Sunday, March 02, 2008

The Language of Sound

As I write, I hear the sounds of early morning: sparrows chirping in a tree, the distant and lonesome coo of a dove, a crow cawing as it flies overhead; last night’s wet snow has now melted and is trickling off the roof and down the rain pipes, and Tito, our cat, is meowing to be let in from his night’s prowl. (Just a second while I go open the door for him.) Inside is the reassuring whisper of central heating – a sound so natural that I only notice it when it clicks off – and the rapid bubbling of water boiling in the kettle on the stove for my tea. (I’ve opened the spout cap so I won’t hear the shrill whistle.) Chirp, coo, caw, meow, trickle, whisper, click, bubble, whistle: just as language is made up of different vocal sounds, the sounds we hear are made into language. Every language has these sound words, and some of these are called “onomatopoeia.”

Onomatopoeia (a great word for spelling bees), which is pronounced ahna-mahda-PIA, is the term for words that imitate the sound associated with the thing or action in question. The word, “onomatopoeia,” you’ve maybe guessed, is from Greek and it means, simply, “to make (poiein) a name (onoma).” These imitative words differ from language to language, but the idea is the same: animal sounds like moo, oink, bow-wow, quack, etc., as well as sounds found in nature like “hiss,” “buzz,” “hum,” etc. are examples of onomatopoeia.

Other words do not imitate sounds so much as suggest them; these include words like “clank,” “grunt,” “whip,” “dash,” “sleazy,” and “giggle.” Some linguists lump these “sound-suggestive” words with onomatopoeia; others distinguish them as “phonaesthetic” words. I’ll make it easy on all of us but calling both groups “sound words.”

In any case, no matter what language you speak, life is full of sounds and our respective languages reflect that:

Think how many sounds we hear in a day: the br-r-ring of the alarm clock (if you’re a masochist) or the drone of the morning’s radio alarm; the splash of water from the sink and shower; yawns, burps, the jangle of house keys, the slam of the front door; there’s the honking from cars, the whir of a train’s engine; the screech of the subway pulling into the station; there’s the clang of the school bell; the groan of students being hit with a “pop” quiz; the beep of a cell phone; the click of heels on a tiled floor; the crinkle of a wrapper being pulled off a candy bar; the murmur people talking on a bus; the crack of someone folding a newspaper; the pop of a cork; ice cubes clinking in a glass; the plop of gravy spilled on the floor; the slurp of a dog eating dinner; the hum of the dish washer; a child’s wail for water and comfort in the night; a tired sigh as you crawl into bed.

These words are old – going back hundreds or more years. Early farmers no doubt needed a word to describe the sound of milk coming from a cow or goat (squirt); or how it felt to hammer your thumb (OW!!); or to know the certain sound in the bushes (rustle) that meant either enemy or just a squirrel.

And with all those undeveloped woods back then, villagers would have had to know the sounds of the forest: the rattle of bare branches, the gurgle of a stream, the growl of a bear, the howl of a wolf. In the village would be the clip-clop of horses’ hooves on cobblestone; the clatter of constructing all those quaint half-timber houses and marketplaces, plus the hustle and bustle of everyday commerce, in addition to the steady chatter, patter and gab among the townspeople, and the peal of church bells on Sunday.

Sound words can slink, slither, slip, and slide almost unconsciously into our lives and vocabulary; or they can appear with a gush, burst, or spurt of creativity: The 60’s TV show “Batman” is known for bringing onomatopoetic words like “POW!” “BAM!” “KRRASH!” and “WHAM!” into our lives. My brother-in-law is informally called Biff, which is the sound, according to his mother, that he uttered as a little boy fighting imaginary foes -- “Bfff! Bfff!”. And in Cole Porter’s song, “Paris,” we’re told: “I love Paris in the autumn when it drizzles; I love Paris in the summer when it sizzles.” “Drizzle” so well conveys a light but steady rain; and “sizzle” suggests summer heat – the hissing sound of raw meat hitting a hot barbecue.

One interesting imitative word is, “gnaw,” as in, “to bite or chew with a scraping noise,” like a dog gnawing on a bone, or a mouse on the wood inside your kitchen wall; it’s interesting because it’s so similar in sound and spelling in such a wide variety of languages: Danish, Swedish, and Norwegian have gnave (pron: g’nah-veh), gnage, and gnaga; Latvian-grauzt and Lithuanian-grauzhti; Polish – gryzc (grooch); and Russian – grizt; Latin-based languages gave up the “g” but kept the basic idea: Portuguese - roer (a throaty ghro-ehhr); French – ronger (a nasal rohnZHAY); and Italian – rosicare (a lovely trilled rozee-KA-reh, which is similar to the others except completely loses the dog-chewing sound in favor of the language’s natural music). “Gnaw,” according to the dictionary, goes back to Anglo-Saxon times; however, in view of its use in other languages and cultures, it’s probably safe to say this verb has been around for as long as dogs and bones.

