What It Is

At age 12, I was mildly startled to learn that French-speaking animals can make different noises than English-speaking ones. While cows sound about the same in both of Canada’s Official Languages, Francophone mice don’t make a (perfectly reasonable) squeak, they make a (perfectly ridiculous) wee, wee, wee noise.

What, I wondered, was with that?

But “reasonable” and “ridiculous” aren’t helpful constructs in the context of imitating animal noises in human speech. It just is what it is. Cats around the world say something very like meow, meow (although not in Japan), but other animals (dogs, roosters, cows, and pigs) say markedly different things in different languages, as shown in this video.

Onomatopoeia (per Merriam-Webster):

1. the naming of a thing or action by a vocal imitation of the sound associated with it (such as buzz, hiss)

2. the use of words whose sound suggests the sense

Not mentioned explicitly by M-W, but covered (of course) by Wikipedia, are onomatopoeic animal sounds (moo, quack), names of animals derived from the noises they make (killdeer, cuckoo), and usage in comic books (whiz, bang). Wiki also touches on cross-cultural differences, noting the essential arbitrariness of onomatopoeia.

Fair enough. I mean, I came to terms with that at 12.

But at a recent dinner-table conversation with a Japanese speaker, I was mildly startled to learn that her onomatopoeia for a sneeze was not ahchoo (you know, the actual sound of the universal human sneeze), but, rather, hakkshon.

What, I wondered, was with that? Never once have I hakkshoned, but I’ve ahchooed hundreds if not thousands of times, I’m sure. It’s just how people sneeze. Isn’t it?

Having to ask that question at age 65 is ridiculous, throwing my whole gestalt of the world into question well past any point at which that might seem reasonable. But phrasing it for Google enquiry is, somehow, less disturbing.

Do people who speak different languages
make different sounds when they sneeze?

Well, there is nothing new under the sun, and almost nothing that doesn’t already have a website devoted to it, and the answer appears to be, “Yes, people sneeze differently in different languages.” (As the exception that tests the rule, apparently deaf people have no vocalization – no added sound effects – with their sneezes. Just the whoosh itself, speaking of onomatopoeia.)

I’m guessing that hearing babies learn the arbitrarily designated onomatopoeic expression for a sneeze in their language, and unconsciously imitate it thereafter. Unconsciously, unknowingly, completely unwittingly.

Never mind the arbitrariness. Think about the insidiousness.


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22 Responses to What It Is

  1. Insidiousness? Steady on, Isabel.
    But that deaf have no vocalization — wow. You’d think the body itself would provide something.

    We all have enlightenments at different ages — it’s what makes life, at any age, so interesting…IF you are curious, as you are. As you are showing, weekly, there is nothing that is not interesting if you look long and hard enough at it. Still bored? Keep looking. And, it’s the way to tell fake jade from real jade.

    I didn’t realize until I was 20 or older that if I person didn’t talk about their aches and pains, they didn’t have any! My dad’s motto was: If you feel something (anything), say something. We practically had a running (sorry) commentary on his bowels. The last time I saw him come out of a bathroom, he made the thumbs up sign.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Barbara – Steady on? No, no. When in trouble, when in doubt, run in circles, scream and shout. As for bowel commentary, I can do without it, too. And your point about not talking about aches and pains is pertinent to the treatment of chronic pain conditions. Some doctors argue for paying less attention, rather than more, to the symptoms. Focusing on them can, potentially, exacerbate them.

      • There is always a balance. I know a man who ignored/never mentioned
        a heart pain for 8 months and the first time he had a doctor examine him, he was wooshed into triple-bypass surgery within the hour.

        But in the main, not talking about pain is a valuable tool (and it calms the whole household in general).

        • Isabel Gibson says:

          Barbara – Hmm. There must be a middle ground that has us looking after ourselves without obsessing about it – and talking about it – excessively. Well, I guess there’s no “must” about it, but it would be nice.

  2. Tom Watson says:

    I might say Gesundheit…but that’s not an onomatopoeia sound.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Tom – 🙂 No, but it’s a certifiably weird one. I do wonder why English picked it up.

  3. Tom Watson says:

    On a more serious note, I did not know that animals make different sounds depending upon the culture in which they are nurtured. Is it a matter of “imprinting?”

