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. 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?
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.
 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.