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Sweet, Say On

Only moments ago, I finished the 16-hour sequence (taking place over the course of many weeks) of Sound and Movement, a training sequence for actors created by Kristin Linklater. Today, for the completion of the sequence, we explored a topic that’s been really compelling to me for the past few years: the inherently onomatopoetic nature of language.

Onomatopoeia is, of course, a descriptor for words whose sound imitates the object they define. Barnyard animals are usually the first example when describing onomatopoeia: cows go “moo”, cats go “meow”, horses go “neigh”, etc.

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disturbing See n’ Say photo courtesy of amazon.com

But really, a much larger portion of our language is onomatopoetic: kick, wail, woe, flee, hunger, yearn, quickly, etc.

This seems to me like a really wonderful way to look at our theatrical experience. Lee Devin’s “Spectacle and Music” (published in “Theatre Topics” Vol. 13, May 2003) describes music as “everything you hear when you experience a play: the audience, the rattle of candy wrappers, and that siren in the street outside”. He goes on to note: “the most important noise you hear at a play is the actors speaking”. The audience’s experience is hugely shaped by the voice—without it, plays would not be plays. They’d just be words on paper.

My professors often encourage me to see theatre in another language. It’s surprising how much a person can understand of a foreign language if it’s full of life and intention. This must be a result of, in addition to the skill of an actor playing specific intentions, the inherently onomatopoetic nature of language.

Dogs go “woof”, wolves go “howl”, chickens go “cluck”.
Widows go “woe”, children go “play”, lovers and bakers go “honey” and “sweet”.

 Part of the Sound and Movement sequence covers the intrinsic pitches of vowels. The [u] sound (like the “oo” in “food”) is naturally the lowest in the body, while [i] (the “ee” sound in “free”) is the highest. As an actor, working with an awareness of these pitches often gives me hints to a character’s inner life—possibly in a way even the playwright didn’t plan. When a character says “scourge”, they likely have a different intention than one who says “misfortune”.

As a writer, actor, and creator, having an awareness of the intricacies of language can help create an experience for my audience. Just as it changes the experience of the performer, an audience will encounter a moment differently if they hear “plague” rather than “outbreak”.

Having more awareness of the experience we give an audience can help us, as artists, cultivate a positive learning experience. I’m always gaining more and more understanding of the way sound and language works, and with this, I’ll only become a more effective theatre artist. 

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