“The sound must seem an echo to the sense.”—Pope.

Since the human voice is at once a sound and a sign, it was of course natural to take the sound of the voice as a sign of the sounds of nature.[104] In short, to recall a sound by its echo in the voice is as obviously natural a proceeding as to recall an object to the memory by drawing the picture of its form. In both cases we act upon the senses by means of imitation; and if the human race had not been endued with the organs of hearing doubtless a language for the eye would have been invented, just as Philomela, when deprived of her tongue, made known, by embroidery, her miserable tale. A word formed on the principle of imitation, is said to be formed by onomatopœia, and although the traces of such an origin are rapidly lost, yet amid the almost infinite modifications of which a few roots are capable, it is astonishing how vast a number of words may be ultimately deduced from a single onomatopœic sound.

How universal and instinctive the procedure is, may be observed among infants and savages.

In the nursery the onomatopœan sounds moo, baa, bow-wow, &c., are the steps by which the child passes gradually to the conception of cow, lamb, and dog. So in Swiss[105] bààgen is to bleat, and báágeli (in nursery language), a sheep. The very name cow, Germ. kuh, Sansks. gao, has a similar origin, as βοῦς, bos, ox, Sansks. uxan, probably has also. There is little doubt that the word, cat (Germ. katze), is an imitation of the sound made by a cat spitting, which is one of the most peculiar characteristics of the feline race. It must, however, be admitted that there is no sibilant in “kater.” We have all heard the story of the Englishman in China, who, wishing to know the contents of a dish which was lying before him, said inquiringly, “Quack, quack?” and received in answer, the word, “bow-wow!” These two imitations served all the purposes of a more lengthened conversation. It was probably, by a strictly analogous process, that an immense multitude of such roots was primitively formed.

Again, it is impossible to look over any list of words collected from the language of a savage community without recognising the extensive use of the same method.[106] The repetition of syllables is an almost certain sign of its working. Thus, Ai-ai is an imitation of the cry of the sloth, and tuco-tuco is the name of a small rodent in Buenos Ayres. Mr. Longfellow has supplied us with many such words from the languages of North America, in his poem of “Hiawatha,”—as Kahgahgee, the raven; Minnehaha laughing-water, &c. “In uncivilised languages,[106] the consciousness of the imitative character of certain words is sometimes demonstrated by their composition with verbs,[107] like say or do, to signify making a noise like that represented by the word in question. Thus, in Galla, from djeda, to say, or goda, to make or do, are formed cacak-djeda, to crack; trrr-djeda, to chirp; dadada-djeda, to beat; djamdjam-goda, to champ.”

We do not think that the extent to which onomatopœia may be proved to be an instrument of language has been sufficiently admitted. It was the most natural starting-point for the intelligence on its path towards expression. A nascent language enriches itself by ceaseless imitations of elementary sounds, animal cries, and the noises produced by mechanical contrivances, and we shall trace hereafter the innumerable applications in which such terms can be at once employed. Some writers even go so far as to assert that this is the only original principle of language, and that we even learned our first consonant from the bleating of the sheep, for which reason, according to Pierius Valerianus, a lamb was the hieroglyphical emblem of the verb! We have already rejected this extension of the theory; but, at the same time, we can readily believe the assertion, that the peculiarities of articulation in certain countries may be not only modified, but even originated by the existence of remarkable natural sounds in the countries where these peculiarities occur. It has been said, for instance, “that in some of the American languages, there are strident consonants evidently formed from the hiss of certain serpents unknown in our temperate regions, and that the click of the Hottentot dialects recalls a species of cry peculiar to the tigers which ranque.” The latter word is an onomatopœian, probably borrowed by Buffon from the Philomela of Albus Ovidius Juventinus, in which occurs the line:—

“Tigrides indomitæ rancant [108]rugiuntque leones.”

What this peculiar sound may be, we do not know, but can hardly reconcile this suggestion of Nodier with the statement, that the name,[109] Hott-en-tot is itself onomatopœian, having been given by the first Dutch settlers, because this click would sound to a stranger like a perpetual repetition of the syllables hot and tot. It is a curious fact that Palamedes is said to have learnt, from the noise of cranes, the four letters which he added to the Greek alphabet; and it is certainly a confirmation of these remarks, that although no language possesses in its alphabet a power of expressing every possible articulation, yet no nation’s language is quite deficient in the power of expressing, by imitation, the cries of its indigenous animals.

