“Onomatopoeia / I don’t want to see ya / speakin’ in a foreign tongue,” John Prine once sang—or wheezed, depending on your taste in music. We do it all the time. We growl and mewl at our lovers, bark and howl at friends and strangers. At least we do in my neighborhood. But what is it, in any language, that we are doing when we say “arf arf” or “moo moo”? And if “onomatopoeia” simply means “to make a name like the thing itself” then why the heck does it sound like nothing English speakers ever say or hear?
Onomatopoeia is a word of ancient Greek lineage. Onomatopoeia means the “formation of a word that sounds like its referent, as buzz, crack, cuckoo.” [AHD] Onomatopoeia is composed from the Greek words onoma, “name,” and poiein, “to make.” [ibid.] The word’s adoption from Greek immediately helps explain its odd sound and appearance: onomatopoeia is a technical term. Many technical terms are loaned to English from Greek; often the terms have their origins in ancient Greek literature. That’s the case with onomatopoeia; it’s a term from the study of rhetoric.
Rhetoric is the ancient art and study of oration and composition. Ars rhetorica includes forensics, the study of argumentation. Rhetoric, as the study of persuasion and appropriate address, is a breeding ground for many proscriptive rules for speaking and writing, including “correct” grammar. These days, we sometimes call a question “rhetorical” when we say we don’t really expect the question to receive a definitive answer. Rhetorical questions are kin to the phrase “it’s academic,” meaning a “moot point,” because, sadly, there is a perception that the concerns of academics are unanswerable and not mattering anyway.
However rhetorically, but not at all moot, words that sound like their referents are powerful because, in addition to the usual image that good speaking or writing provides, onomatopoetic words give an image a sonic element as well. Lawyers and insurance salesmen love onomatopoeia (whether they know it or not!) because such words have an almost physical impact. As I’ll show, the name-making of onomatopoeia really does imply the usurpation of divine power.
In my etymological odyssey through the seas of onomatopoeia, I find two long histories of ideas, *nomen and *kwei, “naming” and “making,” calling like sirens from the reconstructed shores of our Indo-European roots.
The senses of *kwei [AHD, kwei 2 and 4] suggest to me a sustaining metaphor: to mimic, to make like something else. It’s important I be clear in the way I am using “metaphor” here, as my use is not merely rhetorical. (“Metaphor” being, of course, another one of those technical terms from rhetoric.) I’m taking up the term metaphor to mean “ideas doing work for each other.” I’m saying that metaphors do the labor of meaning.
Here’s a metaphorical image to illustrate what I mean: language is a caravan. This caravan sojourns from city to oasis to city with its valuable cargo of meaning. Meaning has value, obviously; meaning gets us passing grades, political offices, pigeon holed, and les pas de deux. In this caravan, the camels are the metaphors carrying valuable loads of meaning. Just as the goods of a caravan can be bartered for other goods and services, so metaphors are linguistically negotiable. As to whether the caravan of language has a “driver” I leave for my reader to decide.
This metaphor of mimesis has given *kwei a persona, so to speak, as the word has descended into Greek and then English. This persona, I’d argue, is itself mimetic, though perhaps self-reflexive would be more accurate. *kwei becomes the idea of “making by watching first,” as if making-labor could be narcissistic. To make by reflection is to learn by doing. To speak of a metaphor having a persona evokes that “first among firsts” of language “origins”: naming, of ourselves, and the things around us. And whose prerogative is naming? Human intent is betrayed in the onomatopoeic impulse. The reification of a signifier or the conflation of a signifier with its referent is, as I’ll show, the human mimicry, or usurpation, of the power of the divine.
“In the beginning was the Word [logos], and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” [John 1:1, KJV] I’ve always loved this passage, as I believe it illustrates something fundamental about human beings: we’re onomatophilic, we love to name things, and have an intense need to be able to name the “first thing.” In this first line of John, the author provides us with an image of divine onomatopoeia: the word not only sounds like its referent, the word is identified in toto with the divine. This example begins to show the pervasiveness of the mimesis metaphor.
