Ep 266 Meet Barbara Lasserre, author of ‘Words That Go Ping’.

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In Episode 266 of So you want to be a writer: Meet Barbara Lasserre, author of Words That Go Ping. We discuss when does self-publishing become a first choice? Discover which new podcast Valerie’s been hosting. And we have 5 copies of Death on the Derwent by Robin Bowles to give away.

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Show Notes

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New Stories, Bold Legends: Stories from Sydney Lunar Festival

iTunes: New Stories, Bold Legends. Stories from Sydney Lunar Festival

Writer in Residence

Barbara Lasserre

Barbara’s passion for language led to her working for many years teaching and lecturing in English and Applied Linguistics.

She lived for 10 years in France, and worked and studied at the University of Poitiers.

In Australia, she taught Academic and Language skills at the University New South Wales, and at the University of Technology, Sydney she was a lecturer in Language and Academic Learning.

She lectured in Applied Linguistics at the University of Port Harcourt in Nigeria, and has also lived in Syria and studied Arabic.

Her book Words that Go Ping was published by Allen and Unwin in 2018.

 

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Interview Transcript

Valerie

Thanks so much for joining us today, Barbara.

Barbara

It’s a pleasure.

Valerie

Now your book is so cool. Words That Go Ping: The ridiculously wonderful world of onomatopoeia. Now, that kind of says it all. But perhaps if you could flesh it out a bit more, what’s the book about? And why did you decide to write it, for our listeners.

Barbara

Well, I decided to write it because it’s a little neglected area of language. And I’ve always been interested in language. When I say neglected, I mean neglected by serious academic research. But it’s such fun. Everybody loves onomatopoeia. When I tell people I’ve written a book about onomatopoeia, their faces light up. Oh, I love onomatopoeia. And it’s fun, and it’s just something that you can play with. And it’s creative.

I mean, basically, it’s a word whose sound tries to mimic the sound that you actually hear. And the mimic is done through the tools at your disposal, which is your first language. So when we say ‘pop’ we’re imitating a sound that we hear. Or when we say other words like ‘bang’ or ‘sump’, they’re onomatopoeia because they’re trying to sound like what we hear. But of course, do they really? Who knows?

Valerie

Yeah. Sometimes I wonder who has developed some of the words. But what was the point that you thought, oh, I’m going to write a book about it?

Barbara

Well, it was actually Allen and Unwin who commissioned it, who showed an interest in it. And I’ve been writing a lot of academic stuff over the years. And I really enjoy writing. I’ve been away a lot and I enjoy writing to my friends and I enjoy writing letters.

And then when they said onomatopoeia I said, oh, why not! It’s never been before. It’s not a heavy linguistic work, as you know. Although I did quite a bit of research. But it’s just to make people feel that they know a bit more about it and how it works and how different it is across languages. And also how hard it is to translate.

Valerie

What do you mean translate?

Barbara

Well, if you’re translating ‘thwack’ in a certain situation from Bulgarian to Japanese…

Valerie

Oh yes.

Barbara

What do you do?

Valerie

Yes, that’s fascinating, actually. The different words that are in different languages, and we’ll get to that. But it’s interesting that it’s not that heavy. And maybe it’s not that heavy compared to some of your academic tomes. But it is really well researched. I mean, where do you even start with… Like, how did you think, what do I need to research when you decided to write this book?

Barbara

That’s a very interesting question. The shape of it came into my head because I was quite inspired when the topic came up. So the shape of it divided into the various areas that I did. It just came from my own interest and the fact that I’ve learned some other languages. And everybody’s really amazed when they hear that ‘bow-wow’ is different in Japanese and what it is in Russian or something.

Valerie

You must tell us what it is in Japanese and Russian, then.

Barbara

Well, I can. It’ll just take me a second.

Valerie

You’re not a dictionary of all onomatopoeia words?

Barbara

There is a chart that you can find online, which I refer to in the book, by a professor of electrical engineering called Derek Abbott, at Adelaide University. He’s made a chart of animal sounds in all different languages.

And a dog barking, for example, we would say ‘woof woof’ in English. But in Hungarian it’s ‘vau vau’. And in Swedish it’s ‘vov vov’ or ‘voff’. I mean, it’s a very interesting…

I mean, if you wanted to find out how do you say ‘snore’ in 15 different languages, you could find that off the net.

But because I studied linguistics, so my research, going back to your question about how did I research it, well, I researched it as a function of what I was interested in, basically. And then I thought well, there must have been some people who have looked at this. And I just did a big long academic research.