It is wonderful that the knowledge and observation of facts like these did not lead the philologists of antiquity to a solution of their disputes about the natural or conventional origin of languages. The age of Psammetichus evinced its interest in the question, and if it had been content to observe its own experiment, instead of making it the prop to a “foregone conclusion,” philosophers might have agreed, long ago, in believing, that man was assisted by nature in the development of his implanted powers, and that, like every infant of his race, he framed into living speech the sounds by which his senses were first impressed.[110] When the first man gave names to the animals, which, as we have already seen, he was enabled to do by the reasonable use of his own faculties, and not at the dictation of a voice from heaven, he could not have been guided by any principle so obvious, so easy, or so appropriate as an artistic reproduction of the sounds which they uttered.

But how, it may be asked, is the voice capable of rendering even the feeblest echo of all the myriad utterances of the earth and air, the voices of the desert and mountain,—

“The echoes of illimitable forests,

The murmur of unfathomable seas”?

We answer that the imitation is not, and does not profess to be a dull, dead, passive echo of the sound, but of the impression produced by it upon the sentient being; it is not a mere spontaneous repercussion of the perception received; but a repercussion modified organically by the configurations of the mouth, and ideally by the nature of the analogy perceived between the sound and the object it expressed. “The organs of that wonderful musical instrument, the mouth, are the throat, the palate, the tongue, the teeth, the lips.[111] This then is the subjective organon of language, the physiological vehicle for that proto-plastic art, speech, which combines architecture and music, the plastic and the picturesque. Johannes Müller has developed this physiologically, Sir John Herschell acoustically.” The mere power of imitation would not have helped mankind a single step towards language any more than it has helped the parrot or the jay,[112] had it not been for the infinitely nobler faculty which enabled us to perceive the meaning of the sounds we uttered, and to use them as the signs of our inward conceptions,—a faculty which has implanted in language its principle of development, and which constitutes the distinction between the chatterings of a jackdaw and the eloquence of a man.

This alone is a clear proof, if proof were wanted, that language is the result of intelligence, as well as of instinct; and that the human reason was not a gradual acquisition of a once brutish race.

But though the power of imitation by the voice of the sounds of the unintelligent creation be small in comparison with those other powers which constitute our pre-eminence, yet how perfect is that gift in itself,—how wondrous the organism by which it is effected! The mouth is admirably framed for intelligent and harmonious utterance; it is at once an organ, and a flute,—a trumpet and a harp. Its sublime construction will make it the eternal despair of mechanicians, and the songs which it can modulate, are superior to all the melodies of artificial music. The intelligence of man enables him alone to use this glorious instrument, as God intended it to be used. “Il avait,” says M. Nodier, “dans ses poumons un soufflet intelligent et sensible, dans ses lèvres un limbe épanoui, mobile, extensible, rétractile, qui jette le son, qui le modifie, qui le renforce, qui l’assouplit, qui le contraint, qui le voile, qui l’éteint; dans sa langue un marteau souple, flexible, onduleux, qui se replit, qui s’accourcit, qui s’étend; qui se meut, et qui s’enterpose entre ses valves, selon qu’il convient retenir ou d’épancher la voix, qui attache ses touches avec âpreté ou qui les effleure avec mollesse; dans ses dents un clavier ferme, aigu, strident; à son palais un tympan grave et sonore: luxe inutile pourtant, s’il n’avait pas eu la pensée; et celui qui a fait ce qui est n’a jamais rien fait d’inutile.—L’homme parla parce qu’il pensait.”

The plain elementary sounds of which the human voice is capable are about twenty; and yet it has been calculated by the mathematician Tacquet, that one thousand million writers, in one thousand million years, could not write out all the combinations of the twenty-four letters of the alphabet, if each of them were daily to write out forty pages of them, of which each page should contain different orders of the twenty-four letters. Of course, a very small number only of these permutations are at all required for every purpose of life. “And thus it is,” says the ingenious author of[113]Hermes, “that to principles apparently so trivial as about twenty plain elementary sounds, we owe that variety of articulate voices, which have been sufficient to explain the sentiments of so innumerable a multitude, as all the present and past generations of men.”

