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Author: Steven Kaye

The Story of Aubergine

The Story of Aubergine

As the University of Surrey’s foremost (and indeed only) blog about languages and how they change, MORPH is enjoyed by literally dozens of avid readers from all over the world. But so far these multitudes have not received an answer to the one big linguistic question besetting modern society. Namely, what on earth is going on with the name of the plant that British English calls the aubergine, but that in other times and places has been called eggplant, melongene, brown-jolly, mad-apple, and so much more? Where do all these weird names come from?

I think the time has finally come to put everyone’s mind at rest. Aubergines may not seem particularly eggy, melonish, jolly or mad, but lots of the apparently diverse and whimsical terms for them used in English and other languages are actually connected – and in trying to understand how, we can get some insight about how vocabulary spreads and develops over time. It turns out that one powerful impulse behind language change is the fact that speakers like to ‘make sense’ of things that do not inherently make sense. What do I mean by that? Stay tuned to find out.

Long purple aubergine

To get one not-so-linguistic point out of the way first, there is no real mystery about eggplant (the word generally used in the US and some other English-speaking countries, dating back to the 18th century), which is not linked to anything else I am talking about here. It is hard to imagine mistaking the large, purple fruit in the photo above for any kind of egg, but that is not the only kind of aubergine in existence. There are cultivars with a much more oval shape, and even ones with white rather than purple skin: pictures like this, showing an imposter alongside some real eggs, make it obvious how the word eggplant was able to catch on.

Small white eggshaped aubergine in an eggbox between two real eggs

Meanwhile, aubergine, which is borrowed from French as you might expect, has a much more complex history, and can be traced back over many centuries, hopping from language to language with minor adjustments along the way. The plant is not native to the US, Britain or France, but to southern or eastern Asia, and investigating the history of the word will eventually take us back in the right geographical direction. Aubergine got into French from the Catalan albergínia, whose first syllable gives us a clue as to where we should look next: as in many al- words in the Iberian peninsula (e.g. Spanish algodón ‘cotton’), it reflects the Arabic definite article. So, along with medieval Spanish alberengena, the Catalan item is from Arabic al-bādhinjān ‘the aubergine’, where only the bādhinjān bit will be relevant from here on. This connection makes sense, because the Arab conquest had such an impact on the history of Iberia. And more generally, we have the Arabs to thank for the spread of aubergine cultivation into the West, and also – indirectly – for this charming illustration in a 14th-century Latin translation of an Arabic health manual:

Illustration featuring three people in front of a stand of aubergine plants
Page from the 14th c. Tacuinum Sanitatis (Vienna), SN2644

But bādhinjān is not Arabic in origin either: it was borrowed into Arabic from its neighbour, Persian. In turn, Persian bādenjān is a borrowing from Sanskrit vātiṅgaṇa… and Sanskrit itself got this from some other language of India, probably belonging to the unrelated Dravidian family. The word for aubergine in Tamil, vaṟutuṇai, is an example of how the word developed inside Dravidian itself.

That is as far back as we are able to trace the word. But the journey has already been quite convoluted. To recap, a Dravidian item was borrowed into Sanskrit, from there into Persian, from there into Arabic, from there into Catalan, from there into French, and from there into English – and in the course of that process, it managed to go from something along the lines of vaṟutuṇai to the very different aubergine, although the individual changes were not drastic at any stage. The whole thing illustrates how developments in language can go with cultural change, in that words sometimes spread together with the things they refer to. In the same way, tea reached Europe via two routes originating in different Chinese dialect zones, and that is what gave rise to the split between ‘tea’-type and ‘chai’-type words in European languages:

[Map created by Wikimedia user Poulpy, licensed CC BY-SA 3.0, cropped for use here]
This still leaves a lot of aubergine words unaccounted for. But now that we have played the tape backwards all the way from aubergine back to something-like-vaṟutuṇai, we can run it forwards again, and see what different historical paths we could follow instead. For example, Arabic had an influence all over the Mediterranean, and so it is no surprise to see that about a thousand years ago, versions of bādhinjān start appearing in Greece as well as Iberia. Greek words could not begin with b- at the time, so what we see instead are things like matizanion and melintzana, and melitzana is the Greek for aubergine to this day. There is no good pronunciation-based reason for the Greek word to have ended up beginning with mel-, but what must have happened is that faced with this foreign string of sounds, speakers thought it would be sensible for it to sound more like melanos ‘dark, black’, to match its appearance. That is, they injected a bit of meaning into what was originally just an arbitrary label.

