September 03, 2020


Sounds All Around: A Guide to Onomatopoeias Around the World. By James Chapman. Andrews McMeel. $14.99.

     A sound is just that – a sound. That’s all there is to it. End of story.

     Well, actually beginning of story, the story being Sounds All Around. For while it is certainly true that a sound is merely noise (as opposed to a word that is used to convey meaning), the words used to describe the sound are very different in different languages. And those differences are what James Chapman explores in this simple but simply fascinating book.

     With a little seven-pointed cartoon star as a guide and cartoon drawings of the various sound-emitting people, animals and objects he is discussing, Chapman takes young readers on a journey of onomatopoeia – a delightfully long and complex-seeming word that is one of many in English describing unusual elements of the language (other such examples are “homophones,” which are words that sound the same but have different spellings, and “homonyms,” which are words spelled the same way but having different meanings). This onomatopoetic journey starts on every page with the English word for a sound, such as “woof” for the noise a dog makes – then shows other dogs going “wuwu” (Swahili), “voff” (Icelandic), “hong” (Thai), “guk” (Indonesian), and more. Pigs go “oink” in English but “grunz” in German, “buu” in Japanese, “chrum” in Polish, and “knor” in Dutch. Horses “neigh” in English, but the sound they make is rendered as “nyihaha” in Hungarian, “vrinsk” in Danish, and “ihaha” in four languages: Czech, Finnish, Polish and Estonian.

     What is especially interesting about Sounds All Around is the way it can open young readers’ ears to, well, the sounds all around. We tend to “hear” sounds designated by the words in our native language, but there is really no logic to this: a sound is simply a noise, and it makes sense that native speakers of various languages “translate” the sound into very different words, depending on how each language uses letters and also on how people from various countries absorb and interpret sounds. There is no inherent reason that we should think of a turkey going “gobble gobble” rather than “goro goro” (Spanish), “hudry hudry” (Czech), or “gulu gulu” (Turkish). And there is nothing “better” or “more correct” in thinking that snakes go “sssssss” when in German they are said to go “zisch,” in Norwegian “hvese,” and in Chinese “siiiiii.”

     Interestingly, other languages sometimes have words for sounds that have no English descriptive word at all. There is no English noise for the sound elephants make, for example, but in Swedish it is “tuut,” in Japanese it is “pao,” in Arabic it is “prrew,” and in Thai it is “praen.” On the other hand, some animal sounds get very similar expressions in multiple languages: in English, wolves go “hoooowl,” while in Filipino they go “awooooo,” in Chinese it is “hao,” and in German it is “auuuuu.”

     Animal sounds are not the only ones here. There are separate sections for loud noises, natural noises, noisy machines, human body noises, and human emotions. A crying baby, for example, goes “waaaah” in English, “ouin” in French, and “tyaaa” in Bengali. The “achoo” of an English-language sneeze becomes “eichi” in Korean, “atchim” in Portuguese, and “apchkhi” in Russian. Trains go “choo chooooo” in English, “shuppo shuppo” in Japanese, “poot poot” in French, and “tuff tuff” in Swedish. Ghosts say “boo” in English, “hou” in French, “boe” in Afrikaans, and “baaah” in Estonian. Typing sounds sort of like “click clack” in English, “tec tec tec” in Brazilian Portuguese, “taap taap” in Punjabi, and “kata kata” in Japanese.

     It is worth pointing out, and Chapman does, that sometimes sounds are written differently because they really are different. A siren in the U.S. goes “wee woo,” for example, while one in the United Kingdom goes “nee naw,” one in Denmark goes “babu babu,” one in France goes “pin pon,” and one in Japan goes “pipo pipo.” In this case, the differences are not just a matter of languages rendering the same sound in different ways: sirens actually do have different sounds in different countries.

     The point of Sounds All Around, aside from the basic fascination of its topic, is that we humans assign letters and words to noises in ways that are pretty much arbitrary – there is no “right” way to spell the sound made by thunder, snoring, fireworks or heartbeats. Language itself may have evolved, at least in part, from human attempts to capture natural sounds and communicate them accurately to other humans. Now the words used to describe sounds have become an integral part of languages worldwide – but, as this delightful little noisy journey shows, what is “uhu uhu” in German is just the same as what is “koukouva” in Greek: both describe the sound an owl makes.

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