As I mentioned in last week’s column, I was a fairly quiet kid; but like most kids of my day I spent my time running around playing baseball, football, and whatnot. It kept us healthy and happy. In fact, not one of the kids I knew in school or in our neighborhood was overweight.
We didn’t have television in those days either, but radio was not what it is today, where most stations just talk, play music, or give the news. In fact, the plain truth is that some parts of the radio programs we had back then were far more realistic than the same parts of the television programs we have today, or the films we see.
Why do I say that? Because some things that can be portrayed very well by sound are less dramatic, or even downright trite, when shown on the screen. Even Hollywood knows that. That’s why many tense or dramatic moments in films are introduced by a sound rather than by a sight.
Have you ever noticed how downright scary a film can be when someone is stealthily creeping into a room, looking left and right, doing his or her absolute best to move slowly and silently, when suddenly — right out of nowhere — a voice from off-screen says, “And just where do you think you are going?”
Or have you ever seen a moment in a film where the hero or heroine starts across a street and the sound of brakes screeching fills the air as he or she spins around and stares wide eyed and open mouthed at what’s coming?
Sounds make things real, don’t they? But why? Why are sounds so real to us? Because they can be copied from real life, and so they actually ARE real!
That brings up something interesting called echoism. What is echoism? Well, back in school some English teacher may have half bored you to death by trying to tell you about echoism, but used a long boring Greek word for it instead — onomatopoeia.
So what does echoism mean? It refers to words that sound like whatever they are naming or describing. Which is where the cuckoo bird, for example, gets its name. When it opens its beak and calls, what comes out?
“Cuckoo. Cuckoo. Cuckoo.”
And we sometimes burp, cough, grunt, shriek, hum, or hiccup.
So echoism can either refer to the name of something, to the sound it makes, or both. And echoism is a far easier word to remember than some useless six-syllable slab of Greek!
Echoism isn’t exactly a new discovery, by the way. If, for example, you look up the Egyptian hieroglyphic name for cat you’ll find that it consists of three little glyphs. The first one is an owl, which is pronounced like the m in mother; the second one is a reed, which is pronounced like the ee in tree; and the third is a quail chick, which is pronounced like the oo in moo.
Cat: M–ee–oo. Get it?
Which — so I am told — is one way that language got started.
So we have bees that buzz, cows that moo, crows that caw, donkeys that hee-haw, ducks that quack, hyenas that laugh, owls that hoot, snakes that hiss, and turkeys that gobble.
And then there’s a creaking board, a crack of lightning, a rumble of thunder, the beep-beep of a car horn, or the tick-tock of a clock.
Can you guess what the “Mao” in Chairman Mao means?
That’s right! Just what it sounds like ...
Hint: His name is sometimes spelled Miao.