Soundscapes as Cultural Heritage

Hello there! Good to see you here.

I am sure you have travelled before, haven’t you? Explored places both near and far from home?

I am sure you carry a lot of memories from these places. A chance meeting with a stranger, a monument that made you gasp, a natural landscape that made you feel weak in your knees, so on and so forth, your repertoire of experiences must be quite intriguing indeed.

However, have you ever consciously closed your eyes and listened to a place? Have you felt the voice of a destination speak to you in its many diverse tongues? Have you heard the language of a space as it tells you about its people, its animals, its emotions, its pace of development, its chaos, its order? Have you felt yourself being absorbed into the silences between the sounds of a place, almost floating in a sonic ocean?

Well, don’t worry. Most people have not experienced such things. After all, the visual spectacles of a location have been specifically developed and designed to grasp your attention. No one has really gone out of their way to develop auditory monuments that people can visit and admire have they?

Soundscape (noun; definition):

The acoustic environment of a location which is a sum total of all the acoustic resources contained within the region surrounding the perceiver of the said environment. This includes both artificial as well as natural acoustic sources coming together to form an immersive aural landscape.

Similar to landscapes, soundscapes are environments and the fact of the matter is that no two soundscapes are the same. Every region has a unique soundscape of its own and hence, forms a fundamental part of its identity as a destination. Even though we might not be paying conscious attention to the sounds of a place, our perception of destination is undeniably shaped by what we hear as well.

Local sounds are an important part of our cultural heritage

Photo by Nishant Aneja from Pexels


Cultural Heritage of the Aural Planes

A major part of the soundscape of a region includes culture-bound sounds, such as the call to prayer, calls of street hawkers, and conversations in local languages among others.

These sounds are all crucial parts of what has been recently recognized by UNESCO as Intangible Cultural Heritage or ICH. The importance of ICH has been perfectly captured by author Pinar Yelmi in her paper titled “Protecting contemporary cultural soundscapes as intangible cultural heritage: sounds of Istanbul”.

The example that she offers is that of the central importance of tea-drinking in Turkish culture, especially in terms of social events in everyday lives of individuals living here.

Even though the tools used to brew tea have changed over the years in Istanbul, tea continues to be a crucial part of the socio-cultural fabric. However, as the tools have changed over the years, so has the quintessential sounds associated with the process of tea-making.

The sounds that were associated with the older implements of tea-making on the streets of Istanbul can no longer be heard and the preservation of such sounds is becoming more and more necessary as artifacts of local identity.

Conservation of Natural Soundscapes

It is not only urban soundscapes that are being recognized as cultural heritage, natural soundscapes are in dire need of conservation as well. In fact, soundscapes filled with natural sounds as well as silence-filled soundscapes such as those of deserts are being encroached upon by human development and hence, are rare resources in the modern world.

Elisa Giaccardi from the Center for Lifelong Learning & Design at the University of Colorado, conceptualized a method of conserving such natural soundscapes and integrating them as a socio-cultural experience, similar to that of museums and art galleries.

In her paper titled “The Silence of the Lands: Interactive Soundscapes for the Continuous Rebirth of Cultural Heritage”, Giaccardi proposes a design hypothesis for the development of museum-like spaces that individuals can visit to experience the wonders of natural soundscapes.

The natural sounds from the wilderness are recorded both live as well as in advance in order to offer immersive auditory experiences for the visitors. At the same, the spaces are also designed with interactive technologies so as to allow visitors to convert soundscapes into means of communication. In other words, visitors can experiment and learns the ways in which soundscapes and individual natural sounds can be converted into a new medium of conversation.

It is important to connect with nature on a sonic level as well

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels


The Loss of Auditory Cultural Heritage

The fundamental representative of human development encroaching upon natural spaces as well as the urban/rural culturally rich soundscapes is the vehicular horn. The modern vehicular horn, even though it differs slightly from region to region, is a mechanized and for most part, universal sound that holds no deeper cultural significance.

