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Wednesday, 14 December 2011

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Booh booh here and bow wow there

Sinhala New Year arrives to us with a familiar sound of ‘koho koho’ of Cuckoo bird. Doggies bark ‘booh booh’ and cats, rather annoyingly ‘gnaaw gnaaw’ whenever they are hungry. Cockerels wake us up with their ‘kukku kook koo’ and cows ‘umbae’.

Onomatopoeia, the imitative making of words from natural sounds, is a common phenomenon found in all languages of the world. In the realm of linguistic study, it is commonly accepted that individual sounds do not represent any particular meanings. It is, for instance, meaningless to ask what [p] or [a] mean. The sound for the word of a particular meaning is arbitrary; therefore there is generally no connection between sound and meaning. This, however, is not absolutely correct, as we have neglected the existence of a class of words, namely onomatopes, which do appear in the everyday use of language quite often.

As its Greek root suggests, onomatopoeia is the making (poiein) of a name or word (onoma) from natural sound. Onomatopes are thus imitative words of these natural sounds.

Onomatopes are found in all languages of the world, and some linguists in fact believe onomatopes were the first words human spoke when language was developed.

Since direct imitation allows the hearer to understand the meaning most easily, it is the most obvious way to describe actions (e.g. punch, boom) and animals (e.g. cock, dodo), which constitute the most parts of the conversation between primordial human. Therefore, the hypothesis is indeed reasonable.

These primitive sounds have evolved over time, the remnants have become today’s onomatopes, and even some words which we do not usually regard as onomatopes.

Despite the importance of onomatopes in the world’s languages, the linguistic study of them is pitifully inadequate. Many linguistics regarded onomatopes as “second class citizens among words, since they are often polysemous, while at the same time, paradoxically, applicable to only a narrow semantic range”.

Generally, most onomatopoeic words around the world bear certain similarities. For instance, the Latin word for the call of a cock is cucurire, the word was either inherited or borrowed into many European languages, giving birth to words like chichirichi in Italian, kikeriki in German, kukeliku in Swedish and kukorekati in Russian. The velar sound of ‘k’ is presented even in English and Sinhala versions of call of cock.

Despite the above mentioned similarities, differences do exist between languages.

The Cantonese call of a frog gwaagwaa, for instance, is quite different from the English ribbit. The English boom for the sound of explosion, is also quite unrecognizable to the Swahili twa. This raises a difficult question to answer: Why do these onomatopes differ?

Supporters of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis propose that sounds perceived by a hearer are in fact dependent upon the phonological system of his language.

Sound effects are verbalized by means of the phonemes of a language according to how the speakers hear the effects.

The hypothesis, however, has not met with adequate evidences.

Instead of accepting that the sounds we hear are altered by our phonological system, it seems more reasonable to argue that the sounds we speak are altered by the phonological system.

This is because even if we hear and perceive the same sounds, we always imitate these sounds with a closest set of phonemes in our own phonological system when we onomatopoeicize them.

Taking the buzzing of bees as an example, in most of the European languages surveyed, the onomatopes involve a voiced fricative [z] to represent the fricative sound made by the vibration of bees. But here in Sinhalese, we call buzzing ‘gumu gumu’ with more familiar sounds for us.

It is interesting to observe that the whole world is separated by a common language.

 

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