What ‘bang’ and ‘bloop’ tell us about how our brains listen

On friday I was recording the script for a BBC radio 3  documentary Sound and Fury. On one take, I accidentally said chirring instead of chirping.  Fortunately, as I was talking about crickets this wasn’t important because these insects chirr. Discussing this with the producer Nick, I started to think about why we have relatively few sounds to describe the quality of sounds.

If you try to think of terms dedicated to describing sounds, I think your list would be relatively short. Your list might include twang and tinkle, but would you have thought of popple and plash? I love the word soughing that describes the sound of wind whistling through conifers, but I don’t think it is a well-known word. I have an Oxford Thesaurus which includes a page of about 90 Imitative Words. But a third of these are unfamiliar to me and many are not commonly used.

It might be argued that we have relatively few words to describe sounds because what we see dominates our lives (especially since the invention of writing). But I wonder if there is a more fundamental reason for the lack of sound descriptors that can be traced back to how our brains process sound.

Our hearing first evolved as an early warning system, especially to warn us about threats hidden from view. If you hear a tiger creeping up from behind, you don’t really need to describe the quality of the tiger’s footsteps, you just need to identify it as a predator and run away. Consequently, when we hear something our brain tries to identify the source of the sound to evaluate whether it is a threat or not. This desire to first identify the cause of sounds still influences how we respond to what we hear, as has been found in research investigating our reactions to city soundscapes.[1] Maybe our brains approach to analysing sounds explains why we don’t have a large lexicon of sound descriptors. The drive to name the source of a sound makes it less important to come up with descriptors to characterise whether the sound went graunch, dah or whump.

Now I have to work out how to test my hypothesis. Anyone good at linguistic analysis?

Bang! Thwack! Plop!Culture may have produced some exceptions to the above theory. There are plenty of descriptors of impact sounds including boff, pow and thwack. But maybe that is just the influence of superhero comics?

Do you agree that the lack of sound descriptors arose because of how our brains process sound? Please comment below.


[1] Dubois, Danièle, Catherine Guastavino, and Manon Raimbault. “A cognitive approach to urban soundscapes: Using verbal data to access everyday life auditory categories.” Acta Acustica united with Acustica 92.6 (2006): 865-874.

Picture: http://www.usu.edu/ust/index.cfm?article=50424

4 responses to “What ‘bang’ and ‘bloop’ tell us about how our brains listen

  1. I think a part of the problem is there’s little crossover between what we see, and the verbal mechanism we use to describe it. Whereas using language means speaking, which means you’re using the same part of the spectrum on which sound resides – a conflict of interests, if you will. (I often end up trying to emulate the sound of something with my mouth, in a non-linguistic way, to much embarrassment for everyone concerned);

    Also, sound exists, both conceptually and in reality, in the time domain more than static visuals do; we can’t fold sound’s passage through time down into language elements in the way we can picture visuals statically. I also think we more readily accept the inaccuracies inherent in describing how objects look. Describing an object as ‘brown’, say, is actually quite generic. How to describe sounds in an equivalently generic way when the urge is always there to be more specific – I’m not sure!

  2. I’m not an expert at linguistic analysis, although I am involved in an MRI project looking at brain connectivity issues in dyslexic children (Univ of Washington, Seattle). I like your theory that naming or imitating a sound has always taken a distant second place to the need to simply identify it and decide what to do with it. But I also think that most modern languages have an inherently limited number of sounds (for whatever reason) and so it’s difficult to imitate certain sounds with the phonemes of most modern languages. I think both issues could be addressed by analyzing the language of near-Stone Age tribes (New Guinea, Africa?) since they (presumably) have more sounds available to them. Do these tribes have more words in their language that imitate sounds in their environment? If so, it could be both linguistic (they [again, presumably, since I’m no expert] have more sounds in their language than 5 vowels, 21 consonants, and variants, with which to form imitative words) and cultural (living closer to nature for millenia, they may have developed an interest in imitating the various natural sounds they encounter in their environment). Has anyone looked at this?
    Kevin Yagle
    Dept of Radiology
    Univ of Washington

  3. “Do you agree that the lack of sound descriptors arose because of how our brains process sound?”

    No, I think not.

    I agree with Kevin’s point, although I think it applies to all languages, not just “modern” languages. Every language has a limited number of sounds that it considers significant. Every language also has sounds that it DOES NOT consider significant. An important part of learning a language is learning NOT TO HEAR sounds (or sound differences) that are not significant in that particular language. As an American, I once had the experience of literally not being able to hear the difference between the Hindi words for eight and eighty. And of course I couldn’t produce sound differences that I couldn’t hear. That can be one of the reasons that learning a new language is difficult. As a speaker of language of X, I may have learned literally NOT TO HEAR some sounds that are significant in language Y.

    So the way that our brains can express sounds via language is a learned ability, and differs from language to language. Any language will recognize a limited number of significant sounds. So the speaker of any particular language will have a limited “vocabulary” of sounds that are available for use in expressing natural sounds.

    Note that I say “expressing” natural sounds, not “describing” natural sounds. I think that “sound DESCRIPTORS” is not the best choice of words in your question. “The mockingbird’s song” is a good DESCRIPTION of a mockingbird’s song. “Thwack”, on the other hand, is not a sound DESCRIPTION, but an attempt to suggest a sound by imitation. Specifically, it is not a DESCRIPTION but ONOMATOPOEIA – “the naming of a thing or action by a vocal imitation of the sound associated with it (as buzz, hiss).”

    And again, the sounds that I can use in onomatopoeia are limited by the sounds available in my language. I can make many kinds of sounds, but if those sounds aren’t part of the phonetics of my language, they won’t be considered to be even onomatopoeia. I can perfectly imitate the sound of a duck’s quack, but that sound is not the sound of the English work “quack”.

    I think we are limited most significantly in the way that we can express sounds, not by the way that our brains process sounds, but by our physical ability to imitate sounds. When we are physically capable of imitating certain types of sounds, we can often develop excellent sound imitation abilities. Consider our human ability to imitate bird calls by whistling. Some American Indian hunters (while they still lived as hunter/gatherers) could produce amazingly accurate imitations of a wide variety of bird calls. But a perfectly-whistled imitation of a turkey’s mating call is just that… an imitation. It is not a description of a sound or even an onomatopoeic imitation. That is not because the hunter’s brain couldn’t make it good enough. It is because the hunter’s brain made it TOO good an imitation for it to be considered a WORD (descriptor, if you will) in the hunter’s (or any) language.

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