And it comes under the heading of something called ‘sound symbolism’. And I’ve always been interested in it. My major study in linguistics is metaphor. It was metaphor in relation to design. I think it’s all kind of whirling around there in a big mass of information.

Valerie

Yes. Now the word onomatopoeia itself is a crazy ridiculously long word.

Barbara

I know. People say, ‘how do you spell that?’

Valerie

Exactly. But there’s some other interesting terms that you explain in this book. Can you explain what iconicity is?

Barbara

Look, it’s just another of the terms that the learned researchers like to use. Where something actually stands for something else. Like if you think of an icon, a pictorial icon, it actually stands for what it is representing, if you see what I mean. I wouldn’t worry too much about the word ‘iconicity’. It’s a very, one of those linguistic-y disputed terms that floats around. But I couldn’t not mention it.

Valerie

Sure. But what do you mention? What do you mean by… If you can give us an example?

Barbara

Of iconicity?

Valerie

Yeah.

Barbara

Well, it’s just the same thing really. It’s a large term that covers symbolism, if you like. Symbolism in sounds, sounds that are… Sorry, words that are similar to the sound that they represent. And I would say that iconicity is a larger more abstract term that covers all that.

Valerie

And how about, there’s even a word that I’m not entirely sure how to pronounce, phonaesthemes.

Barbara

Phonemes?

Valerie

Phonaesthemes. What’s that?

Barbara

Oh phonaesthemes.

Valerie

Phonaesthemes.

Barbara

Well, phonaesthemes, phona means sound, and themes means a theme. So whenever you have sounds that tend to group around a theme, we call them a phonaestheme.

For example, gleam, glitter, glow have the sounds ‘gl’. And there is a certain construct, a construction being made about the links between what those words mean. And they do also happen to have ‘gl’. Glow, glitter, gleam, and so on.

Flow, fluid… It’s endless. I could spend the rest of my life researching that.

Valerie

Are they onomatopoeic? Or do they come from the same root word?

Barbara

Well, both. I mean, you can… Exploring the history of language, of any language, you can see that there’s influence and movement from one language to another, of course, over time. So both of those.

I mean, sometimes they retain the onomatopoeic elements. Sometimes they don’t. It’s a very complex development, language in itself.

Valerie

Oh yes.

Barbara

I think the simplest thing for people who want to know about it is to think of animal sounds. I mean…

Valerie

Like ‘meow’?

Barbara

Like ‘meow’. I mean, they have, most of them have what we call reduplication, which is repetition of sounds. But some of them have changed as they came into another language, and some of them have remained the same. Like ‘moo’ for example, for a cow, is a pretty universal sound. And that can be any reason why that is so. It can be movements of languages, it could be people watching the cow’s mouth or listening to what cow’s do.

I mean, one of the important things, I think, that I really explore in the book is what we call the say-tell continuum. So we say a dog ‘says’ woof woof. But then we say the dog ‘barked’ which is the telling of it. What does a dog do? It barks.

Valerie

Right.

Barbara

What did the dog say? It said, ‘woof woof’. What did the rooster do? It crowed. We tell about it. But what sound did it make? It said cock-a-doodle-doo, or kiri kiri, or whichever language you’re speaking.

Valerie

But a cat meowed and says ‘meow’.

Barbara

That’s right. And there are some like that. They’re both say and tells. So one big long continuum like a string of beads that you can move up and down.

And same with ‘moo’. We say a cow mooed, we say a cat meowed. And there are quite a lot of ones like that. But we also say a cow lowed. The cows were lowing, the cattle were lowing.

Valerie

Oh yes, that’s right. Now, I have to ask you about one that I thought was interesting. What are ideophones?

Barbara

Ideophones… Ah, you love these technical terms, don’t you?

Valerie

Yes, they’re good.

Barbara

Well, it’s the same thing, really. It’s very much like phonesthemes. When you have an idea that has a very similar sound to it. So for example, you group words around an idea and they all have a very similar sound to them. And they often are very much in the say section of words. So you often get a lot of words like clunk, sunk, plunk, which have similar kind of ideas and similar kind of sounds.

Valerie

Right.

Barbara

I mean, the thing is, various terms are used by various people.

Valerie

Some of the examples that you’ve given are: these express a concept, such as a weakness. And they often have a rhythmic pattern like namby pamby or hoity toity, and then gobbledygook, are examples of ideophones.

Barbara

Yeah.

Valerie

Which is interesting. I mean, I wonder how namby pamby came about? That’s just…

Barbara

Yes, you’d have to look up the history of that. I mean, one of the jokes my little four-year old grandson says is what goes hee haw on the see saw? The answer is a circus donkey.

Valerie

Oh!

