On page 235 of the first volume of Daniel Block's commentary on Ezekiel, Block says:

Ezekiel is also ordered to utter the interjection Ah! (’āׅh). This form of the onomatopoeic paralinguistic utterance...

My mommy taught me what onomatopoeic was with words like hoopoe and cuckoo (though in the second case she used a foreign language which does a better job of approximating the bird's actual sound), but I'm not sure what it means in this context, or how a sound can be onomatopoeic for an emotion. Certainly, in all the languages I know, "ach" is an expression of intense emotion and seems intuitively correct in a way that a word like, say, "bird", never could.

But I don't know how to formalize exactly how this interjection is onomatopoeic according to my understanding of the word, and I'm not sure that my own sense of "intuitive correctness" means anything.

Is Block stretching the use of this word, or is this a standard use of it in linguistics? Specifically, can onomatopoeia ever refer to a word formed for an entity which does not inherently have a specific aural association?

  • Another case in which I was somewhat puzzled by the use of onomatopoeia.
    – Kazark
    Sep 3 '12 at 21:35

Ah or ach may be an easy interjection for many languages to come to, but it is in no way an onomatopoeia. An onomatopoeia is an imitation of a sound and ah imitates nothing, therefore it is not an onomatopoeia. Block is unfortunately wrong to use that word. If, in fact, you could produce scholarship that shows the origin of that Hebrew interjection coming from imitating an animal, an object dropping, etc. then that would be a different - and very interesting - story.


In spoken language "ah" is an interjection. It is simply an arbitrary, nonsense, semi-involuntary sound that people make to express surprise, excitement, understanding, etc. I say arbitrary since, in my experience, the choice of interjection varies slightly along with other linguistic and sociolinguistic factors. For example, the stereotypical Japanese equivalent of the English "ah" seems to be closer to "eh/ey" while the Korean seems to be closer to "uh". Also note that the other sounds such as "oh", "aw", or "heh" would have resulted in no change to meaning what-so-ever. I say nonsense because, although it is not vacuous in meaning, it is extragrammatical and context dependent. I say involuntary because "ah" is not a word in the same sense that "apple" is a word, it is a sound that the body makes almost reflexively in response to certain stimuli (such as saying "ow" when hurt, or the act of laughing).

"Ah" as a written word is a different matter all together. "Ah" the written word is simply a phonetic approximation of "ah" the sound/interjection, remembering that "ah" the interjection has special status as a word and is semi-involuntary. It is in that respect that "ah" the written word is onomatopoeic.

While the top rated response to this Yahoo! Answers question shows confusion as to the definition of onomatopoeia (confusing it with interjection), the second response was useful to me in understanding the problem.

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