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Post Onomatopoeia: Gary Moore Reflects
Created by John Eipper on 12/09/20 5:53 AM

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Onomatopoeia: Gary Moore Reflects (John Eipper, USA, 12/09/20 5:53 am)

Gary Moore writes:

John E to Ed Jajko and A. J. Cave (December 7th and 8th) rightly suggested the jingoistic etymology behind the smug spectrum of words ranging from "babble" through "barbarian." But there are also other mysteries in the suspicious nonsense word "babble"--like the extra-semantic mysteries of onomatopoeia. The word "babble" so effectively duplicates the burbling, bubbling lip movements of infant nonsense syllables that it could leap cultures. In the old indigenous South, the Choctaw word for the mockingbird was "hushi balbaha," with "hushi" meaning bird, and the rest, well, seemingly universal--since the mockingbird babbles in a hundred voices as it imitates other birdsongs, so much so that in a Deeper South, the Aztec/Nahuatl word for it was "hundred voices."

So, does sound enhance logical meaning? Or compete with it? And does this go beyond sound?

Latin "papilionem" for butterfly makes the lips reproduce the beauty of supple wings opening and closing--p-p--which condenses into French as "papillon" but only barely whispers in Spanish "mariposa." And yet it could jump an ocean to independent roots that keep it pristinely pure--in the Azt​ec/Nahuatl word for butterfly, "papantl." Our experts can say whether in Persian the song title "مرا ببوس ویگن "(Mara Beboos--Kiss Me) might work similarly, with fainter lip parallels in "beso" (Spanish), "buss" (English)," and "basium" (Latin).

Is it some sort of emotional load carried by some words that calls in poetry to ambush intellect?

JE comments:  The initial challenge, of course, is to spell onomatopoeia.  I had to check three times!  We could go on forever with our favorite "O"-words.  How about we begin with the ornithological?  US Midwesterners are amply familiar with the bobwhite quail, whose call is unmistakable:  Bob White (more formal birds might prefer "Robert" White).  The Spanish "buho" is a perfect rendition of the owl's hoot.  And then there's the archeological site of Tzintzuntzan in Michoacán, Mexico, which means "place of the hummingbirds."  The name of the Tarascan town perfectly embodies the humming sound of our tiniest avian friends.

Let's build a longer list...I'm rather burned out on Covid and the Election brouhaha.

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  • Babbling, Baa Baa, and Buzi: Thoughts on Onomatopoeia (Edward Jajko, USA 12/14/20 4:09 AM)
    Gary Moore (December 9th) asked about the word "babble" and its and other onomatopoeia.

    To the ancient Greeks, non-Greeks were "barbaroi," i.e., babblers. There is likely a reflection of this in our "that's all Greek to me."

    Another ethnic designation is the Polish word for German, Germans: "niemiec, niemcy." The Slavic root of this official term in the language means "mute." (Standard Polish for "mute" is the closely related "niema," i.e., "no-speak.")

    But "babble" had a probably earlier source, in Genesis 11:1-9, the story of the origin of languages in the myth of the Tower of Babel. The Hebrew is מגדל בבל, "Migdal Bavel," which is not "the tower of babble," but rather "the tower of Babylon," a ziggurat.

    There was, of course, onomatopoeia in the ancient Greek world. Or attempts at it, or at sound effects. In his play "The Frogs," Aristophanes has his frogs croak out "Brekekekex koax koax." And I know there is a Greek play in which sheep or goats call out "βη βη βη," which would have sounded something like "baa baa baa" back then. Greek pronunciation has changed over the millennia, however, and the modern Greek sounds out that animal cry as a strange "vee vee vee." Unfortunately, I cannot recall the title of the play or name of the playwright and can't pin this down.

    Gary discusses the Latin, .French, and Spanish words for "butterfly."But why, to step away from onomatopoeia for a moment, why the "butterfly"? Generations of children and maybe some adults have asked, why butter?

    This was neatly explained by one of my teachers in St. Joseph's Prep in Philadelphia, some 65 years ago: it's a butterfly because it flutters by.

    Our experts can say whether in Persian the song title "مرا ببوس ویگن "(Mara Beboos--Kiss Me) might work similarly, with fainter lip parallels in "beso" (Spanish), "buss" (English)," and "basium" (Latin).

    This works because all the languages are Indo-European and share the same roots. To this list I might add the Polish phrase "daj mi buzi," give me a kiss. "Buzia" is a word that encompasses many meanings, having to do with the face, the lips, and, interestingly, girls. In this phrase, it becomes a kiss. Daj mi buzi=مرا ببوس.

    JE comments:  Buzi is one of the first Polish words I encountered.  Ah, the innocent (or not-so-innocent) times of youth!

    Years ago I learned the "flutterby" origin for butterflies.  It's apocryphal, but like most folk etymologies, it's a good one.  Anglophones have had the word for seven centuries.  Compare with the Dutch botervlieg and the German Butterfliege.  Apparently, the little critters were notorious for landing on your butter plate.  I've cribbed this info from Pat O'Conner's Grammarphobia:


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    • Sounds Like Chinese, But It's All Greek (Enrique Torner, USA 12/14/20 11:22 AM)
      Edward Jajko's post (December 14th) reminded me of a Spanish idiomatic expression: "Me suena a chino." This idiom literally means "it sounds like Chinese," but is really equivalent to "It's all Greek to me."

      I remember inquiring about this expression to a professor of another language, and it translated into a different language, so I thought it would be fun to find out its translation into other languages, since we have so many languages represented in this international Forum.

      JE comments: Yes, this project would be a fitting tribute to our dear, late colleague David W Pike, who spent much of his later years working on a multilingual dictionary of idioms.

