by Carol Ann Duffy, Helen Taylor and Gillian Clarke
On-o-mat-o-poe-ia! One-to-ma-to-pizza! I-am-gonna-pay-ya! It is a playful word, it comes from Greek and means ‘word making’. It imitates in sound the thing it describes, and because it uses musical effects it’s perfect for poetry. Children make new words using it: quack quack, bow wow, moo cow, brmm-brmm. A nee-naw is an excellent word for a fire engine. Widely used in primitive language, it’s at the root of many English words, words like wind, owl, cuckoo, sizzle, hiss, slither. In parts of south-west Britain plimsolls are known as daps, so ‘Get your daps on!’ means ‘Hurry!’ Run! Dap, dap, dap!
Read the poem aloud to the class. Read the article on onomatopoeia, and help the class to understand it. Get the children to look up ‘couleuvre’ in a French-English dictionary. Does anyone know the word for snake in any other language?
The ‘s’ sounds in Gillian Clarke’s ‘Summer Riddle’ might tell you what she is writing about. If you still can’t guess what this creature is, there is a further clue. It is a ‘couleuvre’ - that’s the French word for it! Look out also for metaphor, rhyme, assonance, alliteration, etc.
All afternoon I hope
it’ll come back - rope
of sunlight, silence,
something silk, a sibilance,
the turning pages of a book,
a breath that made me look.
It parts the grass
just long enough for it to pass.
A word unspooled from somewhere,
the fluent freehand signature
of flood, of cool couleuvre
in a most un-Roman swerve
of Celtic knotwork, the heart’s
blood-heat, the holy art
of gilding in the grass, a glance
of flame, of flamboyance.
Many creatures are named after the sound they make. Why? How does the class think the very first names for things were made? Think about how when babies begin to talk, and when grown-ups talk to them, they often make up their own words. Have the class any made-up words in their families that come from the sound something makes? Brmm-brmm is a good and common example.
Here’s a new poem by Gillian Clarke about things whose names contain the sounds they make. Listen to the sounds, sometimes of just a part of the word. Discuss the sounds made by the things named. Some of the bird songs will not be familiar to the children, but the names should tell them how they sound.
Cuckoo, peewit, chiff-chaff, crow
sing their names to let you know.
‘Hiss’ whispers the slithering snake
Its Ss-sound and Ss-shape it makes.
M-murmuring bee in the flower humming.
Beat in the street of drummers drumming.
The oooh and oh of w-winds that blow
The softly silently sifting snow
The swish and wash of ocean waves.
The boom-boom answer of the cave.
To-whit, to-whoo - in French ‘hibou’*,
in Welsh the owl is ‘gwdihw’*.
This could be an on-going activity, a raising of the children’s alertness to the sounds that make up each word. It could be taught side by side with the lesson on syllables. It could be linked with the teaching of vowels and consonants, mentioned in the article on assonance.
- Find poems which use onomatopoeia.
- Get the children to write short, onomatopoeic poems themselves.
- Ask them to make up new words for new things.
- What, by LISTENING to it, would our earliest ancestors have called:
a computer, a mobile phone, an electric drill, a jet plane, an ambulance.
- Ask the class to come up with more examples of things they could make up names for.
- Try including a newly invented word in a poem, or a story about one of those things.