Even though vehicular horns and their sonic evolution are important for the understanding of a specific part of our cultural heritage, the widespread usage of the same in the modern world are populating otherwise rich cultural soundscapes. This is occurring to such an extent that more subtle sonic cultural artifacts are being lost in a cacophony of monotonous and mundane honks.

I don’t know about you, but I would hate it if I go to a new place and instead of being able to enjoy the rich sonic cultural landscape there, I am subjected to a similar cacophony of horn sounds.

I would classify excessive honking as an act that is conducive with the heinous and pathetic way in which individuals scribble their names onto ancient monuments.

It is high time we reclaim our sonic heritage so that our children are able to enjoy the rich diversity of our soundscapes rather than being subjected to monotonous and repetitive soundscapes with no real diversity.

Let’s save our sonic biodiversity. Let’s stop honking!


Exploring our Primal Urge to Honk

As a human being, the species that has proclaimed itself as the most advanced amongst the millions of other denizens that have walked the fact of the planet since time immemorial, it is very easy to be blinded by the praise of our own achievements.

However, if one is willing, one can distant oneself from this cacophony known as “civilization” and before you know it, hundreds of years of advancement appear to be nothing more than some elaborate playground game.

Even though there are various examples of this, there are few things more absurd than the very foundations of language itself.

If we consider it from a specific perspective, a distant and objective, language is just composed of random sounds that we make by contorting our mouths and our tongues. The meaning attributed to these sounds is just a culturally and socially accepted agreement that seems to have bound us all in a long and arduous contract which we never really agreed to in the first place.

We are merely born into it.

When examining language without the mass structural of lattice culturally accepted meaning around it, our words or not dissimilar from the incessant honking on our streets. Honking appears to be merely short and sharp sounds that do not really have a set and steadfast meaning, except specific types of emotions and reactions attributed to them.

Our need to communicate is a primal and strong impulse

Of course, in countries like India, the vocabulary of the horn has either been obliterated completely from its original limited meaning-making capabilities, or in fact has expanded so much that it is deemed useful in all kinds of situations.

However, in this blog, our aim of stripping language down to its primitive sounds serves the singular purpose of tracing back our need to honk to our most primal origins. In other words, the question comes down to why we started making noise in the first place? Why did we need to speak and communicate using sound? Did language sound like honking before large-scale cultural agreements were made?

Let’s find out!

Exploring the Primal Origins of Language – Glossolalia and Mentalese

Most of us have felt the immense urge to speak to someone due to the sheer cascade of ideas, thoughts, feelings and conceptualizations that tend to unfold in our mind. If there is no one present around us with whom we can share our internal world with, we tend to speak to ourselves, showing the sheer need for communication in our lives.

Such a need is as primal and deep-rooted in us as the need to preserve ourselves or the need to feel loved.

Numerous scientist have tried to decipher this need, often with resultant outcomes that brought forth more questions than answers, essentially challenges the very foundations of human consciousness itself. Terence McKenna, a renowned speaker and psychonaut (explorer of the mind) was the proponent of the “Stoned Ape Theory” which stated that language emerged in proto-humans or hominids (our earliest ancestors) due to their consumption of potent hallucinogen and psychedelic mushrooms.

Due to the consumption of this substance, McKenna argues that a form of proto-language emerged, which was a direct reaction to the stimulation of the mind. Essentially, as per McKenna’s dissection of his own experiences as well as countless others’ on the psychedelic, the mushroom opened up the sensory and mental faculties to an extent that the consumers were able to widely increase their perceptual receptivity.


As more and more information flooded into the brain, there was an intrinsic biological need to vomit forth meaningless syllables, articulations and inflections of an oral nature, a form of proto-language or the “raw material of language” known as glossolalia. This phenomenon is even observed today in many individuals who are either under the influence of powerful substances or are undergoing hypnosis or some other form of mystical experience that enhances or alters sensory or mental perception.