Barbara

So ideophones, they are often gathered around more abstract things like hoity toity and namby pamby. But you can also find them in the comic books as well.

Valerie

Yes. I mean, comic books are full of onomatopoeia, right?

Barbara

Oh lord, yes.

Valerie

I mean, you just think of Batman.

Barbara

Oh yeah. That’s sight words, I think they’re called.

Valerie

Yes. They’re awesome. That’s probably when you, as a child, saw onomatopoeia spelt out in a really graphic way.

Barbara

Yeah.

Valerie

One thing that I think children, and some of us adults, are strangely fascinated by is onomatopoeic representations of farts.

Barbara

Oh yes. Everybody loves a fart, don’t they?

Valerie

And you have a section dedicated to that in this book.

Barbara

Well, you know, you have to go where the interest is.

Valerie

Yes. Tell us a little bit about the various onomatopoeic representations of farts.

Barbara

Ah, well, I’d have to… I don’t have it at my fingertips. I left that particular piece somewhere in my…

Valerie

Oh, you haven’t committed that to memory? OH my goodness!

Barbara

I haven’t committed it to memory. I’m sorry, no. But I can tell you the French. The French say ‘prrout prrout prrout’.

Valerie

How do you spell that?

Barbara

Prrout.

Valerie

Oh, prrout!

Barbara

Prrout.

Valerie

Okay. What is the generally most used one in English?

Barbara

For farting? Well, um… Let me think. I can’t answer that.

Valerie

If you had to write it…

Barbara

Let’s make one up.

Valerie

If you had to write it, what would you write? As a linguist, I mean, I think that’s a fair question.

Barbara

I wouldn’t write it as a prrout, that’s for sure. I’d write it as a ffft. Fluff.

Valerie

How do you spell that?

Barbara

I’d have Fs in it. Ffft.

Valerie

Oh, F for Freddy. F for fart.

Barbara

Fffp. That’s how I’d write it. Yeah. A fffp. Something like that. Because a lot of expulsion of air.

Valerie

Yes. And in Hungarian I understand it’s krand or kran kran.

Barbara

Yeah. It’s great, isn’t it?

Valerie

How bizarre is that? All right, so when you did your research, did you do it mainly as research on existing papers and publications? Or did you talk to people as well? And then once you did that, did you already decide before researching, oh, here’s the structure, here are my topics I’m going to cover. Or did you research and then figure out here are the main clusters, I’m going to do it like this?

Barbara

Well, I had the main clusters to start off with. I had the main ideas that it started off with. But then things came up as I went along with the research. Because I did interview quite a lot of people, especially for the chapter on Japanese, I interviewed quite a lot of people.

But the structure, I basically had in my head, but they did change according to how much I kept on reading and learning about what people had done. And like, for example, I realised quite early in the Japanese was that it seems all on its own. And then we required a translation, a whole, well, it’s not very long, but to talk about the issue of translation as a separate kind of thing.

So it developed along the lines of my original idea. But it was stretched and pulled by all the various research papers that have already been done. And by people talking to you. You know, I talked to Hungarians and Japanese and Polish. And so on.

Valerie

How do you think that onomatopoeia started to develop in the first place? And do you have any idea when it started to develop?

Barbara

Well, it’s highly likely that the first sounds that people made were onomatopoeic. Grunting and moaning and so on. But they were onomatopoeic only when they became words.

And that, I mean, the term onomatopoeia was really only used in the fifteenth century in English speaking countries. So it’s only once you’ve transformed them into words that you use as a symbol or as a replication of something that they become classed as onomatopoeic.

And there’s a bit of discussion also in the book about interjections and exclamations. How the discussion that goes around whether they’re onomatopoeic and how they became onomatopoeic. And it’s open slather, really.

Yeah, but I mean, no one was around to record the first… I mean, the first written language was all about 40 grains of millet. And how much you had to pay to get through, to get this taken somewhere, and all these transactions. So it’s a bit of a luxury to write those words, really.

Valerie

Luxury to write which words?

Barbara

Onomatopoeic words.

Valerie

Oh right.

Barbara

Yeah. It is. Because they haven’t ever been the essential transactional words in language. They’re emotional, they’re free, they’re creative.

Valerie

They’re great fun.

Barbara

Yes, they really are great fun. I mean, you can invent, you can make up four today and be happy.

Valerie

That’s right. And you wouldn’t be chided that they’re not in the dictionary.

Barbara

Oh no. What’s with the dictionary hang up? Well, I didn’t say that to David Astle. But they probably are in the dictionary, a lot of them. But the bat fight words will only come in the dictionary maybe 50 years from now, if they become used by the general public.

