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  • Onomatopoeia as a Figure and a Linguistic Principle
  • Hugh Bredin (bio)

It is easy to think of onomatopoeic words. Whizz, bang, splash, thump, will strike most English-speakers as typical examples; and once we are familiar with these, it is easy for us then to recognize others almost at will, and even to invent new ones if need be. An audience at the film How to Murder Your Wife needs no explanation why a cement-mixer is referred to in a cartoon strip as a gloppita-gloppita machine. The knowledge of how to speak a language seems to naturally involve a knowledge of whatever principle it is that underlies onomatopoeic idioms, coinings, and usages. 1

There is less unanimity, however, and more difficulty, when attempts are made to define onomatopoeia. A quick trawl through a number of standard reference books shows that, while everyone agrees that onomatopoeia is the name of a relationship between the sound of a word and something else, there are divergent views both on the second term of the relationship and on the nature of the relation itself. The second term of the relation is variously referred to as sounds, sense, referent, and what is denoted. The relation that obtains between the two terms generates an extensive and heterogeneous collection of names: imitates, echoes, reflects, resembles, corresponds to, sounds like, expresses, reinforces, and has a natural or direct relation with. 2

It looks suspiciously as if there is some confusion, or vagueness at least, about the concept of onomatopoeia. Even the nature of the confusion or vagueness is not clear. Some of the authors suggest that there is more than one type of onomatopoeia, since they distinguish between a strict or narrow sense, and a more general or broad sense, of the term. Others list more than one definition or sense of onomatopoeia without further explanation, as if the senses were roughly equivalent or not sufficiently different to warrant discussion. Others again provide a single definition and are content to leave it at that.

The strict or narrow kind of onomatopoeia is alleged to occur whenever the sound of a word resembles (or “imitates”) a sound that the word refers to. The words “strict” and “narrow” suggest that the sense in question is a kind of original usage or practice, in respect of which other [End Page 555] senses of onomatopoeia are metaphorical or perhaps extensional enlargements. However, if we go back in time to Quintilian’s Institutio Oratoria, the work which laid the foundations for all subsequent descriptions and theories of figurative language, we find that onomatopoeia refers here to what its etymology implies: namely, the creation of a word ex novo. (Quintilian remarked in passing that the Greeks regarded word creation as a virtue, whereas among the Romans it was rarely acceptable: a fascinating glimpse into the contrast between the two great cultures of classical Europe.)

Quintilian, it is true, gave as examples of created words what we would now call “onomatopoeic” words: mugitus for the lowing of cattle, sibilus for a hiss, and murmur. But his explanation for these coinages was rooted in a theory of language first expounded in Plato’s Cratylus —that, at some earlier and foundational stage of history, language was invented by people (qui sermonem primi fecerunt) and that their inventive activities were motivated by a kind of fitness between the invented words and whatever they were names for (aptantes adfectibus vocem). The word used here by Quintilian for the objects named is adfectibus, which does not refer specifically to sounds but rather to any state or disposition of mind or body. Thus, while his examples may sustain something like the current notion of onomatopoeia, neither his definition nor his explanation of it do so. 3

It would be a substantial scholarly task to trace the origin and vicissitudes of the theory of onomatopoeia. Quintilian’s work appeared in the late first century. Bede’s early eighth-century De Schematibus et Tropis defines it in the so-called strict sense mentioned a moment ago. 4 Geoffrey of Vinsauf’s thirteenth-century Documentum de Modo et Arte Dictandi et Versificandi reserves the name for a figure in which an onomatopoeic...