The presence of glossolalia, which in most observed cases tends to be spontaneous and unbound by any firm rules of grammar, indicates that our need to communicate comes from an overflowing of our internal “storage system” of perception. In other words, to communicate is to allow the raw material of our inner worlds to flow out, thereby being processed by the world outside consisting of fellow members or our tribe/community/family.

To communicate is to learn more about one’s own internal state by way of exposing it to the vast processing systems existing outside in the external world.

Another theory that was put forth by renowned linguist, Steven Pinker, is that we do not think in the form of words and that hence, language of thought is completely independent of the language of the “outside”. Pinker suggests that we “think” in the form of sounds, visuals and abstract associations, which are subsequently translated into words. Pinker calls this language of thought or the internal world of associations as “mentalese”.

In both cases, glossolalia and mentalese show that our primal urge for communication comes from the vast internal sources of raw material that we accumulate within us through our experiences. In fact, communication becomes a fundamental means of processing this vast storage of data, a lot of which tends to be too abstract for efficient “meaning-making” or for actual action.

The Primal Root of Honking – Looking towards Nature

One of the fundamental features of oral language of any kind is that it is a form of condensation or generalization of vast stores of abstract data into simple noises.

Vocal forms of communication are clearly visible in nature, with almost every single species of fauna using patterns of oral sound-making to interact with fellow members.

An important aspect of the myriad forms of oral communicative patterns in nature is that they are constrained to specific syllables or aural inflections.

For instance, the crow tends to utilize the specific sounds of “kaw” in most cases rather than going for something like “bhow” which is in turn an auditory syllable that is confined to the sonic arsenal of the dog.

Of course, there are birds and other creatures that have a much wider range of aural tones and articulations, which nonetheless tend to be structured into related sounds. In fact, scientists have found that birds like the starling learn new “words” by accumulating new sounds into their existing memory of aural expressions and can gather over 90 different articulations of a single sound over their lifetime. Scientists have also found evidence that such birds tend to experiment and improvise with the sounds they have learned. In fact, starlings are so adept at learning and experimenting with sounds that each individual bird has its own unique sonic signature that it is identified by!

In fact, in non-human primates such as gibbons, also engage in duets with their partners. Utilizing very clear rhythmic structures, similar to actual songs in the human artistic repertoire, gibbons tend to go back and forth with their mates using different forms of articulation, some of which appear to be standard, almost grammatically rule-bound for specific occasions.

However, no matter how diverse and structural complex animal calls tend to be, they do appear to be following a set of constraints which are not as rigid as grammatical rules even though they might seem so. These constraints on the contrary seem to be similar to the constraints that are placed on the sounds of vehicle horns, namely constraints borne out of design.

The Great Filter – Communicative Design and Processing

In a manner of speaking, the process of oral communication is confined by the way in which our brains are wired to interpret these signals and how our biology is designed to articulate these signals. Some scientists even argue that the phonological articulations (how we create mouth noises) of creatures played a key role in influencing how their brains and biological vocal apparatus developed.

Similar to how the sound of the vehicular horn, as explored in a previous blog, was specifically designed to incite a set of reactions and actions by focusing on “alarming” or “warning” people, most oral communication has evolved to invoke a set of reactions by influencing the formation, alteration or disruption of the vast internal reservoir of information contained within the listener’s mind.

Our biology, or our internal design, tends to play a crucial role in how we process oral information, how we are impacted by it and essentially, how we react to it through the production of articulations in response to what we listen to.

The primal urge to communicate our internal state is what ultimately leads us to honking, which in turn adds another layer or design through which our vast internal reservoirs of abstract feelings, thoughts, ideas and “god knows what” is translated into sounds.

However, as you may observe, it is a further condensation or de-complex-ification of language, which in the first place has been constrained due to environmental as well as biological design restrictions. This essentially shows that the horn is as primitive as the first grunts and shouts that early man made before he “opened” his mind using mushrooms and spontaneously ushered forth the creation of language.