Meanwhile the word turns up in medieval Latin as melongena (giving the antiquated English melongene) and in Italian as melanzana, and a similar thing happened: here mel- has nothing to do with the dark colour of the fruit, but it did remind speakers of the word for ‘apple’, mela. We know this because melanzana was subsequently reinterpreted as the expression mela insana, ‘insane apple’. To produce this interpretation, it must have helped that the aubergine (like the equally suspicious tomato) belongs to the ‘deadly’ nightshade family, whose traditional European representatives are famously toxic. So, again, something that was originally just a word, with no deeper meaning inside, was reimagined so that it ‘made sense’. As a direct translation, English started calling the aubergine a mad-apple in the 1500s.

Parody of the "Keep Calm and Carry On" posters, reading "You don't have to be mad to work here but it helps"
Poster from a 16th c. aubergine factory

There are many more developments we could trace. For example, I have not talked at all about the branch of this aubergine ‘tree’ that entered the Ottoman Empire and from there spread widely across Europe and Asia. But instead I will return now to the Arab conquest of Iberia. This brought bādhinjān into Portuguese in the form beringela, and then when the Portuguese started making conquests of their own, versions of beringela appeared around the world. Notably, briñjal was borrowed into Gujarati and brinjal into Indian English, meaning that something-like-vaṟutuṇai ultimately came full circle, returning in this heavy disguise to its ancestral home of India. And to end on a particularly happy note, when the same form brinjal reached the Caribbean, English speakers there saw their own opportunity to ‘make sense’ of it – this time by adapting it into brown-jolly.

Brown-jolly is pretty close to the mark in terms of colour, and it is much better marketing than mela insana. But from the linguist’s point of view, they both reinforce a point which has often been made: speakers are always alive to the possibility that the expressions they use are not just arbitrary, but can be analysed, even if that means coming up with new meanings which were not originally there. To illustrate the power of ‘folk etymology’ of this kind, linguists traditionally turn to the word asparagus, reinterpreted in some varieties of English as sparrow-grass. But perhaps it is time for us to give the brown-jolly its moment in the sun.

Christmas Gifts

Christmas Gifts

Recently, a friend of mine received an email saying that because of their hard work in difficult circumstances this year, he and his colleagues would all be “gifted” a few extra days off over Christmas. And the other day I saw someone else wondering on Facebook: ‘when did the word “given” cease to exist, and why is everything “gifted” now?’ So with the festive season fast approaching, it seems like a good time to ask: is there really something funny going on with the word gift?

Once you gift it a bit of thought, I don’t think I am gifting anything away by pointing out that the verb to give is still very much with us. But the rise of a rival verb to gift, in some contexts where you’d expect to give, has been receiving attention for a while now: in recent years it has been discussed on National Public Radio in the US (The Season of Gifting) and in The Atlantic magazine (‘Gift’ is Not a Verb). Whether or not it bothers you personally, you may well have noticed the trend. The existence of gift as a noun is just a mundane fact of life, but apparently the corresponding verb gets people talking.

Gifted children

Now, nobody would be surprised to learn that English changes over time, or even that it has pairs of words that mean more or less the same thing… how much difference is there between liberty and freedom, or between little and small? And in fact, synonyms have an important role to play in language change. If we look back and notice that one expression has been replaced by another – a historical change in the vocabulary, as when the Shakespearian anon gave way to at once – then there must have been an intervening period when they were both around with pretty much the same meaning, and people had a choice of which one to use.

Does that mean that we do now find ourselves in the very early stages of a long historical process which will eventually result in to gift replacing to give altogether? If that’s the case, in a few generations’ time people will be saying things like ‘Never gift up!’ or ‘Could you gift me a hand?’.

Frankly, my dear, I don’t gift a damn

But whatever happens in the future, that clearly isn’t the situation now. So if English often provides multiple ways of saying the same thing, why have people taken the coexistence of to give and to gift as something to get worked up about – and can linguistics shed any light on what is going on here?

