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Onomatopoeias historically and culturally (part one) or zoom zoom neigh neigh yucky yucky

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My daughter took a great children’s music class that also turned out to be instructional for me, since I learned to squeak and zoom in a way I never would have on my own. They even gave us a book that has nothing but noises in it. My daughter will ask to read “Zoom zoom” (Zoom Buggy! written by Claire Clark and illustrated by Jay Jung, helps to have an alliterative name when you are writing about onomatopoeias) and is pretty good at reading it to herself. Add to the joys and trials of parenthood, the need to learn how to make animal, car, and other noises (if you didn’t already know how to). Some parents pride themselves on their noise skills, while some of us proudly watch as our children outstrip us in the noise-making arena. Onomatopoeic sounds seem to be especially crucial and popular among the under three set. In the beginning, they’ll often call animals by the noises they make rather than their actual names  (although my daughter definitely said “dog” first, perhaps because dogs make way too many noises in English, see Sandra Boynton’s Doggies, a counting and barking book which goes through a lot of dog noises, yap yap arf arf just to entice you). All this reading of sound words makes me think about their spelling (this can of course be interesting with more grown up sound words too, like “whoo” which has recently received a thorough and fun treatment and is different from “woo,” who knew?). Some of my questions: why would one ever spell yucky the way it is spelled on this Oscar the Grouch book? (Yucchy?!) Should I pronounce it differently? The books seems to be referring to things that are “yucky” so why complicate this word? Is Sesame Street too cool for yucky? Am I not cool enough to know what is going on with the spelling of yucky?  You are questioning the tentative definition of “yucky” as onomatopoetic (did I read your mind)? It’s classified as “imitative” by the OED like other onomatopoeias, but I’m open to other suggestions, what do you think? Then there is “neigh.” Because every onomatopoeia should be written with a silent “gh” at the end, right? I look forward to teaching my daughter about English spelling. According to the OED, before the 17th century it was sometimes written “Ne” (a1522   G. Douglas tr. Virgil Aeneid (1960) xi. x. 24   “He sprentis furth, and full provd walxis he, Heich strekand vp his hed with mony a ne.”). This makes sense to me (I am not referring this example in particular but to the older spelling of “neigh”). What happened, modern English? Also, why do onomatopoeias almost always require repetition? Doesn’t matter if they are referring to machine or beast, it’s choo choo, moo moo, vroom vroom, meow meow (or in Italian miao miao, the joys of onomatopoeias in other languages deserves its own post). Who has it out for me, and why? I have more questions, but I will start with these, if you have answers please share.

5 responses »

  1. What’s ironic is that onomatopoeia is the least onomatopaeic word there is! (unless it means damn difficult to spell…) Perhaps the use of them in some of the younger children’s books is (dare I say it, or perhaps I should whisper it) because of lazy writing… or maybe children do just love repeating the same words over and over again while their parents bang their heads against the wall in despair ‘bang bang, thump, thump, no, no!’ I wish you every success with the spelling tuition when you’re older – I think English is one of the worst languages to learn as something like less than 40% (even more than that I believe) of English words are spelt phonetically. This is modern English I expect, jousting out the olde English of years gone by when words were written as they sounded. Bring back Chaucer!

    • Ha! Very funny! I wonder how my daughter would deal with us starting with Chaucer when she is learning to read/spell. Oh the joys the future holds.

  2. Sounds like she is ready for Marinetti’s “Zang Tum Tum”!! 🙂

  3. Well, dogs rarely bark just once. Trains continuously choo choo and cars continously vroom. So it makes sense that they’d say it at least two or three times to give you the idea.


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