Opinion: we use onomatopoeia to communicate our perception and impressions of the world around us to one another

What does the word onomatopoeia mean to you? A difficult word to spell? Or words in comics? Indeed, people often associate onomatopoeia with comics. Sure, onomatopoeia is one of the characteristics of comics. Pow! Wham! Boom! DC Comics would not be DC comics without them. The use of onomatopoeia helps communicate the impression of the scene. As a child reader says, onomatopoeia helps explain what is happening in the scene.

But onomatopoeia is not just for comics. We use onomatopoeia so much more than we think we do. Onomatopoeia’s function to share impressions means that it is prevalent in sensual discourse such as food writing. In Nigella Lawson's world, eggy cream doesn't just come out of chocolate shell. Instead, "eggy cream is waiting to ooze out on the spoon!" (from Nigella Lawson’s Crème Brulee recipe). It's in how objects are named - look at Pokemon's jigglypuff and pikachu. It's everywhere as part of products too - the name Monster Munch, our favourite snack, also gives you the feeling of what it would be like to eat what's in the pack.

It would be pretty difficult to describe the manner eggy cream comes out of chocolate shell without appealing to sensory domain using onomatopoeia. Same goes for pikachu – if its name was, say, yellow lightening mouse, it wouldn’t have the same impression of cuteness. 

"Yellow lightening mouse"

Onomatopoeia is generally considered as involving words which imitate sounds and are often seen as "semi-words" located at the edge of language. We use onomatopoeia to communicate such perception, as it allows us to imitate what something is like via its sound. One of the characteristics of onomatopoeia is that it concerns a relationship between meaning and sound, which poses a specific challenge for Saussure’s notion of language arbitrariness.

Studies of onomatopoeia have been dominated by sound-symbolism approaches, which aim to explain the feeling of "fitness" between the sound of a word and an image conveyed by the particular expression. In such approaches, it is considered that there is a non-arbitrary relation between sound (i.e. syllables) and meaning. So, the /pi/ sound of pikachu is linked with the high frequency sound and hence means, in the visual domain, flashing/sparkling light, while the long vowel in ooze means the event has a prolonging timeline.

But is it really the case that sound has a systematic link with meaning? Is such a relationship external to human beings? If we claim that there is a systematic relationship between sound and meaning, then there would be no humans involved. If so, how could certain onomatopoeia mean so many different things?

Did someone say "galumph"?

Take galumph as an example. A quick internet search gives examples where galumph is used: the manner in which a cat jumps at something, the way a rhinoceros walks, a frog jumping into water, or women in high heels. If the sound galumph has a systematic link to meaning, how could it mean so many different things? Surely, we need a human to make such links? Something might mean something else, but unless there is a human involved, its meaning is meaningless.

For instance, a black cloud usually is a sign of imminent rain. However, it’s the human who makes a connection between cloud and rain. Unless I deliberately draw your attention to the cloud, the cloud’s "meaning" of imminent rain is meaningless. 

The same is true for onomatopoeia. There is no non-arbitrary sound-meaning pair. Instead, we humans create such connections to express our perception of the world. Onomatopoeia is perception-based words, which enables us to share impressions with others. Onomatopoeia helps us communicate our perception to one another. We use the onomatopoeic expression ooze because its phonological form shares certain quality with how we experience the chocolate coming out of the shell. We describe a certain manner of consuming food as munch, not simply as eat, as the expression munch conveys something beyond the act of eating and delivers further impression. In other words, the onomatopoeia perceptually resembles our cognitive experience.

Onomatopoeia incoming

But onomatopoeia also is words that have set meanings. Chat for example, means talk. It’s not just about vague impression. How do we explain that? 

Interpreting onomatopoeia involves a complex interpretation process, rather than being a simple case of matching between sound and a sense from other domain. That is, onomatopoeia, used in communication, links language and non-linguistic sensory domains. As Dan Sperber and Deirdre Wilson explain, communication is not just about using language. Of course, we communicate using language (or saying), but we can also use non-verbal input to show what we want to communicate.

Onomatopoeia is a hybrid of verbal and non-verbal communication. While the verbal aspect of onomatopoeia provides verbal evidence for the speaker’s meaning, it also provides non-verbal evidence for the speaker’s meaning. The non-verbal evidence the speaker uses is based on its resemblance to a phenomenon they wish to communicate. This involves using the resemblance between the phonological form of onomatopoeia and the source phenomenon the speaker wishes to share.

Onomatopoeia is very convenient as it is not always easy to explain our feelings in precise terms

As a result, the interpretation of onomatopoeia requires a massive amount of inferential reconstruction. Interpreting onomatopoeia is extremely dependent on context and the role which "a systematic relationship between sound and meaning" plays in interpretation is very limited.

In many ways, onomatopoeia is very convenient as it is not always easy to explain our feelings in precise terms. Onomatopoeia is great for that because it has certain verbal meaning which helps us formulate our sentences. On top of that, onomatopoeia adds vaguer impressions. Of course, the expression should match our impression both in terms of verbal and non-verbal meaning. But when it does, it gives us such a leeway with expressions. Onomatopoeia fills the gap between the linguistic domain and other perceptual domains in communication.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