Onomatopoeia (for Mateo)

by Jeff Oaks

There was a theory, if I remember right, that onomatopoeia was the way languages arose, the earliest buds of what would later become a tribe’s tongue. We humans, went the theory, evolved by imitating. Homo hear, homo say, homo remember when noise is close enough to draw a response to do that again. Meow, ruff, grrr, crash.

But I couldn’t find mention of any theory like that when I looked around the internet today, so it’s probably been disproved. Bam, oof! I might even have dreamed that up. Smash, crash, thud.

But if it’s not the source of original connection between us and this world which we’re constantly trying to translate, make articulate, make graspable, legible, it is a source of freshness. Onomatopoeia feels like a gesture toward the original chatter language must have arisen from, the grunts, squeaks, and whines that eventually went forth and multiplied into our beautiful babble.

One of the friends I’m staying with in a lodge in the mountains this week suggested that instead of using adjectives, we make sounds instead. So, instead of saying, I’m having a wonderful morning, you’d say I’m having a {lala!} morning, if you can imagine that {lala!} as standing for the sound of someone singing happily. It seemed like it would be hilarious and fun. We all laughed.

But did we take it up as a serious challenge? Nope. It disappeared and hasn’t been spoken about again. Why? Because part of the point for this getaway was to catch up, to fill in the gaps in the narratives of our lives. To tell our friends what we’re doing, so we can hear ourselves say what we’re doing, so we can know and consider and articulate what we ARE doing outside the normal distracting buzz and hiss of our busy lives.

We needed words for that, not so much sounds or echoes or imitations. We needed precision and care, which the onomatopoetic doesn’t really provide. It’s a splash of color or texture mostly in our conversations. It’s an extra layer of diction that helps give depth to the surrounding language, like a slash of blue or purple paint in an otherwise green painting of a mountain pine. It helps wake the artist and the viewer up. It opens up the possibilities of representation. There is still a wild world to borrow from if the present language fails.

The only place we use it is when we play cards, in the friendly growl when a friend has forced us to pick up a discard pile that grown so large it hurts the hand to hold them all, the suspicious hum of the one with one card left, the blarg suddenly when one friend gets dealt a shit hand again, the BAM when someone goes out triumphantly while the rest of us groan and begin counting our points.