One thing that makes this specific pairing stand out is that the two words are just so similar. Gift is obviously connected with give in the first place: that makes it easy to wonder why anyone would bother to avoid the obvious word, only to pick an almost identical one. Another factor (as the title of The Atlantic article makes clear) is the idea that gift is really a noun, and so people shouldn’t go around using it as a verb.

But if we take a broader view, it turns out that what is happening with to gift is not out of the ordinary. Instead, it fits neatly with some things that linguists have already noticed about English and about language change more generally. For one thing, English is very good at ‘using nouns as verbs’ – which is why we can hammer (verb) with a hammer (noun), fish (verb) for fish (noun), and so on. So a verb gift, meaning ‘give as a gift’, goes well with what the language already does. What often happens is that when a new verb of this kind starts to take off, not all speakers are happy about it, but after a while it gains acceptance. For example, the twentieth century saw complaints about verbs-from-nouns such as to host, to access or to showcase, but they grate less on people nowadays.

You could even try hammering with a fish!

Ultimately, the ability to create words like this is just an ‘accidental’ fact about English, which also has various other ways of making verbs from nouns – for example, turning X into ‘X-ify’ (person-ify, object-ify) or ‘be-X’ (be-friend, be-witch). The bigger question may be: as we already have the verb give, why would anyone bother to make a verb gift in the first place, and why would it ever catch on? It might seem that by definition, a gift is something you give, so inventing a term meaning ‘give as a gift’ is pointless.

But that is not how things really are. Gifts are given, but that doesn’t mean that everything that can be given counts as a gift: a traffic warden might give you a parking ticket and in return you might give him a piece of your mind, but the noun gift doesn’t cover either of those things. Among other restrictions on its use, it is generally associated with positive feelings: if you give something as a gift, it is usually something tangible that you expect to be warmly received, and that carries over into the verb to gift itself.

This subtle difference between to give and to gift explains why for the moment it is impossible to gift someone a sidelong glance, or lots of extra work to do. But apparently it is becoming possible to gift an employee some time off, even though that is not a physical present that can be handed over and unwrapped. Evidently, the writer just felt like using a verb that sounded a bit more interesting and positive than to give, and the ‘warmly received’ part of the meaning was enough to outweigh the lack of any tangible object involved.

This is an example of something that happens all the time in language change. Naturally, while a word is still restricted in its use, it is more noticeable and interesting than a word you hear regularly. As a result, sometimes people decide to go for the less common word even where it doesn’t quite belong, to achieve some kind of extra effect… but over time, this process makes the word sound less and less special, until it eventually becomes the new normal. We don’t even need to look far to find this happening precisely to the word ‘gift’ in other languages: French donner ‘give’ is based on don ‘gift’, and it has totally wiped out the normal verb for give that ‘should’ have been inherited from Latin.

So if speakers and writers of English continue to chip away at the restrictions on gift as a verb, maybe one day it really will replace give altogether. Of course, that idea sounds totally outlandish at the moment – but then, I’m sure the ancient Romans would have thought much the same thing. You never know what will happen next: language change truly is the gift that keeps on giving!

A “let’s circle back” guy

A “let’s circle back” guy

As everyone knows by now, for the foreseeable future we must all stay at home as much as possible to slow the spread of COVID-19 and reduce the burden on our health services – which has already been substantial, and will soon be enormous even in the best possible scenario.

This shift in the way we operate as a society will have a wide range of effects on our lives, which are already being noticed. Some of these were the kind of thing you might have thought of in advance – but others less so. For example, soon after the advice to work from home really started to bite in the US, a substantial thread developed on Twitter, all started off by the following tweet:

https://twitter.com/inLaurasWords/status/1240687424377720835

The thousands of responses that appeared within a few hours of this tweet shows how deeply it resonated: many people must have been through their own version of the same surprising experience, some of them presumably in the last few days. But what happened here, and why was it so surprising? And why, as a linguist, am I sitting at home and writing a blog post about it now?

