Onomatopoeia as a Figure and a Linguistic Principle

H Bredin - New Literary History, 1996 - muse.jhu.edu

Onomatopoeia as a Figure and a Linguistic Principle
Hugh Bredin
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...