Monday, February 10, 2014

OFL - Onomatopoeia as a Foreign Language

As an adult, I came to realize that not everyone grew up in an onomatopoeically and ideophonically inclined household. It was only after the 20th comment, or so, by a random stranger that I noticed not everyone's O.I. vocabulary is quite as, um, "developed." (Okay, okay... I use weird sound effects in place of regular words sometimes.)

Onomatopoeias and ideophones are words that phonetically imitate the sound of something that we otherwise wouldn't have a word for. They may eventually reach the point that they're officially recognized words which is how oink, swoosh, bam, and meow came into being. These kinds of words are vital to the comic book industry.

The need for onomatopoeic and ideophonic words is universal, as most languages incorporate a handful into the language. There are those that argue this is how some languages developed at a base level.

One might think that this shared phenomenon could be used as a bridge to cross language barriers, but strangely enough, that is most often not the case. Whatever language we speak and whatever sounds we are accustomed to hearing, directly influences our perception of other sounds.

To see some interesting differences in how we hear animal sounds in different languages, check out this video. I found it intriguing that every language featured, with the exception of Japanese, does hear a version of "Meow."



The differing perceptions of everyday sounds is why I feel so strongly that the absolute first step to getting a grasp on any language is to learn the sounds of the language.

For example:

I used to be unable to correctly hear the name of one of the doormen at my apartment in Goiânia — a guy that I depended on for my safety & security. Not only did I need to get to know him, but I needed him to get to know me (which isn't easy, most times, when there's a language barrier — the average person doesn't care enough to take the time). ...but I couldn't even understand his name, much less say it.

So I tried.

...and tried.

I must have asked him to repeat his name about a dozen times, before I finally asked him how to spell it. And after this experience, I no longer hesitated to ask how to spell anything.

Why didn't I ask him in the first place?

My husband, giver of unending bad adaptation/assimilation advice, had told me that I "shouldn't ask people how to spell their names because they'd think it was weird."

I think that meeting someone regularly, and never being able to say their name is more weird, personally.

I also think that he only said that because he thought it was embarrassing, for some reason. Or maybe I seemed too nerdy with my pen & mini spiral that I could whip out at a moment's notice. Whatever the reasoning, it was bad advice, and as soon as I ignored it the doors to understanding opened up.

Prior to getting the correct spelling so that I could sound it out, it went something like:

Me: "I'm sorry, what is your name, again?"
Him: "Jblblbz%tuiblblblblϟgkblblblo@iwblblblber." (...or something?)
Me: "Oh... Okay. Thanks!" (not getting it, at all)

So when I finally asked him to spell it, it went like this:

Me: "I'm sorry, but could you spell your name for me? It's hard for me to understand because Portuguese is my second language."
Him: "Sure. It's J-U-R-A-N-D-I-R."
Me: "Oh, 'Zhuuur-rdahhhhn-zheer'"
Him: "Yes. That's it." (probably thinking, "Finally!")
Me: "Okay, great, Jurandir! Thank you!" (thinking, "Wow, that was easy ...and I'll never have to ask again!")

Although knowing the sounds of a language makes it easier to understand how another culture hears the world, homegrown sounds that you may have taken for granted to fall back on (if your language isn't up to par) may not help you out as much as you think they will.

For instance, there is 1 very basic and simple onomatopoeic sound that is identical in both English & Portuguese, that is in no way related to the other.

The same clicking sound made with the tongue, used for getting a horse to "giddyap" in the United States, is used in Brazil as a big fat "negatory," or "não." They are not telling you to get along, little dogie, they are just saying no, without an actual word.


(To enlarge, right-click and open in a new window.)


Then there's this classic.

The first time you're in a place where you are supposed to be quiet, but are needing to get the attention of someone, you might think that the good ol' fashioned, "Psssssssst!" will suffice in getting someone's attention.



Uh, not in Brazil.

It seriously irked me when I found out how similar (to me, anyway) the Brazilian Portuguese version is to the "Psssssst" I was using (because I didn't know how the other one went, yet).

It was like everyone had Pssssst-cancelling headphones on.

When I later discovered that the way to do it in Brazil is "Psiu" (pronounced: "P-see-you") I just couldn't believe that no one got my American English version.

Really?!? No one thought that I might be discreetly trying to get their attention? Huh.

Speaking of classics, it reminded me of this comic by Gary Larson, creator of The Far Side.



So now ya know, and we all know that is half the battle.

Psiu! Pass it on!

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