But it may be objected that if we admit such latitude to the use of onomatopœia in the formation of language, we should find among all languages a much greater identity than actually exists in the terms expressive of physical facts. This by no means follows. We have already seen that words express the relations of things, and the relations of things are almost infinite, and especially must they have been so to the delicate senses of the youthful world. Let us take the instance of the thunder: the impression produced by it is by no means single and distinct. To one man it may appear like a dull rumble, to another like a sudden crackling explosion, and to a third as a breaking forth of flashing light. Hence come a multitude of names. Adelung professed to have collected 353 imitative appellations from the European languages alone; and it is not difficult to see that a similar[114] principle was at work in the Chinese ley (pronounced rey), the Greenland kallak, and the Mexican tlatlatnitzel. Similarly, “the explosion of a gun which an English boy imitates by the exclamation Bang-fire, is represented in French by Pouf! The neighing of a horse is expressed by the French hennir; Italian, nitrire; Spanish, rinchar, relinchar; German, wiehern; Swedish, wrena, wrenska; Dutch, runniken, ginniken, brieschen, words in which it is difficult to see a glimpse of resemblance, although we can hardly doubt that they all take their rise in the attempt at direct[115] representation of the same sound.” In the same way, no one will deny that “ding-dong,” and the word “bilbil,” to ring, in the Galla language, are onomatopœians to represent the sound of a bell, and yet the two have hardly an element in common.

It has been noticed that birds are often named on this principle; as night-jar, whip-poor-will, cock, cuckoo, crow, crane, crake, quail, curlew, jay, chough, owl, turtle, &c.; and where the bird has one very marked cry we find a great similarity in the names by which it is known. Take for instance the peetwit,[116] Scandinavian pee-weip, tee-whoap; French, dishuit; Dutch, kiewit; German, kiebitz; Swedish, kowipa. But we should not expect this to be the case when a bird has a great variety of different sounds. The nightingale, according to Bechstein, has twenty distinct articulations, and it is therefore not surprising that even in the European languages it is known under widely different names. And besides names which are derived from its song (e.g. bulbul), it might be called from some other attribute entirely distinct from this, as perhaps in the Latin name luscinia; although, if this be the case, it is interesting to see how imitation asserts its prerogative in the modern names[117] usignuolo (Italian), ruyseñol (Spanish), rossignol (French), rousinol (Portuguese), which are probably corruptions of the diminutive lusciniola, used by Plautus.

In some cases an onomatopœian root is so natural as to run through all families of languages; e.g. the root lh or lk to imitate the sound and action of licking, as Hebrew לָחַךְ; Arabic, lahika; Syriac, lah; λείχω, lingo, ligurio, lingua, leccare, lechen, lécher; it is the same with the roots grf to express gripping, kr to express crying, and many others. The practice is, however (as we have already remarked), far more prominent in the Semitic than in the Indo-European family, and this is the cause of the extraordinary richness of synonyms in Hebrew and Arabic for the expression of natural objects. It is said that in Arabic there are 500 names for the lion, 200 for the serpent, more than eighty for honey, 400 for sorrow, and (what is quite incredible unless every periphrasis be counted a name) no less than 1,000 for a sword. M. de Hammer, an unimpeachable authority, has, in a little treatise on the subject, counted also 5,744 words relating to the camel. The ancient Saxon is said to have had fifteen words for the sea; and if we allowed merely poetical expressions like “the blue,” we might say the same of modern English.

Wide dialectic variety naturally results from a nomadic life; and it is easy to see how this extraordinary exuberance of primitive language, and the uncontrolled rapidity with which it exercised its powers of nomenclature, would tend, while writing and literature were as yet unknown, to make mutually unintelligible the language of different tribes.[118] This confusion of speech would, of course, be the most powerful impediment in the course of ambition, and would tend to defeat the attempts to construct and perpetuate a universal empire. It may have been the providential agent to assert for the human race, “a nobler destiny than to become the footstool of a few families.” This is strikingly shadowed forth in the Scripture narrative of the builders of Babel, which many competent authorities have considered as applicable to only a single family of nations, and have regarded in the light rather of “a sublime emblem, than of a material verity.”

The confusion of tongues is not represented in Scripture as a punishment,[119] but as the providential prevention of an arrogant attempt to establish among mankind a spurious centre of unity. It seems to have frustrated the lawless thirst for power which actuated the tribe of Nimrod.[120] But even if regarded as a punishment, God’s punishments are but blessings in disguise. The dispersion of nations has acted as a stimulant to the powers of humanity, and has been the direct cause of a beneficial variety in thought and action; and in the same way the diversity of languages has proved to be (as we shall see hereafter) an indisputable advantage, by adding fresh lustre continually to those conceptions which by long habit become pale and dim. Yet this dispersion and diversity is but the accident of a fallen state, and in the renovated earth—(though it can never be while nations are in their present condition)—all men will perhaps speak the same perfect[121] universal speech.

