SOUNDS LIKE

They’re the words that put the whizz bang into our lan­guage, says RD chief sube­d­i­tor Donyale Harrison

Reader's Digest Asia Pacific - - Contents - DONYALE HARRISON

Ono­matopoeia refers to those evoca­tive words that mimic the sounds that they make. So why then do cats miaow in English and nyan nyan in Ja­panese?

WHEN I WAS MUCH YOUNGER, ono­matopoeia was one of my favourite words. I loved the fact that a word that means “words that sound like nat­u­ral sounds” is it­self so com­pli­cated that prac­ti­cally no-one could guess its mean­ing, let alone spell­ing. If I’m be­ing hon­est, I had a hard time even say­ing the wretched thing.

But, like most chil­dren, I was a keen user of ono­matopoeia: cars went vrooom; dogs went ruff ruff; wa­ter splish splash. And the joy of those words re­mains, even though I might nowa­days aim for the so­phis­ti­ca­tion of a susurrus (whistling or rustling) or tintinnab­u­la­tion (ring­ing or tin­kling).

There’s noth­ing overly mys­te­ri­ous about ono­matopoeic words. For the most part they de­scribe ac­tual sounds, from the quack of a duck to the whoosh of dead­lines fly­ing by. Many

of them are very old words: quack, like baa, moo and miaow, popped up in the Re­nais­sance; susurrus and tintinnab­u­la­tion both come from the Latin; while whoosh is newer as things only got that fast in the 19th cen­tury, and it took till the 1960s for en­gines to war­rant a vroom.

Some­times words be­come less ono­matopoeic the longer they hang around: bleat used to be pro­nounced blet, with a long vowel, which sounds much more like the sound a sheep ­ac­tu­ally makes.

In the same way, new words pop up as the lan­guage finds a need for them; like zhuzh, the last-minute fan­cy­ing up of an out­fit that was in­tro­duced into the lan­guage by Queer Eye for the Straight Guy (more than a decade ago: I feel old!), or bah-bow, the tonal ­im­per­son­ation of a wrong an­swer buzzer that ap­par­ently be­gan on an Amer­i­can quiz show be­fore spread­ing to ev­ery teenager I know.

There’s a rea­son ono­matopoeic words are so pop­u­lar: you don’t re­ally need to know their mean­ing in or­der to un­der­stand them. The first time you heard some­one de­scribed as frumpy, the word it­self gave you a sense of lumpy tired­ness. Whereas the same per­son de­scribed as sleekit or schmick would clearly have in­vested in a hair­cut and new set of clothes, not to men­tion a shoe pol­ish.

Ono­matopoeia al­lows you to give a finer tone to the qual­ity you are dis­cussing than stan­dard English. An ex­plo­sion that goes pop is prob­a­bly just a lid left on in the mi­crowave, while one that goes bang is more likely to be at least er­rant fire­works. A boom will cer­tainly do real dam­age and ­mis­siles whizzing past are def­i­nitely bad news. The sounds them­selves in­di­cate the sever­ity of the blast.

This qual­ity of self-ex­plana­tori­ness can even work across lan­guage bar­ri­ers. I had no idea what the Ital­ian word for mos­quito was, but when I saw a Ro­man look crossly at his arm and mut­ter “Zan­zara!” it needed no trans­la­tion app.

How­ever, de­spite the fact that we’re mostly hear­ing the same sounds, there are some re­mark­able in­ter­na­tional ono­matopoeic quirks. Some sounds have sur­pris­ing uni­ver­sal­ity. Vari­ants on Shhh and Ha­ha­haha com­monly con­vey shush­ing or laugh­ter in dozens of lan­guages.

In oth­ers, we have only mi­nor dif­fer­ences: the French plic ploc is in fact much bet­ter than English drip drop for a leak­ing tap, while the Ger­man plitsch platsch sug­gests you should re­ally call the plumber sooner rather than later.

But oth­ers are wildly dif­fer­ent. Il­lus­tra­tor James Chap­man has a won­der­ful web­site (www.chap­mang­amo.tum­blr.com) where he shows how dif­fer­ent lan­guages rep­re­sent dif­fer­ent ono­matopoeic words. One of my favourites is of cats: purr in English be­comes ron­ron in French, nurr in Es­to­nian, schnurr in Ger­man and goro goro in Ja­panese.

There are two pos­si­ble ex­pla­na­tions: either the cats have re­gional ac­cents, or we’re lis­ten­ing to them through dif­fer­ent sets of ex­pec­ta­tions. Now the first propo­si­tion isn’t wholly ridicu­lous. Song­birds are known to have re­gional song vari­ants, as do whales, and some re­search sug­gests that do­mes­ti­cated an­i­mals take on as­pects of the ac­cents of the hu­mans around them. I’ve pat­ted cats around the world and there are def­i­nite ­cul­tural trends in their man­ner­isms.

But the Guardian’s Gary Nunn, who wrote a bril­liant ar­ti­cle on this topic ti­tled “Why do pigs oink in English, boo boo in Ja­panese and nöff nöff in Swedish?” summed up the broader sci­en­tific ar­gu­ment with “it isn’t pigs that are mul­ti­lin­gual, it’s us.” ­Ap­par­ently we hear an­i­mals and other sounds through the au­ral “lens” of our own lan­guage.

One fact that quickly stands out in in­ter­na­tional com­par­isons is the un­usu­al­ness of Ja­panese ono­matopoeia. It is the only lan­guage in which a cat’s miaow does not start with an M, rather, they say nyan nyan. Sim­i­larly, it is alone in hav­ing no Z or S sound in the word for bee noises: Ja­panese bees say boon boon.

It’s no ca­sual dif­fer­ence. Ja­panese has not one, but three types of ono­matopoeia: Gi­seigo, which are the sounds of liv­ing things; Giongo, which are the sounds of inan­i­mate ob­jects; and Gi­taigo, which is for words that mimic qual­i­ties like busi­nesslike or

quickly. Un­like English, where this class of words is of­ten used in a less for­mal man­ner, Ja­panese uses them in a wider va­ri­ety of con­texts and more com­monly. Alas, it would re­quire a far bet­ter grasp of lin­guis­tics (and Ja­panese) than mine to ex­trap­o­late from this to nyan­ing cats, but it is a good ex­cuse to slip in that the gi­taigo word for an­noyed is muka­muka, which is clearly splen­did and worth sneak­ing into English.

So the next time you find your­self lost for words and re­sort to, “She was all growl growl and he was all nyah nyah,” don’t be­moan your in­abil­ity to re­mem­ber ad­jec­tives. Cel­e­brate the fact that your ono­matopoeia is con­nect­ing you with a world­wide au­di­ence! Ex­cept, pos­si­bly, the Ja­panese.

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