In the realm of linguistic study, it is commonly accepted that individual sounds do not represent any particular meanings. It is, for instance, meaningless to ask what [p] or [a] mean. The sound for the word of a particular meaning is arbitrary; therefore there is generally no connection between sound and meaning. This, however, is not absolutely correct, as we have neglected the existence of a class of words, namely onomatopes, which do appear in the everyday use of language quite often.
As its Greek root suggests, onomatopoeia is the making (poiein) of a name or word (onoma) from natural sound. Onomatopes are thus imitative words of these natural sounds. Onomatopes are found in all languages of the world, and some linguists in fact believe onomatopes were the first words human spoke when language was developed. Since direct imitation allows the hearer to understand the meaning most easily, it is the most obvious way to describe actions (e.g. punch, boom) and animals (e.g. cock, dodo), which constitute the most parts of the conversation between primordial human. Therefore, the hypothesis is indeed reasonable. These primitive sounds have evolved over time, the remnants have become today’s onomatopes, and even some words which we do not usually regard as onomatopes. For instance, when animals are mating, they often open their mouths and produce a sound like [ha]. This sound may have evolved into the Taiwanese word ha, which later was borrowed by Mandarin and became the word ha1 (哈), which expresses a feeling of love and affection. The word is used to create vocabularies like ha1ri4 (哈日) “to love Japanese things” and ha1han2 (哈韓) “to love Korean things” by the younger generation.
Despite the importance of onomatopes in the world’s languages, the linguistic study of them is pitifully inadequate. Many linguistics regarded onomatopes as “second class citizens among words, since they are often polysemous, while at the same time, paradoxically, applicable to only a narrow semantic range”. In order to provide a clearer picture on onomatopoeia, it is the objective of this study to find out the characteristics of onomatopes of the world’s languages. It is also hoped that from these characteristics, we can reveal some of the underlying language universals. In the second part of this study, the devilment of onomatopes into common lexicons, and the syntactic behaviors of these lexicons are also examined.
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