Photo by Elijah O'Donnell from Pexels
Photo by Elijah O’Donnell from Pexels

Maybe, it is time the same thing happens with the vehicular horn. It is high time that we usher in an evolution of this primitive form of communication and develop a better language for our vehicular horns, so that our frustrations and our anxieties can at least be expressed with the finesse, grace and beauty that is apparent in the songs of gibbons and starlings.


Dissecting the car horn sound!

Why does the Car Horn Sound the Way it Does?

Ah, the car horn! It is the most common and hence, often the most taken-for-granted sound in the urban soundscape.

Owing to the frequency of usage of the car horn, especially in countries like China and India where drivers tend to keep one hand on the horn at all times, armed and ready, the sound of the car horn has slowly faded into our collective subconscious.

A result of this lack of acknowledgement of the sound of the car horn at par with the other more musical sounds that we treasure and yearn for is a lack of understanding of what this sound is and how it was designed. The car horn is designed via an extremely precise science of sound design and acoustics for very specific reasons, which includes everything from a cultural environment to brand identity and price range of the car.

Here, we look at some of the fundamental aspects that define the car horn sound and the background behind this ubiquitous yet often misunderstood and equally misused auditory signal of the modern world.

The Musical Foundations of the Car Horn

On the musical scale, the car horn has its unique note!

The tuning of the car horn sound is in most cases adjusted to ensure that it lies between what is known as the “Major Third” and a “Minor Third” on the musical scale.

For those of you who might not have plumbed into the mysteries of musical notations, yet, let’s dissect what a “major”, “minor” and a “third” is.

A “third” is a musical arrangement of three different notes which occupy three lines on the notation sheet, indicating three different pitches or frequencies. In simpler and more visual terms, if you hold three keys on a piano or a keyboard, for instance, the three notes of C, D and E, you are holding a third.

However, sometimes there are four notes in a third. Strange, isn’t it?

Piano keys references

This is because on the keyboard or piano, in the case of a “Major” third, if you want to cover the interval between C, D and E, you have to hold four keys, namely C# (black key), D (white key), D# (black key) and E (white key). On the other hand, a “Minor” third includes only three keys, for instance, the black key associated with D, also known as D flat, the white key D, and E flat or the black key associated with E.

Let’s forget about the keyboard and the notations and all of that stuff for a moment. An arrangement of four notes that sound “happy”, “uplifting” or “positive” is often designated as “Major” intervals or chords. At the same time, an arrangement of three notes that sound “sad”, “negative”, “gloomy” are known as “Minor” chords.

The car horn third lies between the happy and sad spectrum and hence have a unique emotion and auditory arrangement as opposed to the extreme ends which are often used in music.

The car horn third is in fact about halfway between a major and a minor third. An interesting facet of this “in-between” third of the horn is that it has elements of both the happy major and the sad minor. When viewed in this way, the car horn third is a close relative of the “Jimi Hendrix” chord, which is also an amalgamation of both major third and minor third notes.

So, in essence, a car horn is almost as musical as Jimi Hendrix’s signature chord that you can hear in many of his famous songs, such as Purple Haze!

Moreover, owing to the Major third foundations of the car horn, it is in the same family as other urbanscape sounds, such as the dial tone of the landline telephone and the traditional doorbell.

The Acoustics and Functional Facets of the Car Horn

Even though it may not be as complex as the cliché claim of the intricacy of rocket science, sound acoustics and sound design are extremely precision-driven subject areas. There are institutes, countless lectures, large reservoirs of resources, and entire professional career paths built upon the design of sound.

In other words, it might seem that anyone, including you, my friend, could have come up with the car horn sound, right? I mean, what’s the big deal, it’s just a loud and annoying tone isn’t it? Why does it take a scientist to come up with something like that? Right?


You see, there is a very specific reason behind why the car horn has been tuned to the sound that we commonly hear today. It took numerous years and countless experiments to arrive at this particular sound.

