Monday, February 20, 2017

Onomatopoeia and Cool Ways to Describe Sounds


Onomatopoeia is one of my favourite things in language. Aside from being a great word in itself, onomatopoeia are words that sound like the noise they describe. For example, the word miaow (to English speakers) sounds like the noise a cat makes. In fact, a lot of animal sounds in English are onomatopoeia. Bees buzz, dogs woof, and frogs ribbit, for example.

Remember the Batman series in the 1960s with Adam West? They used them all the time to hide impacts during "fight" scenes!

English a rather rich language. However, if you're writing a comic book, you can't use too much space elaborately describing sound effects like an author would in a novel! This is when describing sounds gets really interesting.

While you may be familiar with some classic "sound effects" like bang, pow, and blam, you mightn't have imagined sounds like thwipp, when Spiderman launches a string of web, or snikt, when Wolverine's claws pop out.

Mlem, mlem, mlem!
Words like schlik can be used to describe metal on metal when sharpening knives, for example. Mlem describes a tongue (usually a cat's) lapping up water whereas blep describes sticking your tongue out!

A dog wagging its tail could be described as fwip fwip fwip and your heartbeat as lub-dub-lub-dub. While we usually knock on a door, what noise does a door make when it closes? How about wumpth? Pretty good, right?

In addition to these creative uses of letters and phonemes, comic artists will also ensure that the words look like the sounds they're supposed to represent. How do they do this? With font, size, and colouring.

Are there any cool sounds from comics that I missed? Feel free to add them in the comments and tell what they're describing!

Monday, February 13, 2017

Polysemy and Homonymy: Words and their Meanings

I find words and all their different meanings really interesting. Whenever looking a word up in the dictionary, there is rarely just one explanation or definition. Sometimes all the meanings are similar and sometimes the meanings seem to have absolutely nothing in common. In linguistics, these meanings can be classified as either polysemy and homonymy.

Similar Meanings

Polysemy is when a word has a variety of different meanings that are etymologically related. Consider the word soft, for example. In Old English it meant "gentle" and "mild-natured". This etymology led "soft" being used to describe pillows, voices, drinks, and even people.

The word man is another example of polysemy. We can use the word to either describe the entire human race, "Man, not beast", to specify a male, "Man, not woman", or specify an adult "Man, not boy".

Different Meanings

When a word is written the same but has various different and unrelated meanings, we call this homonymy. You may have heard of homonyms before as words with different meanings but that are written the same.

For example, what does bow mean? This word has different meanings and pronunciations. When pronounced as /bəʊ/ (to rhyme with "low"), it refers to the device used to play a violin, or the thing used to fire an arrow, or a type of knot in a ribbon or shoelace.

When the word is pronounced as /baʊ/ (rhyming with "how"), it can either mean to lower your head or bend your body as a sign of respect or to thank an audience after a show. It can also be a noun that refers to the front part of a ship.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Sound Symbolism and Why Spiky Sounds Spiky

If you're familiar with onomatopoeia, you'll know that words like bang, splash, and beep all imitate the sounds they refer to. Do you think spiky sounds spikier than fluffy? If so, this could be due to a phenomenon known as sound symbolism.

Sound symbolism suggests that the sounds are used in certain words because the phonemes themselves carry meaning and it there are often groups words with similar meanings, similar spelling, or letters or phonemes in common.

For example, a lot of words referring to housing in English begin with the letter "h". Home, house, hut, hovel, habitat, etc. Of course, this doesn't necessarily occur in other languages. Maybe we create a word and then create similar words to describe similar things.

When these groups of words with similar sounds and meanings occur, it is known as clustering. This will occur differently across different languages but related languages tend to share similar clusters.

Which is kiki and which is bouba?
It has also been shown that we apply certain meanings to fictional words based on how they sound. An experiment conducted in the Canary Islands (with Spanish speakers) showed participants two shapes, a jagged one and a rounded one. Participants were then asked which one was takete and baluba. The results indicated that most said that takete was jagged and baluba was rounded.

When this experiment was repeated with English speakers and Tamil speakers with the words kiki and bouba, the result were pretty astonishing. 95 to 98% of participants put kiki with the jagged shape and bouba with the round one!

This suggested that we don't just give words meaning then use similar sounds to describe similar things but that we create words in a non-arbitrary way based on our perceptions of sounds. This became known as the bouba/kiki effect.

What do you think? Do sounds carry meaning before we create words or do we give words meaning first and then decide to use similar sounds to describe similar things? Tell us your thoughts in the comments below!