Wednesday, May 16, 2012

BAM! ZIP! POW! The Language of “Sound Effects”

One thing that has always amused me about languages of the world – and the people who speak them – is, as Vincent Vega once said, “the little differences.” Although many, many people in many, many countries around the world speak fluent English, these people are all from widely varying cultures and upbringings. There are slight-to-major differences in accent and speech pattern obviously, but I was always more interested in “sound effects”: those small, virtually meaningless words that we create to represent nonverbal sounds.

For example, if you had someone from Iceland, someone from Cambodia, and someone from Zambia listen to the sound of an explosion, and then asked them to transcribe that sound onto paper, you would most likely get three different answers. Although the actual sound itself is exactly the same, the spellings we assign to these nonverbal sounds differ greatly based on our respective backgrounds, and the language(s) we feel most familiar with.

For a really extreme example – and one of the few which I can put out with any real confidence, as it compares the only two languages I’m personally fluent in – try comparing English and Japanese comics. If a bomb were to go off, for example, in English you’d probably see something like “BOOM!” or “KABOOM!”, whereas in Japanese, it would usually read something like “DON!” or “DOKAN!”. To my American ears, a bomb going off sounds a lot more like “BOOM!” than “DOKAN!”, but to the guy sitting next to me, “BOOM!” probably sounds silly.

Another aspect of this comparison is languages with similar roots and shared grammar and/or words and the differences and similarities in their respective sound effects. For example, while the previously-mentioned bomb would be “BOOM!” in English, in Spanish it would be “BOM!”. Although English is technically a Germanic language, and Spanish a Romance, the two languages not only share many similarities in etymology, grammar, and alphabet - they also come from regions in geographically close proximity to each other. The respective cultures and peoples from which the English and Spanish languages were born spent many, many years – centuries, even – in very close quarters, and with relatively abundant cultural exchange. On the other hand, native Japanese speakers and native English speakers had very, very little contact until only 200 or so years ago, and the languages and cultures are extremely different.

I could go on for pages listing various sound effects in “English” and their counterparts in other languages, but I think that my point, while not exactly an amazing new revelation, was basically made in the first paragraph: “It’s the little differences” in language – which come from huge differences in culture and background – that really tend to amuse me the most.

Now, please allow me to run away as fast as I can, Roadrunner-style, in Japanese...