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Tom – Well, I guess the animals make whatever noise they make, but the imprinted humans describe it based on arbitrary cultural norms.

  4. Jim Powers says:

    Having grown up on a farm, I learned at an early age to vocalize similar to a pig’s oink while burping; the rational being if you’re going to act like one… might as well sound like one.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Jim P – I didn’t know that you grew up on a farm. Of course, I’ve never heard you burp . . .

  5. Jim Taylor says:

    From the standpoint of vocal mechanics, dogs cannot make the “W” and “f” sounds of “woof.” They don’t have lips. But we’re sure we hear oo-ff because that’s what we expect to hear.
    As for deaf people, at one point in my career I attended several services for the totally deaf. Coffee conversation after the service was unnerving, because it was totally silent — until someone “told” a joke in sign language, and everyone in the group burst into highly vocal laughter. It sounded to me no different from “hearing” laughter.
    Jim T

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Jim T – Some onomatopoiea seems pretty close to the actual sound – some (like bow wow or boo hoo) not so much. What struck me as odd was that I didn’t realize our sneeze word was arbitrary. Why would I? I’m always with people who’ve learned the same one I did. Your story about laughter produced by deaf people suggests that it might not have this onomatopoeiac overlay.

  6. Wade says:

    In our neighbourhood, Lake of the Woods, there is no better embodiment of Onomatopoeia than the Phoebe. Their call/song is just that, a plaintive ‘p h o e b e’.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Wade – My hearing is selectively lousy, I think – although I hear people who say they hear “phoebe” from a phoebe, I’ve never heard it myself.

  7. Tom Watson says:

    I was thinking about Jim Taylor’s comment regarding deaf people.

    When I was minister at a United Church in Brantford a group of 5 people (four deaf, one hearing interpreter) from the Deaf Mission came to see me about using the church chapel for their Sunday afternoon services. I asked how long their services would be. The answer: 2 1/2 hours typically.

    I was rather astounded because trying to get my troops to stay for a service that lasted longer than one hour was exceedingly difficult. So I asked them what they did that might take this long.

    Turned out that quite a bit of the time was for social interaction. The service itself was usually about one hour. During that time they had scripture readings, prayers, a sermon…and they sang.

    I asked how they sang. “Using sign language. Here…we’ll show you.” They proceeded to sing ‘Jesus Loves Me’ using no vocalization whatsoever, just sign language. I’m telling you, the whole room vibrated with their “singing.” It was amazing.

    A learning moment for me!

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Tom – That *is* interesting. From stories like this, and others, it seems to me that deaf people have a distinct culture. I don’t remember hearing similar stories about blind people. It makes me wonder whether the ability to hear and to communicate vocally is such a fundamental thing that its loss had a bigger impact than the loss of sight.

      • Tom Watson says:

        I think what you say is true. I have a friend in Guelph who is blind. He grew up in Thunder Bay, went to University of Toronto, and when he graduated he got a job with CNIB. The last 9 years of his working life he was CEO of CNIB.

        Amazing man. Reads, via text-to-speech, four newspapers every morning. Reads many books per year. Very articulate speaker. Very intelligent man. (if you see any replies, in my Readers Reply Corner, from Jim S., that’s him). And with a terrific sense of humour.

        Jim tells me that being deaf definitely has a bigger impact than being blind. He also says that being blind has its benefits – he names ten whenever he speaks to groups.

        • Isabel Gibson says:

          Tom – Years ago, I worked briefly for a provincial library that had resources/services for those who were blind and those who were deaf. I remember talking with staff, who were flat-out convinced that being deaf had a bigger impact than being blind. This surprised me because I have a horror of blindness (maybe that’s from being short-sighted). But they were emphatic that being blind cut you off from things; being deaf cut you off from people.

  8. Tom Watson says:

    I think that’s true. One of the things the Deaf Mission folks said was that they aren’t able to pick up the telephone and communicate in the same way you and I do…and take for granted…so that’s why they spent a quite a bit of time at their Sunday afternoon gathering just socializing.

    You’re short-sighted too? Join the club! Maybe that accounts for our being somewhat “myopic” about deaf people?

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      🙂 Yes, a wee bit short-sighted, since the age of 12. Looking forward to (eventual, likely inevitable) cataract surgery to correct my eyesight.

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