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Listening to Yesterday: Printing Sound

How onomatopoeia gets presented in books

Reading books to my little kid has been an education, for me, in how words are presented and expressed on a page, especially words related to sound. Onomatopoeia is ever present in kids books, often set off from the rest of the text in italics, and with an expressive exclamation point, like the thunk! with which a car trunk closed prior to the start of a family trip in a book I read aloud just yesterday at bedtime. That thunk! was in a book written in full chapters. In books for a younger age, books intended for early readers, such “sound words” might appear as playful typography, the letters of a “boing!” treated in varying sizes, and with numerous n’s, to suggest a spring-like effect, or set off in an artist’s rendering, apart from the main body text.

It’s unclear to me if the distinction is intended to be playful or cautious, if effort is being made early on to make it clear that, say, “blech” is not a word in the way that, say, “bleach” is a word. (Then again, “blech” is from Yiddish. It’s a transliterated onomatopoeia, so maybe it gets grandfathered in as an “actual” word after all.) In books for older kids, the distinction is presumably already ingrained. By that stage, italics seem sufficient as a gentle reminder. Italics are a useful tool, able to imply speed and slowness, loud and soft, depending on the context. Also useful is a pair of em-dashes, which provide a safe zone — a “these aren’t real words” quarantine — from the rest of the narrative.

I was reminded, while staring at the “thunk!” on the page, of how, when I first started out interviewing musicians, I took cues from plays as to how to present the dialog of a Q&A, how “…” at the end of a statement meant someone was trailing off in their speech, and how an em-dash meant they were being cut off. And, how after their interlocutor spoke, starting off with an em-dash suggested they were picking up where they left off. I thought about how, when I worked in manga for half a decade, I became conscious of how Japanese comics use any number of dots in an ellipsis to suggest the length of a pause, and how in Japanese and American comics alike, and elsewhere around the globe, “sounds words” are often presented as dramatic, page-spanning events unto themselves. By then, though, my kid was deep asleep. We’ll discuss this all another time …

By Marc Weidenbaum

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