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Could Onomatopoeia Be the Origin of Language?

What we can learn from the ding-dong hypothesis, James Joyce, Buster Keaton, and a language known as !Xoon.

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Bababadalgharaghtakamminarronnkonnbronntonnerronntuo nnthunntrovarrhounawnskawntoohoohoordenenthurnuk! grumbles the thunder in Finnegans Wake, and there is, as far as I know, no longer example in English of onomatopoeia, or echo-mimesis, in which the sound of a word is intended to recreate the phenomenon to which it refers. The first of 10 100-letter thunder-words in James Joyce’s novel, it is also a miniature map of humanity because, after the initial stuttering Babel of “bababad,” it is made from words for thunder in Arabic, Hindi, Japanese, Italian, Irish, and other languages.

Scholars point to tragic and serious allusions in this rattlebag of a word. It represents, they say, the thunderclap associated with the Fall of Adam and Eve, or the one which, according to the 18th-century philosopher Giambattista Vico, terrified early man into taking refuge in caves, thereby giving rise to language and civilization. But there is no doubt that comedy was part of Joyce’s intent too. For him, the noise accompanying the Fall of our first parents could also be the unheard noise of a pratfall, as when Joyce’s contemporary Buster Keaton walks to the end of a plank projecting from the roof of a building with the intent of jumping to the next, but instead falls down through a series of awnings, grabbing a drainpipe which pivots around and sends him shooting through a room on the floor below, where he slides down a fireman’s pole only to be carried away on a truck.

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In Japanese cats go nyaa, and bees—having no access to the zz sound—go boon-boon.

Whatever Joyce was up to—and that discussion may never end—he was both a pioneer of this form of linguistic soundplay and late to the party. Among the masters of onomatopoeia are speakers of Taa, a Khoisan language spoken in southwest Africa by the Bushmen, or Sān. These hunter-gatherers are among the oldest surviving distinct peoples on Earth, having lived largely isolated from other humans for most of the last 100,000 years. They have some of the highest within-population genetic variance of any human group, indicative of that long isolation, and there is a sense in which their genetic diversity is echoed in their language, which has more different kinds of sounds in it than any other in the world.

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With five distinct clicks, and multiple tones and vowels, Taa, which is also known as !Xoon, is reckoned to have as many as 164 consonants and 44 vowels—or more than 200 distinct sounds. English, by contrast, has a total of about 45. This unusually large range enables speakers of Taa to be extraordinarily flexible and subtle in their spoken imitations of sounds. So, for example, a sharp object falling point-first into sand is ǂqùhm ǁhûu ̃, while a rotten egg being shaken is !húlu tsêe ̃, and grass being ripped up by a grazing animal is gǀkxàp.

Could onomatopoeia be the origin of language? Some early linguists thought so, and this notion, sometimes called the ding-dong hypothesis, has intuitive appeal. Certainly, imitating all kinds of sounds is an important part of language acquisition by young humans, just as mimesis plays a vital role for many young birds and whales. The presence and sophistication of onomatopoeia in Taa would seem to support, or at least be consistent with, the case that it is among the longest-established parts of human language.

Onomatopoeia can edge into darkness with onomatomania: an abnormal concentration on certain words and their supposed significance, or echolalia: the meaningless repetition of another person’s spoken words that, in older children and adults, can be a symptom of mental illness. But for the most part it is a matter of fun and creativity, and it can spill over into plain bonkers inventiveness and delight in works such as the sound poem “Ursonate” by Kurt Schwitters, which explores sounds on the borders of human vocal capability and which are seldom heard anywhere in the natural world. There is no doubt in my mind that, as Calvin and Hobbes observe, scientific progress goes “Boink.”

As far as I know, every language has onomatopoeia, and there appear to be some near-universal characteristics. In tests, people from almost every background will tend to associate the made-up sounds bouba and kiki with, respectively, a rounded and a pointed shape. But we also enjoy learning how different languages represent the same natural sounds differently. A duck goes quack quack in English but coin coin in French. In Spanish a dog goes guau-guau, not woof woof, while in Arabic it goes haw haw, and in Mandarin wang-wang. In Japanese cats go nyaa, and bees—having no access to the zz sound—go boon-boon.

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Onomatopoeia is language at its least abstract—as close as it comes to the thing itself. An ultimate example, at the opposite extreme from Joyce’s 100-letter thunder-word, must also be one of the shortest. The word that is written Om in English is pronounced “aum,” and according to the Mandukya Upanishad its first three phonemes express, respectively, the states of waking (a), dreaming (u), and deep sleep (m), while a silent fourth quarter denotes the infinite. In chanting the word, a speaker enacts what is believed to be the eternal emergence and return of sound in the world: the Ātman that is the essence, breath, or soul of all.

This article is the last in a four-part series adapted from excerpts of Caspar Henderson’s Book of Noises: Notes on the Auraculous. You can find the first, about what we can hear in space, here, the second, about the sounds the aurora borealis makes, here and the third, about what plants can hear, here

Reprinted with permission from A Book of Noises: Notes on the Auraculous by Caspar Henderson, published by the University of Chicago Press. © 2023 by Caspar Henderson. All rights reserved.

Lead image: Art Kovalenco / Shutterstock

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