The word “cuckoo” is also a fairly universal sound, even though the cuckoo bird, native to tropical climes, is mostly known from Swiss clocks. Its meaning can vary from country-to-country too. For example, saying, “Cou-cou” is currently in vogue in France as an informal greeting among French women; said quickly as one word, “coucou” means, “peek-a-boo,” as in the baby’s game, both of which could also be seen as sound words. In the U.S., “cuckoo” means simply “crazy.”

Lewis Carroll has been wowing word-lovers for 130-plus years with his onomatopoeistic masterpiece, “The Jabberwocky,” found in his story, “Through the Looking Glass.” In that poem -- about a boy going into the woods to slay an imaginary monster -- Carroll invented words to sound like the imaginary animals or actions he wanted to convey. It begins: “T’was brillig and the slithy toves did gyre and gimbel in the wabe ...” Roughly translated it means, “It was evening and the slimy-lithe imaginary forest creatures turned round and round and made holes in the grass plot around a sundial.”

But the point of “The Jabberwocky” is not to translate it into ordinary language, but just to have fun saying the made-up words that rhyme with ones you know: “… the jaws that bite, the claws that catch; beware the jubjub bird and shun the frumious bandersnatch.” (The poem has even been translated into French and German: “Il brilgue: les tôves lubricilleux se gyrent en vrillant dans le guave …” and “Es brillig war, die schlichte Toven wirrten und wimmelten im Waben …”)

Children’s books and poems abound with sound words. There’s A.A. Milne’s, “Christopher Robin had wheezles and sneezles and they bundled him into his bed;” there are Roald Dahl’s books, with funny names like Veruca Salt and Willy Wonka, and candy bars called “scrumpdidliumptious.”

J.K. Rowling also played with words, as in her characters’ names: the good and wise Albus Dumbledore (“dore” suggestive of French “d’or” or gold), the evil Voldemort (“mort” suggestive of Latin “death”), and even the minor character, the French nurse, Madame Pomfrey (sounds like pomme frites?). I just could never understand why she named Harry Potter’s utterly loyal best friend Ron Weasley, since “weaselly” means resembling a weasel, and thus someone nasty and untrustworthy. For that matter, why was the famous school of wizardry and witchcraft called Hogwarts? (Hog+warts implies the opposite of something magical; was she being ironic? Why?)

I remember learning about sound words in elementary school and having to write a poem using them. Many years later I wrote a sound-word poem for my young niece; called “Mud,” the poem was later published in a children’s poetry treasury and went:

“Mud is gooey, SQuisshh patooey!
Mush it with your fingers, gush it with your toes;
Slimy, glimy, wet and grimy --
Oooohhhh! I love mud!”

(Still later the poem was made into a rap-style kids’ song, recorded by the deep-voiced man who played the evil plant in the movie, “Little Shop of Horrors” and you can hear it on this site (along with my “Gonna Sleep Like a Baby”):

What’s interesting about English sound words is how their usage can be categorized by the first two letters. For example, what do clink-clank-clunk have in common? Cl-words tend to suggest the sound of something sharp or metallic, like “clash” and “clang.”

The book I’ve found this in, “Vocabulary in Use” by Cambridge University Press, has explained this amazing aspect of word lore in a few short paragraphs. Take these opening sound word combinations:

Gr-words, as in “groan,” “grumble” “grumpy,” “grunt,” and “growl” suggest some unpleasant, or even threatening, sound or action.

Sp-words are related to water or other liquids, or even powder: splash, splutter, spray, sprinkle, and spurt. (That 50’s song: “Splish-splash, I was taking a bath”)

Wh-words suggest movement through air: whiz, whistle, whirr, wheeze, whip. And what do you say when you’re on a swing – “Wheeeee!”

On the other hand, words ending in “—ash” as in “dash,” “lash,” “crash,” and “gash” suggest something fast and violent.

So keep listening, word-lovers, for the sounds of your life: from the snap-crackle-and-pop in your morning cereal to the sound of silence – or maybe snoring – at night. And here’s to a good night’s sleep: Zzzzzzzz.