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.