In Stephen Knight’s poem ‘Happly Ever After’ (in his collection of The Prince of Wails) there are neenors and a tooker tooker. He glosses these – fire engines, helicopter – but he really he doesn’t need to: most English readers will know what these things are from the sounds the words make and their context. Not that the sound of a fire engine is actually anything like neenor, or nee-naw, however you want to spell it. But it may have been in the past, and somehow that’s the word we use for it.
We have words too for the sounds animals make. Cats miaow (‘also meow’, according to the Oxford Dictionary for Writers and Editors), dogs woof, cows moo, sheep baa, pigs oink, owls towhit-towhoo. At least, English ones do. I asked some translator colleagues about these words and it turns out, as I’d suspected, that they’re far from universal. In Poland, I’m told, dogs hau, sheep mee and pigs hrum. For a Welsh owl, the word is gwdihw. The American poet Jonathan Williams (1929–2008) has a poem entitled ‘A Chorale of Cherokee Night Music as Heard through an Open Window in Summer Long Ago’ that is made up entirely of animal, bird and insect sounds. The first four of its fourteen lines (a sonnet, of sorts) consist of the words wahuhu, uguku, huhu and lalu, each word repeated to the end of the line and cut off according to the measure of the justified setting. These lines represent screech owl, hoot owl, yellow-breasted chat and jar-fly; subsequent lines offer a cricket, Carolina chickadee, katydid, crow, wolf, beetle, turkey, goose, bullfrog and spring frog.
The chorale I hear as I sit at my desk includes the noise of a wasp beating against the window and the several different sounds of aeroplanes flying over, heading into to Heathrow; against these, intermittently, the click of my computer mouse, the ping of an email arriving in the inbox, footsteps on the stairs, the satisfied chirp of my mobile phone when it’s finished charging, the noise of my crumpling paper and the other noise as that crumpled paper lands on others in the waste bin. Most of these sounds are so familiar I barely hear them, let alone feel a need to spell or say them, but some time ago a noise so unfamiliar added itself into the mix that I became convinced there was a deathwatch beetle in the party wall. I knocked on my neighbour’s door to ask if she, too, had heard this sound. It’s like thu, thu, thu, I said, and there’s a pause and then the thu’s again. No, she hadn’t heard it, but we went upstairs and saw that on the party wall her son had hung a darts board.
Sometimes only the sound itself will do, not a description of the sound, but onomatopoeia can only reach so far – not least, of course, because, cats and pigs (and police-car sirens too, and paper being crumpled) have different vocal cords. It’s possible that if you put an infant – a human with all its options still open, before its vocal cords have shut down to no more than the range required by the culture in which it is raised – in a room with a cat for several weeks, it would learn to imitate the cat’s sound exactly; but don’t try this at home, and anyway it doesn’t solve the problem of writing that sound down on the page. In a poem in which I dearly wanted a particular sound I ended up with ‘the continuous wavering shhhhh / of traffic on the motorway / across two fields’ – far from the thing itself, just a nod towards it.
Better words for the noise made by police-car or ambulance sirens?