      I especially hope we'll hear from Harry Papasotiriou in Athens. What do the Greeks say when something unintelligible is "all Greek"?


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      • Sounds Like Bean Sprouts: "It's All Greek to Me" in Several Languages (Leo Goldberger, USA 12/15/20 3:24 AM)
        My recollection from the many wonderful stays in Greece (mostly on the small island of Hydra), the term was to call it "Chinese" for a foreign language, though I will await confirmation from Harry Papasotiriou.

        And as someone who grew up in Scandinavia, I know they called it either "Volapyk" (a Russian word) or simply "Russian--while in Finland, believe it or not, they called it "Hebrew." And the more gifted multilinguists--the Swedes--called it simply the more prevalent term, "Greek."

        As I myself grew up in a multi-linguistic environment over the years, I was always quite struck by the many variations of the description of a foreign tongue. Herewith are some: Germany: "It sounds like Spanish"; Italy: It sound like Arabic"; Turkey: "It sounds like French"; Croatia: "Its sounds like Hungarian"; Egypt: "it sounds like Hieroglyphics."

        It would likely take a professional linguist to make sense of the above variations. Yet I doubt whether they might make sense of the following findings my brief research has uncovered: Cantonese: "It's all chicken sounds"; Burma: "sounds like bean sprouts" (whatever that might signify).

        With many warm Holiday greetings as we see the end of a multitude of stressors...

        JE comments:  The Burmese have my favorite (bean sprouts) followed by the Egyptians.  The Mayans are another people who practiced hieroglyphic writing, but then lost the ability to read it.  Tomorrow we're off to Yucatán for a few days of Mexican quarantine.  I'll ask around to see what the Mayans say.

        As a parallel subject, we Anglophones say "pardon my French" after letting slip a saucy expletive.  Do the French reciprocate with "pardon mon anglais"?

        Leo, happiest of Holidays to you.  I've very much enjoyed your frequent contributions to WAIS discussions this year.

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        • Gabacho, Pocho, Gringo; from Gary Moore (John Eipper, USA 12/16/20 3:18 AM)
          Gary Moore writes:

          As John E wings it down to wintry Yucatán, leaving behind the sultry tropical delights of Michigan, we're positioned for further looks into the Bean Sprout Syndrome (as in Leo Goldberger's fascinating catalog, Dec. 15, of how different cultures say "It's all Greek to me" about babbling foreigners, Leo's champion being Burma: "It's all bean sprouts to me." Wait! Did I hear that correctly? Those babblers did say Burma, didn't they?).

          As preliminary, there's John's aside to Leo that the ancient Mayans (in JE's snowbound Yucatán destination) invented hieroglyphics that in time they forgot how to read. Was it just the Conquest that caused that forgetting, or is there a glimpse here of how the Mayan cities depopulated? In any case, the Mexican backdrop clearly segues back to our "It's all Greek to me" discussion, in one of etymology's more slippery entries: "gringo." Every generation seems to have new certainties about where that word came from, but one guess traced it to the word "griego," Greek, supposedly as the polyglot Pacific port of Acapulco heard foreign sailors and caught Leo's Beansprout Syndrome.

          But this was one of the old, fanciful speculations about the word's origins. Doubtless by now somebody has tied it down, perhaps onto one of the other colorful candidates: "Green grow the lilacs" as sung by the pale invaders of 1846-48. I haven't checked lately, but a slightly sharper word historically has been "gabacho," reportedly dating back to Spanish resentment of intruders who were French, from Catalan "gavatx." Our experts will know the particulars. "Gabacho" was not uncommon on the Mexican border when I was there, as a near-synonym for "gringo." Less specific was "güero," pale person, that can apply to Mexicans as well as gabachos. El Güero Palma was one of the more surreal of the bygone Mexican drug lords, sporting a military uniform and receiving a package from a rival one day that contained a family member's dismemberment (Don't ask, you'll be happier just leaving it as Greek).

          Conversely, the Mexico-US borderlands knew "pocho" as a reference to Spanish-speakers who had grown infected by border ambiguities, sometimes speaking what gringos and gabachos call Spanglish. Switching to Tex-Mex or Tijuana English, they might say "I got on the car" rather than "I got into the car" by too-literal transfer from Spanish "subir," and its vehicular quirks. Or in Spanish, pocho (the sub-language, not the speakers) might also melt into borrowings: "Dame una virria" as "Give me a beer" (not "Dame una cerveza").

          Our globe-trotting Moderator may soon have firsthand input on all this, as he shivers through the snowball fights with Mayan ghosts, and dreams of palm-lined Michigan.

          JE comments:  I'm busy packing the winter gear now, Gary!  Putting irony aside, I just Googled "has it ever snowed in Yucatán" and other than wisecracks, the answer is a comforting "never."

          We're off in a few for the airport.  This evening's posts will come from the historic city of Valladolid, epicenter of the 19th-century Caste War between Mayans and the Yucatecos of European descent.  In January 1847 the town was sacked by the former, resulting in the massacre of some 80 "guëros."

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      • In Greece, It's "All Chinese" (Harry Papasotiriou, Greece 12/15/20 6:29 AM)

        In Greek we do say "Chinese" instead of "it's Greek to me." 

        before using an English phrase, Greeks often say "As we would say in
        flawless Greek . . ." Another interesting linguistic detail is that
        for the phrase "going for a walk" in Greek we use the Latin "volta,"
        whereas the Italians use the Greek "gyro."

        JE comments:  I knew you'd come to our aid, Harry!  Thank you.  And now to complete the cycle, we need to address the question:  What do they say in China?  Leo Goldberger gave us the Cantonese variant:  chicken sounds.  Is this universal among all the Chinese languages?

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