There are two totally distinct points from which an imitative root can take its origin. The first is from an artistic reproduction of the sounds of the outer world; the second is from the expressions of fear or anger, of disgust or joy, which the impression of any event or spectacle may call forth in the human being. The first of these elements is the onomatopœic; the second, the interjectional. These two sources have not been kept sufficiently clear and distinct, and the latter especially has been by many philologists entirely overlooked. We will proceed to make some remarks on both. The instances which we shall select might be almost indefinitely extended, and even were they less numerous we might perhaps be allowed to use the words of President de Brosses, “La preuve connue d’un grand nombre de mots d’une espèce doit établir une précepte générale sur les autres mots de même espèce, à l’origine desquels on ne peut plus remonter.”

As instances of the words which have arisen from the interjectional element, i.e. from the sounds whereby we express natural emotions, we may mention the large group of words that spring from the root “ach,” ah! oh! as utterances of pain, as ἄχος, ἀχέω, achen, ache; or from the sound of groaning, as , wehe, woe, wail; or from an expression of disgust, as putere (Fr. puer), foul, fulsome; or from smacking the lips with pleasure, as γλύκυς, dulcis, geschmack, &c. This latter class is very widely extended, even in the Semitic languages, as we have already shown in the case of the root lk (see p. 84). From the expression of disgust and fear, we get awe, ugly, ἀγάομαι, ἀγάζομαι and their cognates; from shuddering, the roots of φρίσσω, bristle, hérisser, &c.; from the first sounds of infancy, we get babe, bambino, babble, and many more; from sounds of anger, “huff,” and others; lastly, from “prut,” a sound of arrogance, we get the word “proud,” “pride,” as in German, “trotzig,” haughty, from “trotz,”[122] an interjection of defiance and contempt.

The other class of onomatopœias is far more extensive, and embraces the widest possible range of inanimate sounds. They may be ranged under the following heads; and although the examples are all taken from the[123]English language, they might be paralleled in almost any other.

1. Animal sounds, as quack, cackle, roar, neigh, whinny, bellow, mew, pur, croak, caw, chatter, bark, yelp, &c.

2. Inarticulate human sounds, as laugh, cough, sob, sigh, moan, shriek, yawn, whoop, weep, &c.

3. Collision of hard bodies, represented by p, t, k; as clap, rap, tap, flap, slap, rat-tat, &c.

4. Collision of softer bodies, represented by b, d, g; as dab, dub, bob, thud, dub-a-dub, &c.

5. Motion through the air, represented by z, &c.; as whizz, buzz, sough, &c.

6. Resonance, represented by m, n, &c.; as clang, knell, ring, twang, clang, din, &c.

7. Motion of liquids, &c., represented by sibilants, as clash, splash, plash, dash, swash, &c.

These are but specimens of the wide extent of these words in a language by no means the most remarkable for its adoption of onomatopœia. There are even broad general laws by which the various degrees of intensity in sound are expressed by the modification of vowels. Thus, high notes are represented by i, low broad sounds by a, and the change of a or o to i has the effect of diminution, as we see by comparing the words clap, clip, clank, clink, pock, peck, cat, kitten, foal, filly, tramp, trip, nob, nipple, &c. Another way of diminishing intensity is to soften a final letter, as in tug, tow, drag, draw, swagger, sway, stagger, stay, &c. Reduplication of syllables is a mode of expressing continuance, as in murmur, &c., and this effect is also produced by the addition of r and l, as in grab, grapple, wrest, wrestle, crack, crackle, dab, dabble, &c.

It is easy to see from the above examples that the onomatopœia and the interjection are the points from which language has developed itself, and from which “two separate lines of concurrent and[124] simultaneous evolution have proceeded.” The manner in which the various parts of speech grew out of these elements, and which of them may be supposed to be logically or actually anterior to the rest, is a wide and difficult subject of inquiry on which much uncertainty must necessarily prevail, and with which we are here unconcerned.

