Onomatopeia, a powerful expressive resource, represents in written or spoken language a sound, action, or phenomenon. Some months back, we looked at some animal sounds, like the rooster’s “Cock-a-doodle-doo!” that Spanish expresses as ¡Kikirikí or ¡Cocoricó!
This week, let’s consider some human sounds, starting with the little explosion that is a sneeze. Spanish represents it as ¡Achís! (ah-CHEESS) or¡Achús! (ah-CHOOSS); the second, less common, is similar to English “Ah-choo!”
Since sneezing is physiological, much more than cultural or linguistic, it’s evident that each language “hears” or “interprets” the sound uniquely.
Sometimes the languages differ widely. Spanish represents a kiss as ¡Chuik! (chweek) or ¡Muá! (mwah); English, as “Smooch!” For physical revulsion, Spanish uses ¡Puaj! (pwach, with guttural Germanic/Scots ‘ch’) or ¡Uf; typical in English is “Yuk!” or its infantile adjective form, as in “That’s yucky!” The latter’s one of the first words children in Spanish-speaking homes learn from English-speaking schoolmates.
Throat-clearing, on the other hand—a physiological act, that can also be used expressively to get someone’s attention or request silence—is similar: ¡Ejem! is almost identical to English “Ahem!”
Exclamations of pain are a curious case: the Spanish speaker stubbing her toe on a rock cries “Ayyy!” (like the letter ‘I’), nothing like English “Ouch!” or “Oww!” It turns out that an act one would think purely physiological is actually cultural, and that pain is “pronounced” differently from language to language.
Copyright © 2013 por Pablo Julián Davis. All Rights Reserved. This essay was originally written for the 21-26 April 2013 edition of La Prensa Latina (Memphis, Tennessee), as part of the weekly bilingual column “Mysteries and Enigmas of Translation”. Pablo J. Davis (www.interfluency.com) is an ATA Certified Translator (English>Spanish) and a Tennessee Supreme Court Certified Court Interpreter (English<>Spanish).