According to a study conducted by Guillaume Lemaitre and his team under the title of “The Sound Quality of Car Horns: Designing New Representative Sounds”, it was observed that the sound of the car horn is dependent upon certain core functional paradigms.

Photo by ThisIsEngineering from Pexels
Photo by ThisIsEngineering from Pexels

There are about three to four factors which define what a car horn should sound like when it comes to manufacturing these noisy chatterboxes, depending on which sound designer or acoustic engineer you talk to. These include that the fact that the sound of a car horn should:

  • Be recognizable
  • Have an intrinsic and perceptually accepted communicative meaning
  • Allow the listener to know what it represents
  • Allow the listener to know what to do when he/she hears it

Numerous studies have been done to find the right car horn sound so that it appeals to some of our more primal instincts of fear and shock. The sound has been tuned ever so finely over vast periods until individuals react with just the right amount of alarm rather than either not reacting at all or suffering a massive panic attack every time they hear the sound.

A study conducted in 1999 used a driving simulator to see the urgency of the time taken by a driver to apply the brake when exposed to different types of sounds or acoustic signals. An extremely interesting finding in this study was that drivers instinctively reacted with different levels of urgency to different sounds.

The study found that individuals reacted faster to “iconic” sounds rather than “symbolic” sounds. What’s the difference, you might ask?

A symbolic sound is a random acoustic arrangement having no deeper meaning, socio-cultural context or physical/psychological connotation to it except a basic framework of notes, pitches and frequencies. An iconic sound on the other hand has a rich foundation of contextual meaning beneath it.

The best way to understand the difference between these two sounds is to compare a random blast of high-pitch frequency used to determine danger as opposed to the use of breaking the glass to denote danger. In most cases, the latter works better than the former, because a deeper contextual meaning, especially derived from our own psychological, physical, cultural and collective memory, tends to help us better react to a sound.

Acoustic Diversity of the Honk

Even though this might come as a surprise to many, car horn sounds are different for different countries as well as for different cars. Long gone are the days when honking was just a simple add-on, manufacturers are paying a lot of attention to the sound of the horn that they place into their models.

This new interest in car horn sound customization has resulted in new professions opening up for people like Victor Rangel, who is a resident engineer at Ford Motor Company. Rangel says that his job is similar to that of the orchestra conductor, in that he has to find the right place to secure a horn in a car model, specifically based on where it is being shipped to, what its price bracket is, and what type of a buyer base it appeals to most.

Photo by Andrey Grushnikov from Pexels
Photo by Andrey Grushnikov from Pexels

Not only do people like Rangel have to consider the differences in nation-level noise regulations for horns, but they also have to consider the type of sound that the people in a specific country are more used to on a cultural level.

In countries like China and India, where horns are used excessively, a sharper and more metallic sound is often used. In Western markets, the sharp “honk” of Indian cars is replaced by a mellower “meep”, that sound more like a trumpet.

However, the most important aspect in this entire plethora of information regarding the sound of the car horn is that we do not know much about why our vehicles shout, sing or screech they way they do. Due to our lack of awareness and insight into our noise-pieces, we tend to use them in ways and under circumstances that they were never built to be used in.

For instance, in cities like Mumbai and New York, horns are not merely a warning signal but a form of communication, a noisy soliloquy, a sonic discourse on the situation that lies in front of the driver, expressing everything from disdain, frustration, fears, anxiety, mischievous intentions, and many and many other more obscure forms of communicative intents.

Owing to this, the intended use of the horn and its vast technical foundations lose ground as soon as they reach the battlefields of the roads. Maybe, it is high time that we become more aware of when and why we choose to honk, at least for the sake of the amount of time and effort spent in engineering this instrument of the common man’s stage.


Impact of Honking on Stress and Heart Disease!

The use of honking is primarily, as evidenced in the article “Why does the Car Horn sound the Way it Does”, as a warning signal. In other words, if you feel stressed, anxious and a bit of dread due to the barrage of horns behind you on a busy street as you are in driver seat with sweaty palms, that is because it was designed to do exactly that!

