“says”

The Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal from the 24th:

And no wonder: Baby Noam knows enough about Language to start a sustained argument that animals don’t have it, but not enough about the details of English to understand that the woman was asking what the conom (conventional onomatopoetic word — see discussion in the last section of my posting on Liam Walsh) is in English for the sound made by a chimp. (Note: there isn’t one, so far as I know). The facts of English usage in this domain are fairly complex, but little kids (other than Baby Noam, it seems) manage to cope very well with it.

Background information: the woman in the cartoon is performing a routine for asking little kids questions about what they know. It uses an overall pitch setting higher than usual, with a high rising pitch on certain focused words — the word chimp in this case (note the boldface in the cartoon). Typically, for animal sounds this routine runs through a series of animals: what does a pig say? and what does a rooster say? and what does a chimp say? etc.

In that earlier posting, I distinguished (vocal) sound effects (which are attempts to mimic or reproduce noises via the human vocal apparatus) from conventional onomatopoetic words (or conoms), which are, first of all, words in a particular language, which have to be learned. The woman’s routine in the cartoon is a quiz about a kid’s knowledge of this piece of the English lexicon.

This is where things get complex. You can say in English:

(a) the/a pig goes X

where X can be or sound effect or a conom, or you can say

(b) the/a pig says X

but then X has to be a conom, a word. And says here doesn’t mean that the pig actually says or speaks the word X, but rather that the pig makes a noise for which the conom in English is the word X (that is, X is what we say represents the noise the pig makes).

The verb say gets to cover quite a large terrnitory beyond the reporting of speech: the law says that your behavior is a prosecutable offense, my watch says that it’s ten o’clock, let’s say that we leave at noon, the rising temperature says that we have to go right away, etc.

So the extended sense in (b), and in the corresponding constituent question What does the/a pig say? (as in the cartoon) should be no great stretch.

3 Responses to ““says””

  1. Bob Richmond Says:

    I think a chimpanzee may say chee-chee. Here’s a link:
    http://tinyurl.com/nvq25b7
    Chee-chee was the name of Dr. Dolittle’s chimpanzee.

    A dog says bow-wow, but a dog barks. A rooster says cock-a-doodle-do, but a rooster crows. (Similarly in German – der Hahn sagt kikiriki, doch der Han kräht.) What words like “conom” describe this grammatical difference?

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      On bark, crow, squeal, etc. These are at least sometimes referred to as animal sound verbs (?ansovs). They are conventionally associated with specific animals, and are ordinary verbs in their language, with no systematic relationship to conoms, though many of them seem to be imitative, at least in origin. It’s also true that some conoms (oink, meow, woof, for example) can be verbed.

  2. kevinbcohen Says:

    Reblogged this on Zipf's Law.

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