Things That Make You Go “Quack”


A treasured colleague sent this link around to some of us Speech Eventers recently. It is a fun project apparently led by Dr. Quack, who may or may not be a quack doctor. It documents elicited samples of animal sounds from multilingual schoolchildren in London. It isn’t a very thorough sample (yet); for example, the two sounds from a pair of Colombian-British girls (not to be confused with British Columbian girls) demonstrate pitch-perfect renderings of the two animal sounds that are basically the same in Spanish and English–the duck’s quack/cuac and the pig’s oink/oinc. Of course these overlaps are interesting in their own right, be they the result of historical continuity or language contact phenomena. But if they had snagged samples from these girls for the other animals in the matrix, they would have been able to showcase such classics as kikirikí for the rooster, guau guau for the dog, and cruá cruá for the frog! The nice thing about the project is that it appears to be a crowd-sourcing effort and its archive can grow.

Now this wouldn’t be a true Speech Events post if I were only talking about a primary-level speech event (the Quack data collection) or even a mere meta-speech event (the Quack Project website). How meta can we go?! I ask of you: what kind lexical category does the meta-speech event purport to document? What is the appropriate meta-discursive label to conceptualize (and trump!) this meta-speech event? (That is all just for show; it is simple enough to let each thing just be a garden variety speech event because, well, displacement. And “it’s complicated” is always the relationship status of a speech event.)

Simply put, what can we call the type of word Dr. Quack is after? Clicking through the samples (with much glee) I sensed there were possibly two types being interspersed in the sample (not that I give two HOOTS about control samples data validity blah blah but pun very much intended).

Allow me to briefly switch genres.

[This was my immediate response to exploring the Quack Project, in a controversially lengthy turn at talk for a reply-all:]
~+~+~+ {flashback to my Gmail account earlier today} ~+~+~

I think it contributes immeasurably to the robustness of this research that they recorded adorable little babies. Because it makes me swooooon.

It’s also interesting when some of the responses turn out to be more like sound-impressions than transcribable lexical units (e.g., pure snorting for a pig, others where they’re making variations on a sound in somewhat random but prosodic patterns). Thinking briefly about this–which is to say, consulting Wikipedia–I stumbled on some interesting etymology:

Although in the English language the term onomatopoeia means the imitation of a sound, in the Greek language the compound word onomatopoeia (ονοματοποιία) means “making or creating names”. For words that imitate sounds the term Ηχομιμητικό (echomimetico or echomimetic) is used. Ηχομιμητικό (echomimetico) from Ηχώ meaning “echo or sound” and μιμητικό meaning “mimetic or imitation”.

Looks like onomatopoeia has undergone some semantic drift in English… echomimetic might describe the less word-like (whatever that means) sounds/semiotic expressions and “true” onomatopoeia (muahahaha prescriptivism) comes in when the sound cements into a more enduring, identifiable (enregistered!) word–especially when the word takes on its own referential life outside of purely sounding like an accurate impression of the animal (let’s face it, a dog’s lips are never going to produce a labiodental fricative but we say “ruff ruff” all the time! And some of us were indoctrinated by onomatopoetic McGruff the Crime Dog and his pal Scruff, because they ruff up those bad guys!).


Feel free to contradict or pick apart these armchair musings.
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But seriously folks, please do pick apart if you want to dedicate a moment in your day to the ducks (and the quacks).

(h/t to Coleman Donaldson for some crucial input to an unnamed portion of my musings; note that these opinions are entirely my own and not his unless they are factually inaccurate in which case yes, do go ahead and blame him.)

3 thoughts on “Things That Make You Go “Quack”

  1. Love all this! Keeping with my tradition of making comments that depart almost entirely from the author’s intent– Dr. Quack should think outside the animal onomatopoeia box. Isthmus Zapotec has enregistered the sound of stirring/ mixing/ preparing hot chocolate (rucu rucu), among others. In the 1500s Fray Juan de Cordova recorded a Zapotec onomatopoeia for the sound pain makes when its walking through the body (which was de-registered at some point, because it’s not around any more). It would be harder to elicit, but infinitely more interesting to find out what sounds have been enregistered in all those languages.

  2. So fun! I’ve never heard an Italian kid say “neigh” or “ribbit”; usually it’s “hiiiiii” for horses and “gra gra” for frogs). I’m really, really curious about the question of onomatopoeias (and echomimetics!) becoming enregistered and then used the way I witnessed once: a 60-something Italian teacher of English read a text message from her 60-something colleague (out loud, to me), which said something like “Ci manchi tanto! Sigh!” (We miss you so much! Sigh!). The reader of the text message read “sigh” as “sig” to me, and upon some investigation I came to the tentative conclusion that while she was unaware that “sigh” meant “sospiro”, she knew that it meant the same thing that ::sigh:: is meant to signify when used in this way. I’ve been wondering about this for a while…any thoughts?

    This post also brought to mind some of my favorite Italian onomatopoeias: “smak” is a kissing sound expressed, I think, exclusively in writing (as in “See you soon! Smak!”), and “uffa'” as a sound of frustration/exasperation/annoyance that is both spoken and written.

    ::gobble gobble chomp chomp nom nom nom nom nom::

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