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Historical Thesaurus: On Sounds and Sense

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In her final OUPblog post, Professor Christian Kay from the Historical Dictionary of the Oxford English Dictionary team talks about words concerning sound in the HTOED.

More posts about the Historical Thesaurus can be found here.

By far the largest category of words in HTOED denoting the traditional five senses is the one for Hearing, including the sounds that we hear. It has around 7350 headings and meanings compared with 4800 for Sight, 1100 each for Taste and Smell, and a mere 500 for Touch. Perhaps this reflects the importance of hearing to our ancestors: sight was useful mainly during the daylight hours, but sound could warn of danger at any time.

A trawl through section 01.03.08 Hearing certainly reveals the care with which we describe the noises made both by our environment and by ourselves. Noises can be loud (fervent, perstreperous, clamant, strepitous, dinsome) or soft (murmurous, whistering, susurrant). They can be resonant or ringing (sonorous, tinging, clanging) or dull (thud, thrump, pob, whump). They represent sounds in nature such as the suffling of the wind, the buzzing of bees, the splashing, sloshing, and sploshing of water, and even what HTOED discreetly describes as ‘Sounds heard in body’. And that is by no means all. Sounds with specific meanings also pop up in other categories, such as Animals, Music, and Language.

HTOED-hi-resIf we check back to the etymologies of such words in OED, we find that many of them, such as clank, hiss, and clip-clop, are described as ‘echoic’ or ‘imitative’, that is they are an attempt to use human language to mimic natural sounds. Many of them are somewhat repetitive: starting around 1385, making a rolling sound was described as to rumble, jumble, thumble, humble, grumble, or strumble. The sound itself might be called grolling, hurling, blumbering, and, uniquely latinate, volutation. On the same model, humans who speak indistinctly have been said at various times to mamble, mumble, mutter, rumble, fumble, drumble, chunter, and, of course, mussitate. Such evidence suggests that echoic words build up patterns which are reinforced by usage.

Other patterns involve variation of vowel sounds, as in tick-tock, clickety-clack, pitter-patter, and flip-flop. In many languages there seems to be a correlation between the type of vowel and the strength of the sound or action it represents. People are likely to agree that a tock is stronger than a tick, a clank than a clink, a clop than a clip. More subtly, they might distinguish a clang from a clank, which is defined by OED as “A sharp, abrupt sound, as of heavy pieces of metal (e.g. links of a heavy chain) struck together; differing from clang in ending abruptly with the effect of a knock”.

Attention to echoic words has led to some strange and now largely discredited theories of the origins of language, 09 - 247 Prof Christian Kay 006mainly in the nineteenth century, such as the bow-wow theory (language arose from attempts to imitate animals), the pooh-pooh theory (it arose from interjections, such as cries of pain or anger), and, used ironically, the yoho theory (also interjections, but specifically those of sailors). Somewhat more respectable are the ta-ta theory, suggesting that we used our vocal organs to mimic bodily gestures, and the sing-song theory, whereby chanting is thought to precede speech.

Sometimes there is a correlation between sounds and certain features of the landscape. HTOED section 1, for example, contains a remarkable number of words denoting bogs and boggy places, reflecting conditions in England in earlier times. For a wet, miry place, these include slough, slop, slonk, sloth, slack, and many others beginning with sl-.

This particular correlation between sound and meaning also moves metaphorically from the material to the abstract world. Many words beginning with sl- and denoting wet, sticky substances also have connotations of unpleasantness or even dishonesty, as in slick, slimy, slippery, slithery, sloppy, slavering …(though it has to be admitted that many more do not). Such links can even help people to guess the meanings of unknown or nonsense words. When faced with slithy in Lewis Carroll’s poem Jabberwocky, they will often associate it with the kinds of words described above:

‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe

A ‘slithy tove’ sounds to many people like a rather unpleasant creature!

It is unlikely that we will ever know the answers to questions about the origins of language. It could be argued that, if words imitate nature, they ought to occur across languages. OED etymologies often reveal such similarities, especially in languages which are historically related, but differences are also striking. Over the centuries, the sound of a dog’s bark has been variously represented as yaff, bow-wow, wuff, yamph, and yaffle, and that is only in English; other languages may have different representations. Nevertheless, examination of HTOED data certainly suggests the importance of sound in the meanings of individual words.

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