Paul Ziff's Semantic Analysis and Onomatopoeia


You may wonder what the word “Onomatopoeia” means, and so did I when I first saw it. It’s one of those unnecessarily long foreign words which meaning is unguessable unless one is very good with greek. Wikipedia has an article on it that makes it easy to understand.1 It means sound words (danish “lydord”) which are the words that are (somewhat) made after some sound of a thing, like the sound of a cat meowing (meow) or of a dog barking (woof).2 It is not constrained to ‘natural’ sounds. For instance, it includes sounds from a camera blitz (snap). I shall just call them sound words.

Quote from Semantic Analysis

26. It has been said, “The relation between language and the world is conventional.” There are ways of twisting this remark so that it turns [out] true: as it stands, it is at best false.

‘Conventional’ sometimes indicates that which is customary: wearing a tie, saying ‘How do you do?’ when introduced to a person, shaking hands, and so forth are matters of convention, custom. That a speaker in using “I” may be speaking of himself is not a matter of custom.

‘Conventional’ sometimes indicates that which is in some sense agreed upon; we can adopt the convention that in this essay ‘thater’ is to be employed as an exact synonym of ‘that’. Perhaps we would then say, “The relations between ‘thater’ and the world are conventional.” It does not follow that something of the same sort must be said about the word ‘that’. The point here can be readily seen in connection with onomatopoeia. The word ‘meow’ stands in a relatively natural relation to a cat’s meow in that the sounds made in uttering the word are somewhat similar to the sound of a cat meowing. Let ‘woem’ be an exactly synonym of ‘meow’; then perhaps any regularity pertaining to ‘woem’ and a cat’s meow is conventional: it does not follow that the resemblance between an utterance of ‘meow’ and a cat’s meow is conventional.

    Onomatopoeia is of no great importance in language. I would not suggest otherwise. But the possibility of it indicates that not every semantic regularity can sensibly be characterized as “conventional.” What is important and true about the thesis that “the relation between language and the word is conventional” is this: only those semantic regularities that can more or less felicitously be characterized as “conventional” are generally relevant in semantic studies. The only semantic regularities pertaining to ‘meow’ that are in general semantically relevant are those that pertain equally to ‘woem’. If I say ‘What’s making that cat meow?’ then whether I like it or not part of my utterance stands in a natural relation to a cat’s meow, but this natural relation must generally be semantically irrelevant for generally (but not absolutely invariably) I could have asked the same question by asking ‘What’s making that cat woem?’. (In an appropriate context, e.g. one in which a cat is meowing loudly and plainly, there might well be a striking and semantically relevant difference between the utterance ‘The cat is meowing.’ and ‘The cat is woeming.’ for the stress on ‘woeming’ might be puzzling in a way that the stress on ‘meowing’ might not. See 56 below.)

Cross-language sound words

Surely Ziff is right about some of the things that he said. This part:

“But the possibility of it indicates that not every semantic regularity can sensibly be characterized as “conventional.””

appears to be a misstatement. Why would he talk about the possibility of it when he has just shown that it is actual? Nothing useful follows from the possibility (what kind of possibility?) of sound words, but his point does follow from the actuality of sound words.

As for the ‘natural relation’ (meaning similarity in sound?), it is much less strong than he gives one (or I got) the impression of. When I was looking up the word “onomatopoeia” on Wiktionary and Wikipedia, I stumbled upon an article that compares the sound words in various languages for the same sounds. (Unless one wants to say that a cat suddenly starts meowing differently when taken to China!) Unsurprisingly they don’t have much in common but they do have a little. Consider the sound words for a cat’s meow:

* In Tagalog meyaw,”ngiyaw”

* In Arabic, miao

* In Bengali: miu miu

* In Bulgarian, miau

* In Catalan, mèu [mɛu]

* In Czech, mňau

* In Chinese, Cantonese, mēu-mēu

* In Chinese, Mandarin, miāo miāo

* In Danish, mjau, mjav, miau, miav

* In Dutch, miauw, mauw

* In English, meow [miˈaʊ], miaow (UK), or mew [mjuː]

* In Estonian, mäu, näu

* In Filipino, ngyaw

* In Finnish, miau, mau, nau, kurnau

* In French, miaou [mja.u]

* In German, miau

* In Greek, niau,

* In Hebrew, miaw

* In Hungarian miaú, nyau

* In Japanese nyaanyaa

* In Korean yah-ong

* In Norwegian mjau

* In Hindi Myaau, Myaaoo

* In Icelandic, mjá

* In Italian, miao miao

* In Indonesian, meong

* In Japanese, nyā

* In Korean, yaong

* In Lithuanian, miau

* In Macedonian, myau (мјау)

* In Malayalam, “myaoo myaoo”

* In Polish, miau

* In Portuguese, miau

* In Romanian, miau

* In Russian, myau

* In Sinhalese, ñāvu and puru puru – purring

* In Slovene, mijav

* In Spanish, miau [mjaʊ]

* In Swedish, mjau or mjao

* In Thai, miaw

* In Turkish, miyav

* In Telugu, miao(m)

* In Tamil, miaow(m)

* In Urdu, meow

* In Vietnamese, meo3

They have some things in common: They generally feature the vocals “i” and “e” in the beginning of the word (and these two are often, I guess, pronounced similarly) and the vocal “o” in the end. Also, they generally feature the consonants “m” and “n” (also sounds similarly) in the beginning and the consonants “v” and “w” in the end.

Similarly for other sound words though the words for a balloon popping are quite dissimilar. I would not be surprised that this is because the sound a balloon makes when it pops is very dissimilar to the sounds that human beings are capable of making in general. We thus find it hard to reproduce the sound and select some sound that is somewhat ‘far away’ (in sound) from how we hear it.

The above indicates that the ‘natural connection’ is pretty weak. Even words that are not generally considered sound words may have a weak ‘natural connection’ to the sound of whatever it is that they refer to. For instance the danish word for electric socket (“stikkontakt”) sounds somewhat similar to the sound it makes when one turns on the socket (click). Though the word’s etyomology is unrelated.4


2It is interesting to note that the noun word of the behavior of the thing or animal making the sound is not always similar to the actual sound cf. a dog’s bark. This is not similar to “woof”. Similarly with the danish word “at gø” meaning to bark. This is not similar to “vuf”.

3 I removed some information about how to spell the words in their respective countries because my blog does not support the symbols.

4It very probably evolved from “stik” and “kontakt” meaning, respectively, the end of a power cable that is inserted into an electric pocket and contact.

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