History and Culture: Onomatopoeia in Latin

In this chapter, you saw how certain words can be used in Latin to represent sounds made by humans, animals, and our surroundings. These words sound like what they mean, a phenomenon we call onomatopoeia in English. Onomatopoeia is an Ancient Greek word deriving from the roots onoma (name), and poiia (creating), which together mean “creating names” or “creating words.” Onomatopoeic words from this chapter include bau bau, which imitates the barking or howling of a dog, hahae, imitating human laughter, aiai, expressing grief or exclamation, and susurrat, meaning “he or she whispers.”

Latin is not the only language that includes onomatopoeic words — all languages have them! Think of some examples in English: oink, meow, woof, and neigh are all onomatopoeic words we use to describe animal noises. Words like achoo, hiccup, hum, and haha imitate sounds that people make, while beep, clang, pop, and sizzle resemble the kinds of sounds made by machines.

These sounds are endearing, entertaining and usually are just plain fun to say. Believe it or not, the Romans found onomatopoeia every bit as whimsical and intriguing – and they wrote plenty about it. In his educational work De Dialectica, the 5th century CE author St. Augustine writes that earlier Stoic philosophers believed that it was always possible to determine the precise origin of a word.

One of the surest ways of figuring this out, or so the Stoics had it, was to go further and further back in a word’s etymological history until its meaning and its sound of at last coincided. The word strīdor (“shrill noise”) meant what it meant because it was itself shrill and unpleasant to say! To Augustine, strīdor was evocative of the tinny rattling of chains, and clangor (“clang, crash”) of the blast of a trumpet. Augustine’s conclusion is simple: “Perspicis enim haec verba ita sonare, ut ipsae res quae his verbis significantur,” or “So you see that these words sound like the very things signified by these words,” (De Dialectica 6). In other words: onomatopoeia!

Other Latin authors give plenty of other examples. Take a look at this passage about animal noises from Suetonius’ De naturis animantium (On the Natures of Living Things):

Leonum est fremere vel rugire. tigridum rancare. pardorum felire. pantherarum caurire. ursorum uncare vel saevire. aprorum frendere. lyncum urcare. luporum ululare. serpentium sibilare. onagrorum mugilare. cervorum rugire. boum mugire. equorum hinnire. asinorum rudere vel oncare. porcorum grunnire. verris quiritare. arietum blatterare. ovium balare. hircorum miccire. haedorum bebare. canum latrare seu baubari. vulpium gannire. catulorum glattire. leporum vagire. mustelarum drindrare. murium mintrire vel pipitare. soricum desticare. elephantum barrire. ranarum coaxare.”

“Lions growl or roar. Tigers growl. Male panthers roar. Female panthers wail. Bears growl or roar. Boars gnash their teeth. Lynxes cry out. Wolves howl. Snakes hiss. Wild donkeys bellow. Deer shriek. Cows moo. Horses neigh. Donkeys cry out or bray. Pigs oink. Swine shriek. Rams babble. Sheep baa. Male goats bleat. Young goats baa. Dogs bark or bay. Foxes yelp. Cubs whelp. Hares make a trilling sound. Weasels shriek. Mice squeak or squeal. Shrews squeak. Elephants trumpet. Frogs croak. “

Suetonius goes on to list other animals and the noises they make, but we get a sense from this passage of the wide variety of onomatopoeic words used to discuss animal noises in Latin. Try saying a few of them out loud for fun! You can make onomatopoeia out of anything that makes noise: turning to a different passage, consider the way in which the 2nd century BCE Roman poet Ennius uses onomatopoeia to evoke the sound of a trumpet in a fragment from his Annales:

“at tuba terribili sonitu taratantara dixit…”

“But the tuba, with a terrible tune, sounded taratantara.” (Annales 451S)

Here, the word taratantara imitates the sound of a tuba, perhaps in a war procession, immersing the reader or listener in the scene Ennius describes. Try saying taratantara out loud: what does it sound like, and how does it make you feel? It is possible to imagine Ennius’ tuba resounding all the more vividly because he gives us a word that imitates  the sound it makes. This is one common way Latin authors use onomatopoeia––to heighten the poetic and sensory experience for the reader or listener. Even if a word or group of words is not strictly onomatopoetic, a similar effect is achieved by the repetition of sounds relating to a passage’s meaning. One example, from the poet Virgil’s epic the Aeneid, recreates the sound of snakes hissing as they attack the Trojan priest Laocoön and his sons

“Fit sonitus spumante salo; iamque arva tenebant
ardentisque oculos suffecti sanguine et igni,
sibila lambebant linguis vibrantibus ora.
Diffugimus visu exsangues: illi agmine certo
Laocoönta petunt; et primum parva duorum
corpora natorum serpens amplexus uterque
implicat, et miseros morsu depascitur artus…”

A roar sounds from the foaming sea; now they reach the shores,
and, their burning eyes full of blood and fire,
they lick their hissing mouths with flickering tongues.
They move toward Laocoön; first each serpent
winds around the small bodies of his two sons in an embrace,
and devours their wretched limbs, biting them. (Aeneid 2.209-215)

A statue of Laocoön and his sons held in the Vatican Museums.

While few individual words in the above passage are onomatopoeic by themselves, the repetition of “s” sounds, especially in the first three lines, recalls the sound a snake makes as it slithers along the ground or hisses menacingly–the exact actions which occur in the narrative. The whole passage, then, sounds somewhat like what it means.