However, in a world where we do not have to run from predators or fight off other imminent threats, our biologically hardwired stress mechanism often tends to act against us rather than for us.

Let’s find out more about this curse.

Our Biologically Hardwired Stress Mechanism

One of the fundamental biological reactions to exposure to signals or stimulus that incites fear, anxiety and dread, is the release of the stress hormone, Cortisol and Adrenaline.

Whenever your body encounters a source of stress, such as an angry honking pattern initiated by the frustrated driver behind you (who is equally stressed by other or similar sources of anxiety and stress), your hypothalamus sets off a biological alarm.

This biological alarm initiates a cascade of hormones and nerve-firings, all of which are directed at your adrenal glands. The adrenal glands, a physiological instrument that has been shaped by numerous years of onslaught from external threats, releases Cortisol and Adrenaline.

Adrenaline increases your heart rate, heightens your blood pressure, and increases the rate at which blood sugar in your body is converted into usable energy. At the same time, Cortisol increases the amount of available sugar in your blood stream in the form of glucose and allows your brain to utilize this excess glucose in a more efficient way.

As you may observe, all of these biochemical changes are specifically geared towards either running way from a threat or fighting against it.

But neither can you run from a threat nor fight it when you are stuck in the traffic jam and the threat is a sonic burst that you cannot even see, much rather throw a punch at!

So, what happens?

Photo by from Pexels
Photo by from Pexels

A Primal Blessing Turned into a Modern Curse

When a threat is ever-present and you can’t hide, fight or run from it, the flight-or-fight reaction stays on, constantly and more or less consistently.

This is why sometimes, after an especially grueling day out on the roads, stuck in a honk-filled traffic jam, you find it difficult to sleep. Your body has still not returned to its baseline level of comfort, the stress hormones, owing to their constant stimulation, are still circulating in your blood stream, sucking away every ounce of peace even within the confines of your home.

After a while, another one of our primal instincts kicks in, our impulse to adapt. In an age when stressors are all around us and there is little that we can do about these, our body tends to adapt to constant stimulation of stress hormones until high blood pressure levels and increased heart rates become the new norm.

According to the World Health Organization, 17.9 million people die each year due to cardiovascular diseases. Over 1.13 billion people around the globe have hypertension or high blood pressure today as per WHO statistics. Even though there are several other reasons that contribute to this, such as unhealthy diets, one more important statistic changes the equation a bit.

In a report released by Harvard Medical School, in their Harvard Heart Letter, it was observed that “every 5-decibel increase in the average 24-hour noise level was associated with a 34% increase in heart attacks, strokes, and other serious heart-related problems.”

Feeling anxious? Or maybe, that’s how you feel all the time…


A Brief History of the Car Horn

The “honking” of a car horn is one of the most common sounds of the modern world. Be it out of frustration or necessity, the car horn remains one of the most preferred instruments in the arsenal of the car owner. A preferred weapon for any driver looking to brave the rush hours of modern-day commute, the car horn has an interesting and surprising far-reaching history. Some of the ancestors of the car horn go back to times when automobiles were not even a distant dream! Here is a brief history of how this instrument of cacophony came into being.

A Honk from the Deep Past

Before horns were used to intimidate fellow drivers or scare the living daylights out of unsuspecting pedestrians, they emerged as crucial signalling tools on the battlefield. Ancient civilizations such as the Vikings, the Sumerians and the Mayans used crude primitive versions of the horn for a singular purpose – to strike fear into the hearts of their enemies. Come to think of it, this specific use of the horn continues to come in handy, especially when frightening teenagers who have their faces buried in smartphones, completely oblivious of the long line of cars behind them. The same ferocity and angst that pervaded the battlefield of lore, as a horn carved out of animal bone violently shrieked its war-cry, can sometimes be felt during a long and especially arduous traffic jam today. It seems that we are still following in the footsteps of our ancestors after all.