Valerie

Yeah.

Barbara

But the dictionary prefers words that you can give a grammatical label to. So if they can label them as exclamations or something like that, they’re very happy to put them in.

There are a few onomatopoeic dictionaries that exist. I’ve got one in French. But they’re just kind of lists of words that are used in various situations to express various emotions. They’re not listed in any other way other than what they try to express in a certain context. And of course…

Valerie

No, you go on.

Barbara

No, I’ve kind of tied that up.

Valerie

You mentioned that there is a section where you talk about interjections. And they are things like ‘whoops’ or ‘yikes’ or ‘hmm’.

Barbara

Yeah, and they’re different too, according to what your first language is.

Valerie

Right.

Barbara

I had this little dream that I’d like to start an English course for non-English speakers, a bit like Mr Bean. You know, you go through a whole series of things happening and then you just say, whoops, or yikes or ow or something like that. But maybe I won’t.

Valerie

I think you’d get actually a surprising number of interested people in that.

Barbara

I think so. I mean, it’s never happened… You know, I’ve learned a few languages, some more intensive than others. But it never comes into the lessons. You don’t learn oh heck or hell or ouch in another language when you’re learning it. Unless you’re there.

Valerie

Well, that’s right. I think it’s fascinating, because one would think, apart from cows, which apparently speak a universal language, maybe they speak Esperanto or something…

Barbara

Except in Dutch and Urdu.

Valerie

Oh, why? What is it in Dutch or Urdu?

Barbara

In Dutch, it’s with a P. No, B, sorry. It’s ‘boe’, in Dutch.

Valerie

Oh, they think cows say ‘boe’?

Barbara

Yeah. Boe. And in Urdu, it’s ‘baeh’ for a cow.

Valerie

In your book, you mentioned however that ‘quack quack’, which is the same in English and German, is actually quite similar to Catalan, it’s ‘quak quak’, in Dutch it’s ‘kwak kwak’ with a K. Croatian it’s ‘kva kva’. Portuguese and Italian it’s ‘qua qua’. So, very, very similar.

But then in other words, ‘oink oink’ in English is ‘nöff nöff’ and ‘groin groin’ in French.

Barbara

That’s right. Yeah…

Valerie

Pigs obviously sound different.

Barbara

Yeah, it’s knor knor in Dutch.

Valerie

Knor knor, in Dutch, yes.

Barbara

In Dutch. It’s French it’s groin groin. In Japanese it’s boo boo.

Valerie

For a pig?

Barbara

For a pig. Grunting.

Valerie

That’s bizarre.

Barbara

Yeah, isn’t it bizarre. And in Hungarian it’s röf-röf.

Valerie

For a pig?

Barbara

Yeah.

Valerie

I think they’re confused. Don’t you?

Barbara

Well, I never have spoken to a pig in Hungarian. So I don’t know.

Valerie

Maybe we’ve been doing it all wrong this whole time.

Barbara

Maybe we have. Maybe the Hungarians…

Valerie

Got it right. What’s your favourite onomatopoeic word?

Barbara

Oh, look, I’ve got two.

Valerie

Oh, do tell.

Barbara

I’m sorry, can I have two?

Valerie

You can have two.

Barbara

Okay. Well, my favourite of all time is the Spanish sound for what a dove makes, which is cucurrucu, which I think is just so melodic and beautiful.

Valerie

Yes, that’s gorgeous.

Barbara

Isn’t it? Cucurrucu.

And the other one is the French for snoring, which I think is excellent. It’s ron pshi. Ron pshi.

Valerie

That’s bizarre. That is snoring?

Barbara

Yeah.

Valerie

Well, I would say it makes more sense than zzzz, which is what we use.

Barbara

I think so. I’ve never got the zzzz. It just doesn’t make any sense at all. Because you’re not zedding through your teeth. You’ve got your mouth open and it’s at the back of the throat. The English speakers have got that wrong.

Valerie

Yes. And if you had to make up an onomatopoeic word, what would it be?

Barbara

If I had to make up an onomatopoeic word? Well, I think it would be… Something about an explosion of joy.

Valerie

Oh, I love that.

Barbara

Probably ‘schpling’ or something like that.

Valerie

Oh wow.

Barbara

You like ‘schpling’?

Valerie

Yes, that would be… I’m trying to write it now. Schpling. That’s it. We’re going to try to get it word of the year at Macquarie.

Barbara

We’re going to ‘schpling’ through the rest of the day.

Valerie

Yeah. I love it. All right, fantastic. And on that note, thank you so much for chatting to us today, Barbara.

Barbara

It’s a pleasure, Valerie. Thank you.


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