This single tweet, which people found so easy to identify with, in fact brings together a number of issues that linguists are interested in. For one thing, it works as a clear illustration of a point that people intuitively appreciate, but which has endless ramifications: the language you use is never just an instrument for communicating your thoughts, but is also taken to say something important about your identity, whether you intend it to or not. If a guy uses the expression “let’s circle back”, meaning to return to an issue later, that makes him a “let’s circle back” guy – that is, a particular kind of person. In a jokey way, the tweeter is implying that she already had a mental category of ‘the kind of person who would say things like that’, and she takes it for granted that we do too. In this case, the surprise for Laura Norkin was in suddenly discovering that her own husband belonged in that pre-existing category: the way she tells it, hearing him use a specific turn of phrase counted as finding out important new information about who he is as a person, which she was not necessarily best pleased about.

Making a linguistic choice: a bilingual road sign in Wales

Since the mid-twentieth century, the field of sociolinguistics has drawn attention to the fact that this kind of thing is going on everywhere in language. Consciously or unconsciously, people are making linguistic choices all the time – whether that means choosing between two totally different languages, between two different expressions with the same meaning (do you circle back to something or just return to it?), or between two very slightly different pronunciations of the same word. Any of these choices might turn out to ‘say something’ about how you see yourself – or how other people see you. And the social meanings and values assigned to the different choices are likely to change over time: so understanding what is going on with one person’s use of language really requires you to understand what is going on right across the community, which is like an ecosystem full of co-existing language diversity. How do linguistic developments, and the social responses to them, propagate and interact in this ecosystem? That’s something that researchers work hard to find out.

The tweet also picks up on the importance of the situational context for the way people use language. Laura Norkin had never heard her husband use the offending expression before because it belongs to a particular register – meaning a variety of language which is characteristic of a particular sphere of activity. Circling back is characteristic of ‘full work mode’, something which had never previously needed to surface in the domestic setting.

Why do registers exist? Partly it must be to do with the fact that different people know different things: for example, lawyers can expect to be able to use technical legal terminology with their colleagues, but not with their clients, even if they are talking about all the same issues – because behind the terminology there lies a wealth of specialist knowledge. Similarly, anyone would modify their language when talking to a five-year-old as opposed to a fifty-year-old.

But this cannot be the whole story: it doesn’t help you to explain the difference between returning and circling back. Should we think of the business/marketing/management world, where terms like circling back are stereotypically used, as a mini community within the community, with its own ideas of what counts as normal linguistic practice? Or is everyone involved giving a signal that they take on a new, businesslike identity when they turn up to the office – even if these days that doesn’t involve leaving the house? Again, working out the relationship between the language aspect and the social aspect here makes an interesting challenge for linguistics.

The medical profession is well known for having its own technical register

But this was not just an anecdote about how unusual it is to be at home and yet hear terms that usually turn up at work. We can tell that “let’s circle back”, just like other commonly mocked corporate expressions such as “blue-sky thinking” or “push the envelope”, is something we are expected to dislike – but why? The existence of different registers is not generally thought of as a bad thing in itself. You could give the answer that this expression is overused, a cliché, and thus sounds ugly. But really, things must be the other way round: English abounds in commonly used expressions, and only the ones that ‘sound ugly’ get labelled as overused clichés. And there is nothing inherently worse about circle back than about re-turn – in fact, when you think about it, they are just minor variations on the same metaphor.

So what is really going on here? The popular reaction to circle back, and other things of that kind, seems to involve lots of factors at once. The expression is new enough that people still notice it; but it is not unusual enough to sound novel or imaginative. It is currently restricted to a particular kind of professional setting that most people never find themselves in; but it does not refer to a complex or specific enough concept to ‘deserve’ to exist as a technical term. And we do not tend to worry too much about making fun of the linguistic habits of people who have a relatively privileged position in society: certainly, teasing your husband by outing him as a “let’s circle back” guy is not really going to do him any harm.

Spelling it out like this helps to suggest just how much information we are factoring in whenever we react to the linguistic behaviour of the people around us – and this is something we do all the time, mostly without even noticing. We are social beings, and cannot help looking for the social message in the things people say, as well as the literal message: establishing this fact, and working out how to investigate it scientifically, has been one of the great overarching projects of modern linguistics. Right now, for everyone’s benefit, we need to learn how to be less sociable than ever. But as the tweet above suggests, people’s inbuilt sensitivity to language as a social code is not going to change any time soon.

