In Brief

Figure of speech. In two lovely passages, Aeolus employs words that cannot be found in any dictionary: "sllt" and "bingbang." These neologisms come into being by the principle of onomatopoeia, words that sound like the things or actions they name. Joyce also employs more familiar examples of the device.

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Onomatopoeia (ON-uh-mah-tuh-PEE-uh, from Greek onomos = name + poiein = to make) means making words by imitating sounds in the environment. This term from ancient rhetorical theory has become commonplace in English usage, but even if the term were not familiar the principle behind it would be. Common speech is filled with words like hiccup, gargle, gulp, guzzle, slurp, tick-tock, ding-dong, clip-clop, buzz, bark, woof, meow, roar, howl, chatter, clatter, clang, crackle, clack, clink, cluck, crinkle, chirp, creak, croak, honk, toot, hum, squeak, squeal, screech, splash, splat, splatter, slosh, snap, drop, drizzle, fizz, flap, rattle, whirr, whiz, whirl, whoosh, murmur, moan, wail, sniff, thump, thud, zip, and zoom. 

Onomatopoeic words of this sort are heard repeatedly as Bloom stands near the noisy printing presses: "The machines clanked in threefour time. Thump, thump, thump"; "Mr Bloom stood by, hearing the loud throbs of cranks." But Joyce would not be the great artist he is if he simply employed such common idioms. Instead he has a new word form in Bloom's consciousness as he listens to sheets of paper being fed into the press: "Sllt. The nethermost deck of the first machine jogged forward its flyboard with sllt the first batch of quirefolded papers. Sllt. Almost human the way it sllt to call attention. Doing its level best to speak. That door too sllt creaking, asking to be shut. Everything speaks in its own way. Sllt."

Gilbert and Seidman cite this as an instance of onomatopoeia, but they do not comment on a passage later in the chapter when Professor MacHugh's dental floss speaks: "He took a reel of dental floss from his waistcoat pocket and, breaking off a piece, twanged it smartly between two and two of his resonant unwashed teeth. / — Bingbang, bangbang." In addition to imitating the sound of the floss, these words are presented as a line of dialogue, so they could also be called an example of prosopopoeia.

Contemplating the sound "sllt" half a dozen times, Bloom concludes, "Everything speaks in its own way." This speculation extends thoughts he had in Calypso, when his hungry cat's increasingly ornate vocalizations––Mkgnao! Mrkgnao! Mrkrgnao!––prompted him to reflect that "They understand what we say better than we understand them." Sirens picks up this line of thought from the two earlier chapters, exploring the notion that the world is full of supposedly inanimate things doing their best to make music. And in Circe the personification of the articulate dental floss is revisited as various inanimate things speak their minds. A trouser button pops off and goes "Bip!" An echo hears "Hurray for the High School" and replies, "Fool!" Yew trees say, "Ssh!"

JH 2023

A passage rich in onomatopoeia and other aural devices in Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene (1.1). Source: