Shakespeare’s Sonicky Language

Humorist and language expert Roy Blount Jr talks about the concept of “sonicky” words in his new book, Alphabet Juice. “Sonicky” is a term he uses to describe language that sounds like what it is. Not onomatopoeia exactly (whoosh/boom/splat), but thing of the words “oak” and “willow.” There’s a reason the tall, thick, strong tree has such a strong sound, while the droopy tree has a droopy-sounding name. Say the words “oak” and “willow.” Picture the trees in your mind. The image in your mind affects what you say and the word you say affects the picture in your mind. That’s sonicky.

This is a concept that I’ve been a fan of for some time but never had a word for it. Thanks, Roy.

In one of my very first posts on this blog I advised that it is necessary to love language in order to effectively speak Shakespeare’s language. As time goes on I believe it more and more. It’s not enough to understand the words, to know what you want, know who you are, know the relationships. You need to enjoy the SOUND of the words. That’s where sonicky comes it.

Everything in Shakespeare is sonicky.

Today we’re concerned with meaning. Look up definitions of the words or check No Fear Shakespeare for a translation. Okay, now it’s act-able. Well, yes… but that’s not all there is to it. There’s a whole world of work to do, but I’ll try not to get carried away. We’re still talking about the sound of words.

Back in the day the actors, authors, and audiences cared much more than we do about the SOUND of words. Audiences went to HEAR a play. Not only did they want a good story, it had to sound good too. This a huge aspect of the word choices that Shakespeare makes in his plays.

When Richard of Gloucester (soon to be Richard III) speaks “Now are our brows bound with victorious wreaths” there’s a lot of meaning contained in just the sound of his words. Look at the first five words. They all have huge, open, similar-sounding vowels. They’re followed soon after by “victorious,” whose change in sound is like that of trumpets welcoming the victorious champion.

How about the line “Grim-visaged war hath smoothed his wrinkled front.” Say “grim-visaged” with a sweet and smiling face. Now try it while scrunching up your face. The image it conjures lends itself to how to say it, and vice-versa. Next — “smoothed” — which is a rather smooth word. “Wrinkled” falls into the same category as “grim-visaged.”

Are you starting to see (or hear) what I’m getting at here?

These words have a particular sound, they conjure a particular image, they serve a particular purpose. The specifics are for you to decide but the point is to be specific in the choices you make. The sound of each word carries much of its emotional content as well as meaning. The sonicky-ness of a character’s words is both his/her head and heart speaking together. Yet another reason why Shakespeare’s works are magical to me.

I’d love to dissect more speeches and concentrate on their sonicky properties, but I’ll let you get to work on that first before you hear any more sound and fury from me on this subject.

Let’s hear it for the Bard!