How did language begin? An early theory from scholars including Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778), suggested that language began with the onomatopoeia. An onomatopoeia is a word that is formed by imitating the sound that an object or action produces. Examples of onomatopoeia include “splash”, the sound of liquid hitting a surface and “crash”, the sound produced when two objects collide.
Interestingly, although many humans come into contact with or experience the exact same sounds, onomatopoeias between languages can still be very different. You might think the sound of a beating heart can’t be described much differently than a rythmical “ba bum ba bum ba bum”, but the Japanese say “doki doki”. On the other hand, the Japanese might have a hard time understanding how we got “cock-a-doodle-do” from the sound of a cockerel, which quite clearly makes the sound “kokekkokou”.
The onomatopoeia as an explanation of the origin of language is known as the bow-wow theory (bow-wow is the onomatopoeia for a dog’s bark, therefore becoming the name of the animal). The theory is, however, now largely discredited and, although some experts believe that they probably had some sort of influence on early language, it seems they are not the answer to its origin. Current theories are numerous and complex and, as yet, there is no definitive answer.
But from Batman comics (Pow! Zap!) to Sylvia Plath poetry (“the bells…soberly bong out their names”), onomatopoeias are dotted about all over our language and colour our sentences. It’s always interesting to hear their equivalents in foreign languages, or perhaps even learn of an onomatopoeia that doesn’t exist in our own: in Japanese, for example, shiin is the sound of silence.