Daily Archives: March 1, 2010


“So it comes to him,” Daryl said, gesturing, “and THWACK!, he just nails it.”

I emitted a descending whistle of appreciation in response.

Raoul, interested though he may sometimes be in sports tales, was as usual more interested in the sport of words. “What part of speech is that?”

“What,” Daryl asked. “Nails?”

“No, thwack,” Raoul said.

“Well, a thwack can be a noun, and thwack can be a verb…”

“Yes,” Raoul said, “‘He thwacked it a good thwack.’ But this wasn’t either of those, was it? More of an interjection, I think.”

“You can interject nouns and verbs,” Daryl said. “Nuts!” He paused for a split second and then, having thought of it, grabbed some nuts from the bowl on the table. Then he pulled out his iPhone and started typing on it.

“But saying that when you encounter catastrophe is not like saying it when you encounter cashews,” Raoul objected. “It’s not like saying ‘Bees!’ or ‘Incoming!’ or ‘Run!’ or ‘Help!’ It’s not indexical; it doesn’t indicate the presence of, or need for, nuts. Nor do I think thwack is like nuts – one says nuts where one could equally say drat or rats or any of several less polite things. Thwack indicates something more specific. Perhaps one could say smack or whack, depending on the impression of the sound…”

“Well,” Daryl said, flicking through screens on his iPhone, “it’s onomatopoeia, and has been with us at least since about 1530, first as a verb and then as a noun. Shakespeare used it in Coriolanus. I find no listing for it as an interjection.”

“Ah,” I said, deciding my time to dive in had come, “the insistent neglect of ideophones. Even in African languages, some of which have hundreds of them and use them fairly often, they were a long time in being recognized and studied. For some reason many linguists don’t find them interesting enough to study, which I find truly strange. Things that break the expected patterns and categories are the most fascinating!”

“Ideophones?” said Daryl. Tap tap tap he went on his iPhone.

“A particularly performative set of words. Not per se a lexical category; they can be any other word class. But they add an element of performance, and often have unusual sounds and grammatical aspects.”

“Onomatopoeia,” said Raoul. “Straightforward imitation.”

“Standardized, lexicalized, and not always imitative,” I said. “In some languages, for instance, there are ideophones to emphasize intensity of colour – different ones for different colours. Some also use gestures and non-speech sounds. For instance,” I increased my level of performative involvement, “‘Was he in trouble?'” Onto the end of this, as answer, I tacked a low whistle with eyes wide open and right hand fanning head. Then I added, “And that’s culturally standardized.”

“But thwack is plain imitation,” Raoul insisted.

“Why not thap or thwap or swapt or…” I said.

“I notice you use voiceless fricatives on all of them,” Raoul pointed out.

“Well, yes,” I said, “that makes the difference between thwack and whack – the clearer sense of something whistling through the air before impact. That is imitative, but why not fwack?”

“Sounds vulgar, doesn’t it,” Raoul said, and reached for the bowl of nuts.

I tried saying thwack and fwack a few times. “Thwack allows a better pucker and release, a kind of oral gesture imitative of an impact.”

Daryl had found something more with his web searching. “They’re most likely to be used in fairly active, lively, informal narratives, aren’t they?”

“That seems obvious enough,” Raoul said.

“And often in the narrative present,” Daryl continued.

“Is that what you’re finding?” I asked. “That seems reasonable. Just as you used it.”

“And,” Daryl said, scrolling some more, “frequently with exclamation marks, sometimes all caps or italics, and repetition.”

“Well,” I said, “voilà! There you have it.”

Voilà,” Raoul said. “And what part of speech would that be here?” And so it began again.