Sounds form one part of language


How sound sensitive are you? What distinct sounds would a rusty spigot spout if a rusty spigot got turned on? Eve Merriam tunes in to the stuttering struggle of a rust-ridden tap before its final outburst: 

The rusty spigotsputtersuttersa splutter,spatters a smattering of drops,gashes wider;slash,splatters,scatters,spurts,finally stops sputteringand plash!Gushes rushes splashesClear water dashes. 

Onomatopoeic to the hilt! And so familiar too, wouldn’t you say? Particularly, after a routine fault-at-source treatment by the Waterworks Department.  

Sound language is global in its communicative function. The world is not as quiet as it used to be, so much so that these days it is not sound, but rare stillness that has become deafening. 

It is true that not all sounds have names to match, yet they verily communicate the essence of what they represent. This “name-making” is the basic meaning of onomatopoeia, the Greek derived word that actually extends beyond name-making to sound-word echoing. 

Our environment is pulsating with sounds – symphonic and cacophonic – as we race to keep pace in all spheres of life’s activities. If we care to explore the sounds of our environment, we will come across those that are routine, novel, weird and peculiar.  

The language of sound is encased in words (lexical items) or “non-words” (which may sound gibberish) to show some kind of meaningful connection between the particular sound or cluster of sounds and properties of the outside world.  

David Crystal (The Cambridge Encyclopedia of The English Language) refers to this as “? sound symbolism, also called phonaesthesia (when focusing on the aesthetic values of sounds) or onomatopoeia (when focusing on the use of sound in poetry).” 

The aesthetic values of sounds in literary and creative compositions enhance our reading, writing, listening and speaking experiences as they heighten our literary appreciation. Equally inspiring are sound coinages by children. Just observe them at play and you’ll be entertained by a “multisonous orchestra” (C.H. Elster) of sounds – a core accompaniment in their play world.  

Some sound effects just tend to stay with you ... in my case, for example, my boys’ (when they were little) own approximations of: gettak-takk (car running over a loose metal grid placed across a drain near our home); karrgchunnannawaarrhsshh (downstairs (squat) toilet flush); kwwraaaarashshhraggmnn (upstairs (seat) toilet flush); kenyyyaayanya (starting car ignition); krikkrok (all crispy snacks); wwhwheeeeeeenn ?(whistling kettle); kachhmuuchh (crumpling paper) etc. 

Other sound-word associations more commonly heard are: woosh, smash, screech, zoom, kaboom, buzz, ding dong, whirr, drip drip drip, whee, thump thump, kerplunk! David Crystal would classify these under “comic onomatopoeia”.  

Comic books come alive with their range of exclamatory expressions (see samples from comic strips). A lot of these are action-associations where the word is the deed.  

I’d like to end by turning to C.H. Elster again for a selection of weird but rare gems for sound effect and symbolism: 

gweek-gwak: the squeaking noise made by someone walking in leather boots or in shoes with rubber soles. 

Kinclunk: the sound of a car running over a manhole cover. 

skirr: the whirring sound of birds scurrying into flight

tirl: rattling or clattering sound made by spinning or moving rapidly up or down; also, to make a string vibrate by plucking it. 

blodder: to flow with a gurgling sound out of a vessel with a narrow aperture

gwick: the sound made in swallowing; also, to make a swallowing sound. 

So, do you have your own sound-word approximations to add?