Here a quack, there a quack

by Gautam Pemmaraju

Coppersmith_Barbet_I_IMG_0006As the Bombay heat began to set in this morning at nine o'clock, I heard amidst the cawing crows, the shouts of a street vendor, local kids playing cricket, and cars and motorcycles, a long metronomic birdcall emitted from a tiny, fleeting visitor. The Coppersmith Barbet, adopted as the city's official bird, is known so because of its signature call – a metallic evenly paced sound, “tuk…tuk…tuk (or tunk), reminiscent of a copper sheet being beaten”. Rickshaws were passing by raucously; on occasion one would sputter into action after picking up a fare. It is intriguing to consider the only similarity between the two – how the sounds they make are described in speech. If the little crimson-throated visitor's call can be described with a set of phonemes that attempt to approximate it, then the rickshaw's steady rhythm as it charges down streets have led to it being named onomatopoeically. From the tuk-tuk in the tree to the tuk-tuk on the street, it is both the ubiquity and the boundaries of onomatopoeia that is fascinating. I cannot recall now, if I sipped my tea, or slurped it, as the Barbet's sound ceased and the distressing white-noise of the water-pump took over.

From babbling brooks to angry oceans, soft breezes to fierce gales, trains, bullets, rockets, machine guns, and the purrs, meows of cats to the roars of wild beasts, we find ways, in all cultures and languages, to phonetically transform the sounds we hear into words that can be spoken and written. Songs, poetry, and literature are suffused with the sounds of the world we live in through onomatopoeic words.

The steady rhythm of human life itself, the beating of hearts, is cross-linguistically broad in description – from bumm-bumm in German, lab-dab in Tamil and Telugu, doki-doki in Japanese to tum-tum in Arabic, the way chests throb and pulses race find varying phonetic forms across the globe. Boom-boddie-boom was the way it went for Peter Sellers and Sophia Loren in the promotional song for the 1960's film The Millionairess, and in Hindi cinema, we have long known of dil ki dhadkan and the pulsating dhak-dhak. From the diastolic to the systolic, to aches and sighs, the heart and its cadences is widely found in song form.

Onomatopoeia-Is-A-Straight-Forward-Disease-Comic-By-Cyanide-HappinessThe role of onomatopoeia in evolutionary linguistics is highly disputed, and the theories of ‘opprobrious names', the ding-dong, bow-wow, and pooh-pooh, which do not heed visual signs and cues, writes EL Thorndike, are largely discredited. However, the role phonetic elements play in mimetic gestures is an interesting one and the links between sound and sense is an essential aspect of language and speech.

It is conventions that are of interest here, and how such conventions are intriguingly deployed in popular culture. Thorndike alludes to Sir Richard Paget's “yum-yum” or “tongue-tied” theory, based on gestures, wherein “the tongue is yoked with the body by subtle bonds of mimetic kinship”. The beckoning gesture, in Paget's conception, with the extension of one's hand and the bending of fingers towards the palm may be mimicked by the tongue, and,

If this “gesture” be blown or voiced, we get a resultant whispered on phonated word, like eda, eda or edra, (according to the degree of contact between tongue and upper lip or palate) suggestive of the Icelandic hadr, the Hindustani idhar and the Slavonic ider – all of which bear much the same meaning of our English word “hither.” If the same tongue gesture be finished more rigorously, the resultant word will end in a k or g, owing to the back portion of the tongue making a closure against the soft palate.

Thus, by unconsciously using the tongue, lips, jaw, etc., in the place of the head, hands, etc., pantomimic gesture would almost automatically produce human speech.

Paget's interest in speech originated from his fascination in ‘plainchant' of English church music, Linggard writes in Electronic Synthesis of Speech (1985). A self-trained researcher, Paget was interested in speech sound formants. He was, Linggard reveals, able to “manipulate the resonant frequencies of this own vocal tract, so that he could vary the first and second formants almost independently”. To aid his ongoing investigations he even made plasticine models of the vocal tract, and experimented on a human larynx with its tongue intact, cut from a cadaver. He even devised an unusual car horn, which did not honk when used, but instead, shouted out “away, away”.

Several interesting references to scholarly, literary and philosophical underpinnings of onomatopoeia are to be found in Goddes-Liancourt & Pincott's Primitive and Universal Laws of the Formation and Development of Language (1874). In EB Eastwick's translation of the comparative grammarian Franz Bopp's work, they reveal that for everything in nature “speech can seize one property to express the whole of it”. Although Max Mueller rejected the bow-wow theory, they further write, “he makes admissions that tell in its favour”: “'onomatopoeias are material for language – stepping stones to it.'” In his book A History of Sanskrit Literature, Max Muller brings up a commentary of Yaska's Nirukta, an etymology from 400BC, where the fact that amongst the many aspects of an object, it is just one that gives it a name, is remarked upon. The commentator's response is interesting:

You may ask well why this is so. But my friends, go and ask the world . Quarrel with the world for it is not I who made this law. For although all nouns are derived from verbs, yet the choice of one action, (which is to be predicated in preference to others) is beyond any control….Words are fixed in the world we cannot say how (svabhavathah, by nature).

The dhvani, or sound, is what is linked to the word (anukaran dhvani is the term for onomatopoeia in Hindi) and that in turn is an approximation, which reveals an aspect or an understanding of objects and senses. The sound echoing the sense as a poetic device in Indian poetics is a common enough one. In Bhoja Prabandha, the poet Kalidasa when challenged by the king with the gibberish lines thatham-thatham-thantha-thatham-thatham-thah, described it poetically as the sound made by a golden jar dropped by a young lady “somewhat flushed with wine”.

OnoThe koyal, koel or the Indian cuckoo, is said to be named after its cry ku-il, ku-il during the mating season. Writing of Izmailov's parable of the cuckoo here, Revuen Sur writes interestingly of the problems of translation from one semiotic system to another in a paper on the phonetics of onomatopoeia. There are an infinite number of natural sounds but a very finite number of speech sounds in languages, he writes and it is that very limitation that defines the boundaries of our descriptive means.

How can language imitate, with such a limited number of speech sounds an infinite number of natural noises? Take the bird called “cuckoo”. The cuckoo's name is said to have an onomatopoeic origin: it is said to imitate the sound the bird makes, and the bird is said to emit the sound [kukuk]. As I suggested, the bird emits neither the speech sound [k] nor [u]; it uses no speech sounds at all. It emits two continuous sounds with a characteristic pitch interval between them, roughly a minor third. These sounds are continuous, have a steady-state pitch and an abrupt onset. I have hypothesized that the overtone structure of the steady-state sound is nearest to the formant structure of a rounded back vowel, and the formant transitions indicating a [k] before an [u]. That is why the name of this bird contains the sound sequence [ku] in some languages.2 In human language, European languages at least, pitch intervals are part of the intonation system, not of the lexicon. Consequently, the pitch interval characteristic of the cuckoo's call is not included in the bird's name (the lexicon is not sufficiently “fine-grained” for the pitch interval).

From the cartoon sounds of wham, zap, boing, crash (see this brilliant cartoon of Gerald McBoingBoing), the poetry of Tennyson, Lewis Caroll, shamanistic practices, classical musical traditions, to popular songs and nursery rhymes, there's a great deal of imitation going on. These imitations, these approximations, seem inextricably linked to one intriguing way, amongst many others, to understand the world around us.