Onomatopoeia

By Mark Nichol

How do you represent various sounds in writing? The term for vocal (and written) imitation of sounds, onomatopoeia, means “to make names.” (The word, a Latinization of a Greek word, consists of the term that is also the origin of name, nominal, and the like and the one from which poem and poet are derived.) But making names is complicated by the fact that spelling of sounds is arbitrary.

Various languages represent common sounds with uncommonly assorted words. What in English would be spelled chomp or munch is in Indonesian krauk and in Japanese musha-musha. Shh, or hush, is translated as psszt in Hungarian and cht in Spanish. Achoo! is spelled apchix in Bulgarian and achhee! in Hindi. Sometimes — for instance, because a frog in one country is a different species from one in another country and therefore may actually make a different sound — this variation is logical. But often (look up the various representations for meow around the world) the differences are perplexing.

But even within one language, a writer is challenged by the ambiguity of sounds. How, exactly, does one spell a yell? That word itself is onomatopoeic, but “Yell!” is not a yell. A cry of anger is distinct from one of fear. And an exclamation of pain could be spelled starting with an a (“Aughhh!”), an o (“Owww!”), or a y (“Yeow!”).

Some variation from what a reader may be accustomed to is reasonable: If I routinely spelled an archvillain’s triumphant evil laugh “Bwah-hah-hah!” I would be distracted but not derailed to see it treated as “Muah-ha-ha!” But “Myau” would not alert me to the presence of a cat; in English, either the spelling above or the British English preference, miaow (or mew, a variation suggesting a gentler cry) is standard.

But how do I know that? The compositional catch-22 — “How can I look something up in the dictionary if I don’t know how to spell it?” — may come into play, especially when the word starts with a vowel. But that’s step number one: Look it up. Is a donkey’s bray spelled “Hee haw”? Type the word into Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary, and you’ll learn whether your guess is validated. (In this case, English is in the minority among languages, most of which begin spelling of that sound with a vowel.) Or rely on your reading — whether your sources are science journals or comic books, some standard is likely to prevail.

Neologisms or words not generally granted legitimacy in writing (fuggedaboudit, anyone?) can be a challenge, but try an online search if you’re not sure. You’ll likely get a response for more than one alternative, but apply the quality test, not the quantity test: Judge the preferred spelling not on which is most frequent, but which is used on the most authoritative (or least questionable) sites.

But in the right circumstance, go ahead and take a chance. If you desire, for example, that a character respond to another’s cattiness, a flat utterance of “Meow” may convey the first person’s cynical understatement, whereas “Reerrrrrrrrrrr!” will, despite its lack of resemblance to the standard spelling, clearly evoke an unambiguous judgment about the second character’s provocative statement or behavior.

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