I want to return to the roots of onomatopoeia, and the senses of Indo-European *kwei and *nomen. The Germanic descent from *kwei gives us a trio of onomatopoetic words: whine, whisper, and whistle. e. e. cummings named his whispery, bespirited Halloween poem “hist whist,” and played on the slithery, sushing sounds of things in the autumn wind by employing lots of “wh” words. From the Greek branch of *kwei English inherits poem, poet, poesis, mythopoeic, pharmacopoeia, our subject word onomatopoeia, and prosopopeia. Prosopopeia is another technical tern from rhetoric; we have a word in English with a similar meaning. A stand-up comic does impersonations, while an ancient Greek orator might, through prosopopeia, “evoke the presence” of a revered divinity, hero or philosopher. Like a Hollywood star (a kind of divine or celestial being) such an orator might feel rather godlike in her evocation of dead personae. Here, too, work is being done by that caravan of camels, the mimesis metaphor.
In the poem we find an exotic oasis of mimesis, a seductive stopping place for caravans. The very idea of what a poem does, of how a poem conveys images, sounds, and news from the world, through the voice of the poet, and into the ears of the listener, is connected to the idea of mimicry. In Plato’s Sophist [265b], “the productive arts (poetikai technai…) are divided into divine craftsmanship and human craftsmanship…, and… another type of productivity shared by both God and man that does not produce ‘originals’ but merely copies (eikones). This is mimesis, the art of the poet…” [GPT, p. 118] In the Republic, Plato tries to add the straw that’ll break the back of the mimesis metaphor by having Socrates say “that mimesis is a form of play, not to be taken seriously…” [602b]. Because the poet seeks to mimic the divine forms, the poem, Socrates’ argument continues, is “the rival of the work of the artisan, the statesman, the moralist, and the philosopher, but under the inescapable disadvantage of being an imitation of an imitation, ‘thrice removed from the truth,’ and composed not by art and knowledge, but by inspiration, at a time when the poet is not in his right mind…” [PEPP, 640].
The poet is not in his right mind? Language is a divine virus, if I may simultaneously imitate both Plato and William Burroughs, and, I might add, a hallucinogenic one. The poet’s onomastications, his habit of eating his words, have given him a super power, the power of creation, poesis. He eats Mimosa, a frondy plant so named “from its imitation [mimesis] of animal sensitivity.” [AHD] To this left-minded poet, all is mime: one thing standing in for another; not as in a hall of mirrors; the image is of a relay race, where metaphor does the racing and mimesis is the baton. His is an ontology of naming; his is a project of genealogy, for names must create a dialog of relationships in which to be. Logotheistic, he suspects the existence of numero “ono,” of an Ur word or meme*.
Consider again the metaphors language is a caravan and metaphors do work. Is not the fundamental purpose of work to be imitative? To reproduce? To be barterable? Plato was a sweet soul dreamer, but all the work gets done here on the ground by camels of metaphor. Onomatopoesis gives the poet the power to make like the divine—or anything else he cares to imitate. It is poiein, the sense of making and constructing, that gives she who hears the whistling wind the poesis, the sacred breathing in of the aer, the inspiration. Plato warned us: poetry threatens the state, because in onomatopoeia, the human challenges the divine prerogative to name the First Thing.
* Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins claims to have invented the term meme to be able to discuss “ideas in the air,” simultaneous invention and discovery, fads, fashions, and perhaps even language change. Back
AHD = American Heritage Dictionary. DEP = Dictionary of Philosophy and Religion: Eastern and Western Thought. Reese, W.L., editor. Humanities Press, 1980. GPT = Greek Philosophical Terms: A Historical Lexicon. Peters, F.E. New York University Press, 1967. PEPP = Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics. Preminger, Alex, editor. Princeton University Press, 1974.