There is no doubt that, for some reason or other, many of our English onomatopœians are regarded as in some degree beneath the dignity of words, and are supposed to partake of the nature of vulgarity.[125] Yet with great inconsistency the places in which poets have been most successful in producing “an echo of the sound to the sense” are generally regarded with especial favour. The classic poets used this ornament with the most fastidious good taste. Even the ancients had learned to admire the rhyming termination by which Homer faintly recalls the humming of the summer swarms, in the lines—

Ἠύτε ἔθνεα πολλὰ μελισσάων ἀδινάων

πέτρης ἐκ γλαφύρης ἀεὶ νεὸν ἐρχομενάων:

and yet they do not surpass the exquisite verses of a living poet:—

Myriads of rivulets hurrying through the lawn;

The moan of doves in immemorial elms,

And murmur of innumerable bees.

Again, what can be more vivid than the marvellous way in which Homer recalls the snapping of a shattered sword, in—

Τριχθί τε καὶ τετραχθὶ διατρύφεν:

which is incomparably superior to the much-admired hemistich of Racine, “L’essieu crie et se rompt.” Both Homer and Virgil have imitated the rapid clatter of horses’ hoofs with equal felicity:—

Πολλὰ δ’ ἄναντα, κάταντα, πάραντά τε δόχμιά τ’ ἦλθον:

Quadrupedante putrem sonitu quatit ungula campum:

and the verse[126] in which Dubartas endeavours to recall the manner in which the lark “shoots up and shrills in flickering gyres,” has met with numberless admirers.

The greatest of our modern poets, Mr. Tennyson, has perhaps been more unsparing and more successful in his use of this figure than any of his predecessors, and a few passages will show that onomatopœia judiciously used is capable of the noblest application. Take, for instance, the leap of a cataract, in—

Where the river sloped

To plunge in cataract, shattering on black blocks

Its breadth of thunder;

or the shock of a mélée, in—

The storm

Of galloping hoofs bare on the ridge of spears

And riders front to front, until they closed

In conflict with the crash of shivering points

And thunder....

And all the plain—brand, mace, and shaft, and shield

Shock’d, like an iron-clanging anvil banged

With hammers;

or the booming of the sea, in—

Roar rock-thwarted under bellowing caves;

or, finally, what can be more perfect than the graphic power in which the picture of a fleet of glass wrecked on a reef of gold is called before us by the perfect adaptation of sound to sense, in the lines—

For the fleet drew near,

Touched, clinked, and clashed, and vanished.

Yet in all these cases we believe that it is to the language and not to the poet that the main credit is due. The language is the perfect instrument, and in the poet’s hands it is used with perfect power; but were it not for the original perfection of his instrument he would be unable to produce such rich and varied results; he would be unable to place the picture before the eye by bringing into play that swift and subtle law of association whereby a reproduction of the sounds at once recalls to the inner eye the images or circumstances with which they are connected. In every case the consummate art and skill of the writer consists simply in choosing the proper words for the thought which he wishes to express, which words are always the simplest. Appropriate[127] language is and always must be the most effective, and when a writer clearly goes out of his way to produce an effect he generally loses his effectiveness by abandoning simplicity. How much onomatopœia degenerates in a less skilful and artistic hand we might see in many instances, were not the selection of them an invidious task.

In short, an exquisite and instinctive taste can only decide on the extent to which this figure may be consciously used. We feel that Virgil was right in rejecting Ennius’s

At tuba terribili sonitu taratantara dicit,

as the imitation of a trumpet-blast; and none but a comic poet (like Swift) would use rub-a-dub, dub-a-dub in English to express the beating of a drum: and yet who was ever otherwise than delighted with the word τήνελλα, in which Archilochus imitated the twang of a harp-string, and which the Greeks used ever afterwards as an expression of joyous triumph? Again, none but a comedian could have ventured on so direct an imitation of sounds as βρεκεκεκέξ κοάξ κοάξ, and yet no one could object to the pretty line in which Ovid tries to produce the same impression:—

Quamquam sunt sub aquâ, sub aquâ maledicere tentant.

The misuse of language fails to produce the echo which its simple and natural use would not have failed to awake. In short, it is in many cases impossible to use language which shall be at once specific and appropriate without being forced to adopt imitative words. There is no style required in order to speak of the booming of the cannon, the twang of the bowstring, the hurtling of the arrow, the tolling or pealing of the bell, the rolling or throbbing of the drum, the sough or whisper of the breeze, because in each case the proper word is ready for us at once in the language which we speak, and if we are to speak naturally we can use no other. The harmonies of language arise mainly from this power of imitation, and a sensuous language is always energetic, poetic, passionate.

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