Man blowing on ancient war horn
Man blowing on ancient war horn!

A Honk of Many Trades

As history trudged on, the horn transformed from a battlefield instrument to an actual instrument that was used in many contexts, changing from one civilization to another. Its essence and utility were not merely as a source of music, but as a signal or a form of communication. Before news channels were feeding us hours and hours of anxiety and loathing for the world, horns were used for public announcements by signalling people to commune at a spot in the town to receive their daily dose of breaking news from around the kingdom. Some horns, such as the shringa of India were used to signal the arrival of kings and other prominent dignitaries as they passed through their cities for their periodic mass appearances. The horn known as raw-dun, native to the Tibetan region, was used for the singular purpose of ceremonial exorcisms. Another interesting function was served by the azrag whose sound could be heard across the Latvian landscapes of old. This horn was specifically used by youngsters as a way of signalling to the community that they are “available” and are actively looking for a wife. This horn has been gradually but surely replaced by the more common signal of the modern age, the social media status or “story” as it is known on Instagram nowadays.

The Homecoming of the “Honk”

The first time that the horn was used in vehicles was with the introduction of the bicycle bell, which served as the inspiration for its younger and louder brother, the car horn. The patent for the first bicycle bell was established in the year 1887 and it belonged to an individual named John Richard Dedicoat. Mr. Dedicoat of Britain was an apprentice of a popular inventor at the time, James Watt, who is credited with the discovery of several gadgets such as an advanced version of the steam engine and the pencil sharpener. From the bicycle bells comes the inspiration for car and train whistles, which until that point were dependent upon the ability of the drivers to use a tin trumpet to signal their presence amongst unwary pedestrians who were still not used to the fact that steel machines roamed the lands. After one too many accidents, horse-drawn carriages were fitted with bells while trains were fitted with steam whistles. The same bells used for horse carriages were repurposed in a larger and more robust form for motor vehicles and by the 1890s.

An old bulb horn that was blown with the hand
An old bulb horn that was blown with the hand

Fact File: Did you know that in the beginning when bells and trumpets were used on horse carriages or other vehicles of the time, it was considered polite to use these auditory signals as they helped avoid mishap?

The Ancestral Line of the Modern Honk

As the 20th century overtook the previous aeons on the time-space highway, it signaled its arrival through the various flavors of horns that had been invented during this age. From air horns that blasted sonic beams out of apparent nothingness, to squeeze bulb horns that simultaneously worked as a wonderful workout tool for your wrist and arms, the variety of sounds grew widely during this time. It was almost as if horns had become fashionable, which in many cases mirrors how trends grow and proliferate in the digital age.

“What starts as a necessity often becomes an accessory in the long run” – the wise voice in my head that only I can hear

It was during this time that Miller Reese Hutchinson built the first electric horn and thereby, paved the way for the modern horn to emerge and spread its cacophony throughout the roadways of automobile development.

Fact File: Miller Reese Hutchinson was an extremely innovation-driven individual who developed many electric devices, including the vehicle horn and ironically a hearing aid as well! Moreover, Hutchinson later became one of the chief engineers at the laboratory owned by Thomas Alva Edison in West Orange, New Jersey.

The most prominent and renowned horn in the history of honking was developed during this time, the Klaxon. Its signature Ahooga sound became synonymous with the Ford Model T, which also happens to be one of the most popular automobiles of the time. The Ahooga or Awooga sound was born due to the electric mechanism underlying this aural innovation, whereby the speeding up and slowing down of an electric motor-driven rotating wheel is converted to sound through a spring steel diaphragm. When the rotating wheel increases in speed, the Ahoo or Awoo sound is produced, while the slowing down of the wheel produces the ending note of gah.

