Fede, a Venezuelan student of mine, whenever he greets me, starts with “Epa, Ilan.”
Epa is an interjection, an expression of emotion, that is, frankly, almost impossible to translate. In English, what Fede means is a combination of hey, whoa, and howdayado, that is, a slangy form of greeting as well as a manifestation of surprise.
I love that he displays emotion so effusively—and so fluidly. I’m also puzzled by the difficulty I had in the previous paragraph to convey it in translation. That difficulty is because emotions are expressed differently from one language to another. And not only emotions but sounds.
I’m fascinated by this polyphonic plurality. To delve into this polyphony, I want to concentrate—simply because the topic is incommensurably richer—not on interjections but on onomatopoeias, e.g., “the naming of a thing or action by a vocal imitation of the sound associated with it,” according to Merriam-Webster.
Choo-choo in English is the sound of a train, as tic-toc is a clock announcing the time. And a rooster sings matter-of-factly: cock-a-doodle-doo. But only in English. Its Spanish counterpart is, in my estimation, more syrupy, melodramatic: quiquiriquí. Might they understand each other?
Think of a kiss. Is it the same to kiss in Rome and Tel-Aviv? I doubt it, for no two kisses are alike. In any case, the sound of a kiss in Italian is smac, whereas in Hebrew it is mwa.
The same goes for laughter: No two people laugh the same. Or at least they don’t make the same sound. Laughter in in German is spelled hahaha, yet in Bulgarian it is xaxaxa.
How do Swedes say yikes? Ii. That same shriek, in Tokyo, is kyaa.
Among my favorite cross-lingual onomatopoeias are those in the sneezing category. A person sneezes atchu in Arabic, in French atchoum, in Italian etciú, in Norwegian aatsjoo, in Cantonese, hāt-chī, and in Polish, a-psik.
Even the sound of thinking varies across the globe. But does thought make noise? Yes, it does: In English it is uh or else uhm, in French, heu or euh, and in German äh and ähm. In the end, the thoughts might be the same. Or not.
As is clear from this random list of mine, the vast majority of onomatopoeias combine vowels and consonants. On occasion the same letters show up.
For instance, the sound of farts often resort to the letter “p”: pups in German, pum in Portuguese, pook in Russian, and purorot in Tagalog. Yet no doubt burping is distinctive from place to place. In Czech it is spelled krk, Latin represents it as ruct, and Danish as bøvs.
A few onomatopoeias use solely consonants: mmm, grrr, and zzz, for example. Other constant-only cases include hushing, which emphasizes the letter “s”: sh in English, shh in Dutch, schh in Swedish, and pszt in Hungarian.
Conversely, on occasion it is only vowels that are employed. Such is the case of baby-crying, which in Albanian is ua-ua, in Hungarian oá oá, and in Vietnamese oe oe or oa oa.
Now let me get back to interjections, that is, to emotions. When you hear someone say argh, boo-hoo, la-di-dah, nah, oh-oh, pff, ta-da, whoops, yippee, and zap, you know you’re in the English-speaking world. And, more tangibly, when you hear a teenager utter an effusive yeah, you realize you’re trapped in America.
Do these many hums, stutters, sobs, and other vocalizations mean that all of us, roughly 7.2 billion people alive as I write this sentence, don’t hear the same sound?
As my wife, Alison, says, “It’s not how one hears, Ilan, but how one listens.”
Author Bio: Ilan Stavans is a professor of Latin American and Latino culture at Amherst College. His books include Spanglish: The Making of a New American Language and Dictionary Days: A Defining Passion. He is general editor of The Norton Anthology of Latino Literature and the publisher of Restless Books, a digital imprint devoted to contemporary literature from around the world.