Eggcorns and mondegreens: a feast of misunderstandings

Eggcorns and mondegreens: a feast of misunderstandings

Have you ever felt that you needed to nip something in the butt, or had the misfortune to witness a damp squid? And what can Jimi Hendrix, Bon Jovi and Freddie Mercury tell us about language change?

Well, if you know Hendrix’s classic “Purple Haze”, you surely remember the moment where he interrupts his train of thought with the unexpected request, ‘Scuse me while I kiss this guy. Or perhaps you recall “Living on a Prayer”, where we hear that apparently It doesn’t make a difference if we’re naked or not. And who can forget the revelation, in “Bohemian Rhapsody”, that Beelzebub has a devil for a sideboard?

Wise words from Celine Dion

If you do remember these lyrics fondly, you are not alone – lots of people are familiar with these exact lines. There is just one problem, of course: none of those songs really say those things. Instead, the lyrics involved are ‘Scuse me while I kiss the sky; It doesn’t make a difference if we make it or not; and Beelzebub has a devil put aside for me. And yet thousands of English speakers the world over have had the experience of listening to “Purple Haze” and the others – and of misunderstanding the words, entirely independently, in exactly the same way.

Mishearings of this kind are common enough that they have been given a name of their own, mondegreens – a word invented by the American writer Sylvia Wright, who as a child heard a poem containing the following lines:

For they hae slain the Earl o’ Moray
And laid him on the green

and assumed that it listed not one but two victims – the unfortunate Earl himself, and “Lady Mondegreen”, a plausible character who happens not to feature in the real poem.

Why does this kind of thing happen? One reason has to do with the nature of spoken language. On the page, English sentences come pre-packaged into words, each of which is made up of distinct, easily-identified letters which look pretty much the same every time. But pronounced out loud, they are not like that! Instead, a continuous, mushy stream of noise makes its way into our ears, and it is up to our brains to work out what speech sounds are actually in there, where one word ends and the next one begins (think the-sky versus this-guy), and so on. Obviously this process is not exactly helped when there are rock guitars competing for your attention too.

Obama’s elf….. don’t wanna be… Obama’s elf… any more…

But another reason is that we are never ‘just listening’ passively. Instead, behind the scenes, our minds are busy trying to relate what we’re hearing to our existing knowledge – not only our linguistic knowledge, but our general knowledge about the world. For example, the common-sense knowledge that people tend to kiss other people, rather than intangible abstractions like the sky. This is obviously very useful most of the time, but in the “Purple Haze” case it leads us astray, because the more implausible meaning is the one that Jimi Hendrix intended.

What has this all got to do with language change? Well, the crucial point is that what I’ve just said – interpreting sounds is complicated, and to navigate the process we engage our common sense as well as our knowledge of the language – applies just as well to normal conversation as it does to song lyrics. We don’t always hear things perfectly, and even if we do, we have to square the things we’ve just heard with the things we already knew, which provide a guide for our interpretation but may sometimes take us in the wrong direction.

So if you hear someone referring to a really disappointing experience as a damp squib, but are not familiar with squib (an old-fashioned word for a firework), what is to stop you thinking that what you really heard was damp squid? A squid is, after all, a very damp creature, and not always something that people are hugely fond of. Similarly, the expression to nip in the bud makes sense if you latch on to the gardening metaphor it is based on – but if you don’t, well, nipping an undesirable thing in the butt does sound like a very effective way of getting rid of it. So, people who think the expressions really are damp squid and nip in the butt have made a mistake along the lines of “kiss this guy”; the difference is that here they may end up using the new versions in their own speech, and thus pass them on to other speakers. And the process doesn’t have to involve whole expressions: individual words are susceptible to it too, for example midriff becoming mid-rift or utmost becoming up-most.

It’s beautiful, but undeniably damp

Misinterpreted words and expressions like these, which have some kind of new internal logic of their own, are known as eggcorns. This is because egg-corn is exactly how some English speakers have reinterpreted the word acorn, on the basis that acorns are indeed egg-shaped seeds. And the development of a new eggcorn may not involve any mishearing at all, just reinterpretation of one word as another one that sounds exactly the same. Are you expected to toe the line or to tow the line? Are people given free rein or free reign? In each case the two expressions sound identical, and each brings with it some kind of coherent mental image. For the moment, toe the line and free rein are still considered to be the ‘correct’ versions of these idioms, but perhaps in the future that will no longer be the case.

