Thursday, September 14, 2006

Burr - It's Cold. Tisk Tisk - You Should've Brought a Coat

Cartoons have become the vanguard of onomatopoetics. In fact they've gone beyond the charge to the point that they have replaced the original extension of the text symbol with a new extension - one that more conventionally corresponds to English orthography. I remember reading my comics as a child - happily unaware that the "ugh" balloon meant that Charlie Brown was actually grunting - not saying a word that rhymes with "bug." I'm not sure when I realized that "aargh" didn't have to rhyme first half of "target"? But what was the specific sound distinction that led Sparky to write "aargh" sometimes and "aaugh" others? In a cartoon scream are "r" and "u" an onomatopoetic minimal pair or are they allophones?

Charles Shulz used "sigh" to represent the sound of exhaled breath as is common in cartoons. The little lines next to the word -- the squiggles and swirls that indicate the word is not to be read so much as performed -- helped alert us to the sound/word distinction. But I have heard people respond to a disappointment with the word "sigh" rhyming with "my." But I will guess that it is an affected use. I think it's still widely known that the word refers to the sound of deflation. The etymology of the word is interestingly not so clearly onomatopoetic. It's not as clearly echoic as "meow" or "splat." It has been traced back to Middle English sighen perhaps a back formation of sichte past tense of Old English sīcan, to sigh. It could be echoic. But how do we know? Is spirit echoic? these voiceless alveolar fricatives do a nice job of capturing the sound of breath flowing. There is the Proto-Indo-European base (unattested) *(s)peis-: to blow.

But oh yeah...cartoons...(let me first clear my throat. ahem...)

I also remember an old Beetle Bailey strip that showed a Model T sneaking up behind Sarge and scaring him with a loud "aROOOga." I liked this one. Reading it aloud sounded like an old claxon to me.

I remember an angry Flo Capp greeting a shnockered Andy at the door (after his night of snorting and snookering) with a judgmental "tsk tsk." For years I thought she was making a sound like "tisk tisk." Then I read in another cartoon a similar exchange represented orthographically "tch tch." It helped me to realise which sound was intended. The clicking (or clucking) tongue sound -- usually made in a group of more than two.

Then I remember the old joke in Highlights: for Children about all the coldest months ending in "brrr." Problem is the "brrr" in cartoons refers to a sound somewhere between a loud exhalation with puffed cheeks and the shivering sound made by flapping the lips like that slow motion shot of Steve Spurrier on the sidelines. Is "brrr" really the best spelling for that sound? Maybe something with 'F's? I'm guessing that "phew" (spelling it that way distinguishes it from "few") doesn't imply the shivering of "brrr." How do we capture the shiver? bhrbhrbhr?

The bronx cheer or raspberry sound is a tough one to reproduce because there really aren't any letters that we associate with a lingua-labial sound. And none that help to indicate that the air is moving under the tongue. And flapping. I've seen plplpl used - also plplll. We could use a combination of bilabial stop labial fricative and lateral to suggest the roll. pflpflpfl?

My favourite examples of cartoon onomatopoetics come from the Simpsons' parody of the campy Batman TV series. In the Radioactive Man movie episode we see a fight between an evil scoutmaster resembling the fabulous Paul Lynde and a cheesy Radioactive Man. "Go get 'em scouts! Don't be afraid to use your nails boys!"



  1. A fond childhood memory is my mother reading the comics to me. She would always make a series of blips to make the sound of Woodstock chirping.

  2. I wonder why Schulz wrote the word sigh in brackets, but tried to approximate a throat-clearing in letters (ahem) instead of writing, say, "(throat-clearing)"?

    What gets my attention are non-onomatopoetic words that appear in cartoon strips to indicate the action (like Snuh! in the Simpsons example), such as .

  3. My brow is still furrowed about "truncate." Is that really as funny as I think it is? I used to read "Broom Hilda" years ago -- now Russ Meyers deserves a second look.

    I liked your post on this type of humour. Especially your observation that until we no longer laugh about these verbs being used as a sound we've not reached Stage 3. Again -- evidence that humour is about breaking rules -- often grammatical ones.

    Ah the joys of the pragmatics of the humour of the funny pages.

  4. Daniel - I remember that one of my childhood challenges was to come up with an appropriate phrase that could be syllabically analogous to each blip in Woodstock's "bubble." And I was picky. I hated using fillers like "really" or "and also."

  5. Daniel,

    One of his adulthood challenges is picking out the perfect combination of syllables that he can repeat in a sentence over and over, in his head, in time with his tapping toes.

    And this all has to happen in repetitions of four.

    Without interruption, I might add.


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