Old horns throughout history
Old horns throughout history

The Modern Honk

Since the development of electric horns such as the Klaxon, the evolution of the “honk” has involved an enhancement of the underlying mechanisms of early prototypes. Over years and years of perfecting the design of the traditional electric horn, the modern horn and its quintessential sound were born. The Ahooga was eventually replaced by a chord-like note, specifically designed to ensure that it can cut through the other myriad noises in traffic. The design of the primitive electric horns was also made more sustainable, enabling them to work with a mere fraction of the electric power that traditional prototypes required and reducing the overall electromagnetic interference they faced.  

Reducing interference within to maximize interference without!” – the sarcastic voice in my head that sometimes others can hear as well

Hence, for centuries if not millennia, the horn became what it is now, a blaring sound that pervades all urban soundscapes today, relentless in its mostly meaningless uproar. From barbarians to polite Victorians and now to the barbaric world of cut-throat capitalistic competition, the horn has changed in context several times. However, no matter what type of civilization utilizes it or no matter how many hands it passes through, there is no doubt that the horn is now an indelible part of our everyday lives, always asserting its presence like an angry spirit wailing its discontent through the ages!  


The Mysteries of Indian Roads – Origins of the Phrase “Horn OK Please”

If you have travelled in India your experiences will be as diverse as it gets owing to the sheer variety that this enigmatic land has to offer. However, almost every single individual who has set forth to explore India has one thing in common – they (we) have all come across a linguistic mystery like no other. The reference here is to the phrase “Horn OK Please” that seems to adorn the highly artistic and ornamental back-sides/rears of trucks in India. By now, you have defined some sort of a reason or intent or meaning behind the phrase. But do you know what it means and why truckers put so much effort into making it look as aesthetically pleasing as possible?

Here’s what we found when we decided to explore this riddle of the Indian roads:

A Historical Necessity

The OK in the phrase “Horn OK Please” is the true source of the enigma, especially since it does not fit grammatically into the phrase. The theory behind the use of the phrase “OK” dates back to the Second World War when trucks utilized kerosene as a fuel source due to the shortage of diesel during this time. The theory is that this phrase was intended to warn drivers to keep their distance to ensure that safe distance was maintained, especially owing to the highly inflammable liquid in the bowels of the truck.

A Medium of Communication

Another interesting theory is that there once used to be a light bulb on top of the OK which was used as a signalling device. During the times when most highways in India consisted of one lane, the phrase advised drivers behind trucks to honk to initiate a very simple conversation – “is it safe to overtake?” If there was no oncoming traffic, the trucker would switch on the light above “OK”, telling the driver that it was “okay” to overtake as there was no chance of them blindly plunging into headlong traffic. Over time, due to the lack of maintenance put into the lights, they became used lesser and lesser. Once multi-lane highways showed up, the light lost its used completely but somehow, the phrase remained, possibly due to its aesthetic and artistic appeal.

Fact File: In an attempt to decrease the noise pollution caused by honking, the Maharashtra government tried banning the phrase “Horn OK Please” to discourage drivers. Soon, the phrase was replaced by statements like “Maa ka Ashirvad” and “Buri Nazar Waale Teraa Muh Kaala”. However, most truckers still prefer the original phrase to any of its offshoots.

A Safety Measure

The statement was also used as a means to indicate whether the driver behind the truck was at a safe distance from it. The theory states that the phrase is often designed and artistically drawn in such a way that the OK is visible and legible only from a distance. If the driver gets too close, the OK intermingles with the rest of the design and is no longer visible. However, this theory seems dubious or has been neglected over the years as OK is mostly visible even at an unsafe close distance nowadays. At the same time, the phrase might also indicate that the driver behind the trucker honk to signal their presence, thereby establishing the fact that “hey, I’m behind you, just thought you should know that”. Either way, the phrase, according to this theory, indicates that the driver either maintain a safe distance or signal using their horn that they are around.

Fact File: There is a dubious claim that the phrase was born out of a marketing campaign by a subsidiary of Tata Oil Mills which had released a bathing soap by the name “OK”. It is claimed that the company decided to use trucks as moving billboards for subliminal marketing.


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