Some Thoughts on Onomatopoeia and Conlanging

Okay so I have found out I’m terrible at learning to code from books and will have to ask a real live person to teach me some rudimentary things until I can learn from books. Before that happens, have some thoughts on onomatopoeia as it relates to conlanging.

(onomatopoeia: “a word that phonetically imitates or suggests the source of the sound that it describes”, or this particular property in itself. That is to say, words like quack, hiccup, creak, but also the kind of stuff you find in the background of comic books: ka-tchunk, bam, etc.)

Early Batman is infamous for ridiculous onomatopoeia.

Early Batman is infamous for ridiculous onomatopoeia.

Every language has different onomatopoeia. This is because of the same reason languages sound different from each other. The same Latin letters might have different sounds coded into them depending on your language, so when you’re describing the sound a pig makes when you feed it, it can sound very different. There’s of course the option to just imitate the noise and make a gruff inhalatory sound at the back of your throat, but chances are you can express pig-ness better with noises that are further from what an actual pig makes. If the culture your language is associated with has dealt with pigs it will probably have at least one word for the noise that pigs make (when you feed them (they make these noises in other contexts too)). In English, it is ‘oink’. In Swedish and Finnish it is ‘nöff’ (The Finns probably got it from the Swedes). Japanese: ぶひぶひ (buhibuhi). Dutch: knorren. Et cetera.

The onomatopoetic sounds that accompany a language are connected to the resources available in the language itself: the collections of vowels and consonants, the common combinations, and so on. If you’re going to construct a language, you’d be a fool to miss out on the excellent opportunity to see if you can imitate or suggest the sound that a pig makes. Or, if your made-up culture (every language should have at least one made-up culture attached to it) doesn’t have pigs, the sound that lalks make. In English, perhaps the lalk sound would be croo but I guess we’ll never know since they don’t exist.

There are interesting things to be done with this. Once you’ve made up a good vocabulary of onomatopoeia you can start attaching value to the different sounds and then develop other words from them. Like how quack can mean the sound ducks make, but also someone who is exploiting people by pretending to be a legitimate doctor (coming from the tendency of ducks’ bills in 18th Century Britain often being sold as a panacea in the form of a salve, along with snake oil and rhinoceros farts.) Okay, that etymology isn’t actually true, it’s from old Dutch quacksalver, hawker of salves, but there’s no denying that the word quack evokes ducks. People make buc-buc-puckaaaaw noises when shaming someone because they’re a chicken, and they aroo like wolves when someone else is the dog. In Scanian (skånska), a dialect of Swedish, you can ask someone if they are completely ‘nöffed’ if they are as stupid as a pig. One can play on these themes and make it awesome.

In most cases, you shouldn’t consider your conlang near completed unless you have down the sound of the wind and the animals your culture surrounds itself with.

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