 'Toe-bulby. Toe-bulby."
Full transcript