As words and expressions are reinterpreted over time, the language changes little by little: in speech and in writing, people pass on their reinterpretations to one another, in a way which may eventually pass right through the language. The underlying factors producing eggcorns are the same as those producing mondegreens. But unlike the lyrics of “Purple Haze”, words and idioms don’t generally have a fixed author and don’t belong to anybody, meaning that if everyone started calling acorns eggcorns, then that just would be the correct word for them: the previous, now meaningless term acorn would be no more than a historical curiosity, and English as a whole would be very slightly different from how it is now.

So this is how we get from Jimi Hendrix to language change – via mondegreens and eggcorns. Have you spotted any eggcorns in the wild? And how likely do you think they are to catch on and become the new normal?

The cat’s mneow: animal noises and human language

The cat’s mneow: animal noises and human language

As is well known, animals on the internet can have very impressive language skills: cats and dogs in particular are famous for their near-complete online mastery of English, and only highly trained professional linguists (including some of us here at SMG) are able to spot the subtle grammatical and orthographic clues that indicate non-human authorship behind some of the world’s favourite motivational statements.

Recent reports suggest that some of our fellow primates have also learnt to engage in complex discourse: again, the internet offers compelling evidence for this.

But sadly, out in the real world, animals capable of orating on philosophy are hard to come by (as far as we can tell). Instead, from a human point of view, cats, dogs, gorillas etc. just make various kinds of animal noises.

Why write about animals and their noises on a linguistics blog? Well, one good answer would be: the exact relationship between the vocalisations made by animals, on one hand, and the phenomenon of human spoken language, on the other, is a fascinating question, of interest within linguistics but far beyond it as well. So a different blog post could have turned now to discuss the semiotic notion of communication in the abstract; or perhaps the biological evolution of language in our species, complete with details about the FOXP2 gene and the descent of the larynx

But in fact I am going to talk about something a lot less technical-sounding. This post is about what could be called the human versions of animal noises: that is, the noises that English and other languages use in order to talk about them, like meow and woof, baa and moo.

At this point you may be wondering whether there is much to be gained by sitting around and pondering words like moo. But what I have in mind here is this kind of thing:

These are good fun, but they also raise a question. If pigs and ducks are wandering around all over the world making pig and duck noises respectively, then how come we humans appear to have such different ideas about what they sound like? Oink cannot really be mistaken for nöff or knor, let alone buu. And the problem is bigger than that: even within a single language, English, frogs can go both croak and ribbit; dogs don’t just go woof, but they also yap and bark. These sound nothing like each other. What is going on? Are we trying to do impressions of animals, only to discover that we are not very good at it?

Before going any further I should deal with a couple of red herrings (to stick with the zoological theme). For one thing, languages may appear to disagree more than they really do, just because their speakers have settled on different spelling conventions: a French coin doesn’t really sound all that different from an English quack. And sometimes we may not all be talking about the same sound in the first place. Ribbit is a good depiction of the noise a frog makes if it happens to belong to a particular species found in Southern California – but thanks to the cultural influence of Hollywood, ribbit is familiar to English speakers worldwide, even though their own local frogs may sound a lot more croaky. Meanwhile, it is easy to picture the difference between the kind of dog that goes woof and the kind that goes yap.

But even when we discount this kind of thing, there are still plenty of disagreements remaining, and they pose a puzzle bound up with linguistics. A fundamental feature of human language, famously pointed out by Saussure, is that most words are arbitrary: they have nothing inherently in common with the things they refer to. For example, there is nothing actually green about the sound of the word green – English has just assigned that particular sound sequence to that meaning, and it’s no surprise to find that other languages haven’t chosen the same sounds to do the same job. But right now we are in the broad realm of onomatopoeia, where you might not expect to find arbitrariness like this. After all, unlike the concept of ‘green’, the concept of ‘quack’ is linked to a real noise that can be heard out there in the world: why would languages bother to disagree about it?

