Describe a horn


New Member
Aug 20, 2021

One of my main characters has visions of the future while she is sleeping. The story is set in the past when cars were not yet invented. She sees cars for the first time in her dreams. How would someone who has never seen a vehicle describe it? And how would you describe the horn?

Thank you.
Since horns are supposed to sound like the same noise you get when you blow through hollow animal horns, I don't think it is really a problem to call them horns. A traffic jam would sound like a very disorganised battlefield in which no one could understand the field signals because there were too many bugles sounding at the same time, but no drums (unless there were cars with their windows wound down playing bass music.)

To complete this battlefield theme, then the cars could be very slow moving pack animals, like horses, donkeys, elephants, and camels, but alien. While convertibles have people sitting on their backs, other cars and vans appear to have people sitting inside them. And the burning smell of so many exhausts like burning dung! This is a weird disturbing dream!
I think they'd be struck by all the varied colours, the shininess, the speed. Not to mention how good the road surface is, the much lower levels of animal poo on the road, ditto mud, and how well organised it is. Victorian traffic in London was a seething free-for-all. The concept of road traffic that obeys rules (mostly) and is in neat, orderly lines, would be startling.

How would you describe the sound of a motor is I think a more important question - because motors wouldn't be something heard before. And speaking as a re-enactor, the word "engine" in the medieval period referred to siege engines, not what we'd call engines.

In terms of describing a motor noise, might say "as regular as a water mill".
How would someone who has never seen a vehicle describe it?
Maybe what's more important is how would your character describe it? I don't know how far in the past or where in the world this is set, but two people from that time period might notice different things depending on their personality and back ground. What experience in her life would shape her understanding of what she sees? What is her emotional reaction? Fear intrigue? Is she religious? Maybe she sees them as devine or evil. A motor might sound like distant thunder or a stampede. Car might look like beetles or maybe she'll fish? I don't know--it all depends on the character's view point.
The roads were filled with horseless chariots/wagons, some roaring like lions*, some honking like a flock of geese, all trundling along with a sound like the rumbling of thunder, belching smoke

Probably too many similes, but you get the idea

* other ferocious animals are available
For the car just describe the various characteristics in a slightly disconnect way; the character will not these, but not have a model to make them all fit together in his or her head. The object moves fast. It produces a low rumbling. It produces an oily, burning smell. It has glowing lights in the front and back. It is the size of some object that the character is familiar with. It is colored and quite shiny. There are glass windows all around the top half.

For the horn, the character will probably be unable to determine where the sound originated; he or she may eventually surmise that it must have come from the strange object he or she observed. The sound would be a short burst, loud and dissonant. If it is a long honk, then it would get louder as the vehicle approaches and then drop off as the vehicle passes.

This can be a fun little section in the story where the reader is given enough clues to figure out what the object might be without it being explicitly named. It is better to err on the side of over describing than to risk under describing. Have fun with this!
A vision to me suggest more a visual experience than anything else. If you character is able to hear, smell and taste as well as see things, I would think that a car horn would probably be fairly low down on the list of things they may comment on.

Also , do people even sound their horns these days? If they do, it is only rarely and in (usually) extreme circumstances.

I suppose you could compare the sound of a horn to the blast of a trumpet, as they aren't entirely dissimilar. But depending on where and what is being seen in the vision, there are other things that may attract the person's attention.

And of course good luck with your story.
But depending on where and what is being seen in the vision
Good point. Are we talking the dawn of cars? In which case definitely horseless carriages and a manually operated bugle

Or 1920s New York traffic


Or all the way to a Tesla on the open road
I saw monsters with shiny hides gliding over long stretches of smooth, blackened earth, while growing with a deep rumble and a screeching where their weir looking paws touched the surface. Its speed was frightening and unworldly, no living being could run that fast. Occasionally they made sounds like a trumpeting elephant, though they were nothing like those mighty lumbering beasts. Their eyes shone with a blinding light, but most frighteningly were the eyes at the back of their bodies, shining a menacing red.
If the character's society already has metal and blacksmiths, carriages and wheels, then the appearance of the car wouldn't be too shocking. I think what would capture their attention the most would be how it moved. If they are used to animals powering carts and carriages, seeing a car move on its own would look impossible, magical. There would be a sense of wonder attached to the vision.
On the other hand, in 1907, a group calling itself the Farmers’ Anti-Automobile Society of Pennsylvania proposed the following not-so-subtle additions to state law (emphasis added):

1. Automobiles traveling on country roads at night must send up a rocket every mile, then wait ten minutes for the road to clear. The driver may then proceed, with caution, blowing his horn and shooting off Roman candles, as before.
2. If the driver of an automobile sees a team of horses approaching, he is to stop, pulling over to one side of the road, and cover his machine with a blanket or dust cover which is painted or colored to blend into the scenery, and thus render the machine less noticeable.
3. In case a horse is unwilling to pass an automobile on the road, the driver of the car must take the machine apart as rapidly as possible and conceal the parts in the bushes.