Horses go ‘neigh’ and pigs go ‘oink’. What does the rooster do? Cock-a-doodle-do! Any self-respecting toddler knows this. Well, English speaking ones do, anyway.
But what do French horses say? Do they go ‘neigh’? No, French horses say ‘hennir’. If you’re in Denmark they ‘vrinsken’ and if you speak Latin they go ‘hinnìre’ (which, just to be clear, nobody does – Latin is a dead language, after all).
Enter the ridiculously wonderful world of onomatopoeia. Or, in layman’s terms – words that go ‘ping’.
Author Barbara Lasserre is an expert in linguistics, especially in words that make sounds. She’s travelled the world lecturing and studying applied linguistics, from the University of Poitiers in France to the University of Port Harcourt in Nigeria and the University of Technology in our very own Sydney. She’s also lived in Syria and studied Arabic.
Lasserre explains onomatopoeia thus:
Onomatopoeia adds colour to the way we express ourselves. It is a communication tool that is playful, fun, and often seems arbitrary…
Over the course of 186 pages she describes and deconstructs sounds from ‘Whoopee!’ (the making of feel-good words) to ‘Woops, yikes, hmm’ (interjections, ejaculations and fillers) complete with entertaining cartoons by Daniel Wlodarski.
Words That Go Ping will appeal to those who want to understand the mechanics, and a little of the history, of how we use words to describe sounds.
Onomatopoeiac history lessons
The focus of the book is largely on the technical aspects of the language of sound, but my favourite parts were the trips down history lane.
Did you know that to croon used to mean ‘to bellow or roar’ in the late fifteenth century? A few decades later it was transformed to mean ‘to murmur or hum softly’. And of course nowadays it means ‘to sing sentimentally into a closely held microphone’.
And I was rather amused to discover that one of my current favourite words, Harrumph:
appeared in the 1920s as a way of expressing complaint and disdain; its origin seems to have been the noise made in clearing the throat.
Mechanical similarities of onomatopoeia across cultures
Lasserre tells us that studies have shown that, while words for particular sounds may differ across languages, we seem to be naturally drawn to particular types of sounds to describe similar experiences.
For example, we use words with sounds formed at the front of our mouths to describe pleasant tastes, such as ‘yummy’, miam (French), ñam ñam (Spanish) and nam nam (Swedish).
Bad tastes, however, result in words which use sounds formed back towards our throats, such as ‘yuck’, beurk (French), fuketsu (Japanese) and vicc (Hungarian).
Words That Go Ping is fairly technical for a layman, but written in easy English compared to academic texts. It’s bound to delight those who want to know more about linguistics without delving into heavy textbooks.