July 21, 2004


Following up on my post about the (non) standard spelling of d'oh and other interjections and non-lexical noises, Jeff Erickson emailed pointers to three highly relevant reference works:

The Unh! Project ("A collection of guttural moans from comics"), including "An analysis of comics vocalizations".

Ka-BOOM! A Dictionary of Comicbook Words on Historical Principles
("Based on the Latest Conclusions of the Most Dubious Wordologists & Comprising Many Hundreds of New Words which Modern Literature, Science & Philosophy have Neglected to Acknowledge as True, Proper & Useful Terms & Which Have Never Before Been Published in Any Lexicon. Compiled & Edited Under the Careful Supervision of Kevin J. Taylor").

BZZURKK! The Thesaurus of Champions ("Providing Correct Spellings Without Mention of Time Wasting Parts of Speech, Pronunciations or Derivations & Yet Including The Most Comprehensive Definitions & Synonyms Available At Any Time Past or Present And Including Many Words Never Before Published in Any Lexicon. Compiled Under The Careful Scrutiny Of Kevin Taylor").

This is an essential but understudied area of (non) lexicography, a corner of English that has escaped the orthographic standardization of the 18th and 19th centuries, preserving the creative exuberance of spelling in Shakespeare's time. The truth behind the (technically false) observation that no one ever misplaces the apostrophe in d'oh is that folks don't normally get upset about how to render such items -- Lynne Truss and her ilk never feel compelled to chuck a dictionary through the window of someone who has misspelled a word like vree.

Jeff's references, valuable as they are, leave out the all-important cross-linguistic dimension. How, you may wonder, do I translate "urk" into Chinese? How does one render an amused snort in Bahasa Indonesia? The answer is, I don't know, though I once listened to a lecture on the phonotactics of comic-book sounds in Finnish, and I have passed many a happy hour in foreign train stations reading the comics noises in diverse languages.

Seriously, this is a problem with many fascinating aspects. There is the phonological space of such 'words', which are phonologized renderings of non-speech noises, human and otherwise; there is the underlying phonetic symbolism and its cultural development through partial lexicalization; there is the orthographic dimension, which has a life of its own that is both influenced by the sound and sense, and also influences them; and there is the sociological and cross-cultural dimension, where traditions grow, influence one another and decay...

One minor but annoying problem is the apparent lack of any accepted term for the whole area of study. It's simultaneously narrower and broader than the study of ideophones; talking about "comics noises" is too limiting, since the forms are used in many other contexts as well, and often are completely extra-comical (like Nero Wolfe's "pfui", for example). I don't know any way to talk about this, other than to give a phrasal definition supplemented with examples.

More on all this later.


Posted by Mark Liberman at July 21, 2004 08:37 AM