 

First off, it is worth noticing that not all words relating to animal noises work in the same way. Think of cock-a-doodle-doo and crow. Both of these are used in English of the distinctive sound made by a cockerel, and there is something imitative about them both. But there is a difference between them: the first is used to represent the sound itself, whereas the second is the word that English uses to talk about producing it. That is, as English sees it, the way a cock crows is by ‘saying’ cock-a-doodle-doo, and never vice versa. Similarly, the way that a dog barks is by ‘saying’ woof. The representations of the sounds, cock-a-doodle-doo and woof, are practically in quotation marks, as if capturing the animals’ direct speech.

This gives us something to run with. After all, think about the work that words like crow and bark have to do. As they are verbs, you need to be able to change them according to person (they bark but it barks), tense, and so on. So regardless of their special function of talking about noises, they still have to operate like any other verb, obeying the normal grammar rules of English. Since every language comes with its own grammatical requirements and preferences about how words can be structured and manipulated (that is, its own morphology), this can explain some kinds of disparity across languages. For example, what we onomatopoeically call a cuckoo is a kukushka in Russian, featuring a noun-forming element shka which makes the word easier to deal with grammatically – but also makes it sound very Russian. Maybe it is this kind of integration into each language that makes these words sound less true to life and more varied from one language to another?

This is a start, but it must be far from the whole story. Animal ‘quotes’ like woof and cock-a-doodle-doo don’t need to interact all that much with English grammar at all. Nonetheless, they are clearly the English versions of the noises we are talking about:

And as we’ve already seen, the same goes for quack and oink. So even when it looks like we might just be ‘doing impressions’ of non-linguistic sounds, every language has its own way of actually doing those impressions.

Reassuringly, at least we are not dealing with a situation of total chaos. Across languages, duck noises reliably contain an open a sound, while pig noises reliably don’t. And there is widespread agreement when it comes to some animals: cows always go moo, boo or similar, and sheep are always represented as producing something like meh or beh – this is so predictable that it has even been used as evidence for how certain letters were pronounced in Ancient Greek. So languages are not going out of their way to disagree with each other. But this just sharpens up the question. For obvious biological reasons, humans can never really make all the noises that animals can. But given that people the world over sometimes converge on a more or less uniform representation for a given noise, why doesn’t this always happen?

In their feline wisdom, the cats of the Czech Republic can give us a clue. Like sheep, cats sound pretty similar in languages across the globe, and in Europe they are especially consistent. In English, they go meow; in German, it is miau; in Russian, myau; and so on. But in Czech, they go mňau (= approximately mnyau), with a mysterious n-sound inside. The reason is that at some point in the history of Czech, a change in pronunciation affected every word containing a sequence my, so that it came out as mny instead. Effectively, for Czech speakers from then on, the option of saying myau like everyone else was simply off the table, because the language no longer allowed it – no matter what their cats sounded like.

What does this example illustrate? First of all – as well as a morphology, each language has a phonology (sound structure), which constrains its speakers tightly: no language lets people use all the sounds they are physically able to make, and even the available sounds are only allowed to join up in certain combinations. So each language has to come up with a way of dealing with non-linguistic noises which will suit its own idea of what counts as a legitimate syllable. Moo is one thing, but it’s harder to find a language that allows syllables resembling the noise a pig makes… so each language compromises in its own way, resulting in nöff, knor, oink etc., none of which capture the full sonic experience of the real thing.

And second – things like oink, woof and mňau really must be words in the full sense. They aren’t just a kind of quotation, or an imitation performed off the cuff; instead they belong in a speaker’s mental dictionary of their own language. That is why, in general, they have to abide by the same phonological rules as any other word. And that also explains where the arbitrariness comes in: as with any word, language learners just notice that that is the way their own community expresses a shared concept, and from then on there is no point in reinventing the wheel. You don’t need to try hard to get a duck’s quack exactly right in order to talk about it – as long as other people know what you mean, the word has done its job.

So what speakers might lose in accuracy this way, they make up for in efficiency, by picking a predetermined word that they know fellow speakers will recognise. Only when you really want to draw attention to a sound is it worth coming up with a new representation of it and ignoring the existing consensus. To create something truly striking, perhaps you need to be a visionary like James Joyce, who wrote the following line of ‘dialogue’ for a cat in Ulysses, giving short shrift to English phonology in the process:

–Mrkgnao!