Four years ago today Language Lounge went live with a column about sound symbolism. As an anniversary observance we return to the topic this month, begging the indulgence of readers to venture out on a limb with us.
Our inchoate ideas about this small corner of sound symbolism began earlier this year, when we were in the middle of a bout of binge singing: over the course of three months we sang with various choirs and orchestras in eight performances of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, the "choral symphony," whose last movement is a choral setting of Schiller's poem An die Freude (or "Ode to Joy," as it is usually expanded by translators). This was a pleasantly intoxicating experience, during which we observed:
- The English word joy and its nearest German equivalent, Freude, though sharing no identifiable ancestor, contain the roughly the same diphthong.
- Throughout the choral movement of the Ninth Symphony, Beethoven almost never fails to mark notes in which this diphthong is sung as sforzando — that is, suddenly loud.
- Stripped of its consonantal companions, the sound represented by this diphthong is viewed as constituting a word in English, and is recorded in dictionaries as the exclamation or interjection oy or oi.
Merely coincidental, or bizarrely significant? We decided to take the latter as our working hypothesis, and thus entered a semantic quagmire from which we have not yet emerged. Those who have used Google to try to locate information that they hope exists will be familiar with the phenomenon. Prudence guided us to abandon the quest at every turn, but each morsel of information we came across only served to pique our curiosity further, while still failing to answer the burning questions:
- Is there any reliable pattern of sound symbolism associated with diphthongs? Or more narrowly,
- Is there evidence that certain people of northern European descent find it a life-affirming experience to shout or sing /oi/ and so have invented a variety of contexts for doing so?
The quest for sound symbolism in diphthongs did not bear any gratifying fruit, though there were some interesting red herrings (see links below), and curious intertwinings with the narrower question (read on). The matter of oi/oy is thorny; we started our quest in dictionaries, a time-honored method of research in the Lounge.
English dictionaries differ in their treatment of oi/oy, and display, to some degree, a bit of national bias. The American dictionaries that treat the diphthong in isolation tend to take an easy way out: they lemmatize oy, list Yiddish as the language of origin (most of them noting oy veh as the full form), and define the word as an exclamation expressing some combination of the following (curiously, mainly negative) emotions:
- dismay, pain, annoyance, grief (Random House Unabridged)
- exasperation or dismay (Merriam-Webster)
- surprise, pain, grief, worry (Webster's New World)
British dictionaries, perhaps less reverent of Yiddish and more reverent of Cockney, have a different approach: they tend to lemmatize oi, class it as an interjection, and do not identify a language of origin — implying, perhaps, that Britons vocalize the sound quite naturally.
Are we talking about two different words here? Well, you might think so, but then the OED takes you on an unexpectedly merry chase. There, we find oi defined as an interjection used to attract attention — an experience that can easily be borne out by a visit to any East London street market — or to express objection or annoyance. This entry cross-references to oy, which in turn is noted as being derived from hoy. What does hoy mean? Turns out that it's:
A cry used to call attention; also to incite or drive beasts, esp. hogs. . . In nautical language, used in hailing or calling aloft.
And where does hoy come from? Why, it's "a natural exclamation."
Now, just what is a "natural exclamation"? Is it something that a caveperson would produce unprompted? And who gets to decide this? We scoured the OED for other such creatures and found that a number of words are deemed to be natural utterances and exclamations (one word, ay, is actually a "natural ejaculation"). The pattern of all words so designated in the OED is that they are classed as interjections and they contain only one syllable, typically with one or no consonant sounds. Their vowel may be simple, or a diphthong. In other words, they collectively seem to represent a sort of proto-language, an alphabetic recording of the utterances and vocalizations that might be expected to issue from the human voice box before it produced organized language.
This observation set circuits firing in the Lounge brain around two topics: glottogony (the origins of language) and onomatopoeia, a phenomenon associated with some language origin theories, and with primitive human attempts at naming things. We set our sights on words in Merriam-Webster's 11th that have "imitative" in the etymology: "imitative" is the M-W black-box word, the one indicating that no further explanation for the origin of a word is necessary because they've taken it back to human mimicry. M-W11 lists 281 imitative words, denoting all sorts of sounds: ahem, burp, clank, ding, and so forth.
Now here was something interesting: the vast majority of these words contain only simple vowels, not diphthongs. This applies not only to words associated with noisy inanimate objects, but also to words that denote the cries of animals, such as caw and moo (but there are notable exceptions, such as oink and meow). Echoing this pattern to some degree, a Polish researcher has found that simple vowels are statistically more salient in English onomatopoeia than diphthongs.
Interesting as this may be, it doesn't bring us any closer to answering the burning questions. We do, however, feel fuzzily supported in our original hunch, that oi is a marvelous sound, a gem in the treasury of human vocables, and we now feel more assured that uttering it brings great benefits. We now look for opportunities to enjoy it: we have been inciting the beasts about the Lounge with it; we have been hailing aloft. We've made it our stock response in moments of annoyance, dismay, exasperation, grief, surprise, and worry. Oy!
An interesting paper reporting on the effect of sound symbolism on perception of facial attractiveness, with much to say about vowel quality, is discussed here:
An intriguing paper called "Sex, Sound Symbolism, and Sociolinguistics" lurks behind the JSTOR firewall here:
This paper deals with aspects of sound symbolism and other phonostatistic (yes, that's a word) aspects of American poetry. It found, interestingly, that diphthongs are statistically more salient in poetry than in prose text.
 Sobkowiak, Wlodzimierz. 1990. "On the phonostatistics of English onomatopoeia", Studia Anglica Posnaniensia 23: 15-30.