News and Tribune

July 12, 2013

STAWAR: A sound interjection

Local columnist

As a former third chair cornet player in my high school band, and current owner of a trumpet, flugelhorn, soprano trumpet, cornet and pocket trumpet, I’ve always dreamed about being able to really wail, like my idol Chet Baker or maybe George Finola, the New Orleans musician who billed himself as “The World’s Greatest Cornet Player.”

Alas it just was never in the cards. The other day, however, I was thinking about a song and I automatically lapsed into my extremely poor imitation of a trumpet playing. Jim, a friend of mine from Florida, once told me that every trumpet player he’s ever known has a way of mimicking the sound of a trumpet. Since then I’ve wondered if the quality of this imitation is, in anyway, connected to having musical ability. If so, it would explain a lot.

Devices other than musical instruments can also be described by the sounds they make. The website defines the phrase “potato-potato-potato” (emphasizing the ‘p’ and ‘t’) as the “sound of a poorly running motorcycle engine.” Evidently this phrase is widely used in Britain among motorcycle riders, usually in a manner derisive to novice riders. Speech sounds are often used to express contempt or scorn. 

One of my favorite parts of NPR’s “Car Talk” radio show is when hosts Tom and Ray Magliozzi embarrass their callers by asking them to imitate the weird sounds their cars make in order to assist in diagnosing the problem. There is even a “Car Noise Emporium” on the Car website, where you can listen to nearly four dozen car noises and then read about the actual mechanical problem associated with each one. For example, “booooooorrrrththth” indicates an exhaust leak, “geerogherrrr, geerogherrr” means you have grinding brakes, but if you hear “!@#$%^! !@#$!@! !@#$!@#!” coming from the rear of your car, they say don’t worry, that’s just grandma. 

In the past whenever our oldest son, who’s a computer engineer, would use my old computer, he would make the sound effect, “ka chung, ka chung, ka chung” to express his disdain for our outdated technology. Sounds such as this can serve as the auditory equivalent of making air quotes, when you want to cast aspersions on something.

Many sounds and noises are an important part of human communication and they are usually expressed through the use of interjections, onomatopoeias, and exclamations.

Interjections are word-like constructions or sounds that express an emotion or sentiment such as, “ahem,” “drat,” “shh,” “psst,” “tsk, tsk,” etc. When a very strong emotion is expressed such as “ouch” or “yikes” it’s called an exclamation. Speech fillers such as “uh,” “er,” “um” and “like” are also considered interjections. Interjections appear different from typical words, in that they may lack vowels or be made up of clicks or other inarticulate verbalizations. Some employ common English speech sounds, while others use foreign language speech conventions, like the “bilabial fricative” (a sound created by strong puff of air through the lips, as in the interjection, “Phew”). 

Interjections are also often onomatopoeic in that they phonetically suggest the very sound that they describe, such as the interjections “grr,” “brr,” “pow” and “zap.”

Sounds that animals make are among the most easily recognizable onomatopoeic words. Meow, bow wow, and moo are often among the first things that children learn to pronounce. These sounds, however, vary across the world. For example cats in China ironically say “mao;” in Denmark they say “Miaav;” and in Hungary, “Miaaau.” French children are taught, that pigs say “groin, groin” instead of “oink, oink.” 

Psychologist Stanley Coren from the University of British Columbia studied the words describing how dogs bark, across many different languages. While he denies that dogs speak different languages, he concludes that “there is no universally accepted sound that humans use to represent dog barks.” According to Coren, “The only thing that seems to come close to being unanimously agreed upon about dog barks is that dogs almost always speak twice —  thus a Hebrew dog says “hav-hav,” a Japanese dog says “wan-wan” and a Kurdish dog says “hau-hau.” This holds true even in American Sign Language. 

 Cartoonist-writer Roy Crane, the creator of the Buz Sawyer comic strip, was the first to draw in interjections such as “bam,” “pow” and “wham,” adding a new dimension to how the comics portrayed action. Advertisers also frequently use onomatopoeic interjections as in Alka-Seltzer’s famous “Plop, plop, fizz, fizz” jingle and Kellogg’s Snap, Crackle, and Pop, catch phrase for Rice Krispies cereal.

Onomatopoeic interjections often show up as catch phrases on television shows such as “Beep, Beep,” “Zoiks,” “Waka, waka, waka,” “Haw-Haw” and “Bazinga.” “Yada yada yada” is the title of one of the most popular Seinfeld sitcom episodes. Aired in 1997, the plot has George’s girlfriend Marcy saying “yada yada yada” whenever she wanted to shorten her stories or to cover up something (like the fact that she was a kleptomaniac). 

“Yadda yadda yadda” dates back to at least the 1940s and was used frequently by comedian Lenny Bruce among others. In a 2009 TV special “TV’s 50 Funniest Phrases,” The Paley Center for Media named it as television’s funniest phrase, supplanting the previous winner, “D’oh” from “The Simpsons.”

A “Wah wah woh wah wah” trombone effect was used on the Peanuts television specials whenever Charlie Brown’s teacher was speaking. This is an excellent example of how effectively sound can be used to communicate fairly complicated things, like how incomprehensible the world of adults can be for children.

Interjections also provide a lot of color for our speech, making it both more expressive and more lyrical and well, yada yada yada.

— Terry L. Stawar, Ed.D., lives in Georgetown and is the CEO of LifeSpring the local community mental health center in Jeffersonville. He can be reached at Checkout his Welcome to Planet-Terry blog and podcast at