The Sundry Sounds Of Onomatopoeia In Different Languages

Just about every language contains words that sound exactly like what they mean. And they’re often quite cute.
July 29, 2018
The Sundry Sounds Of Onomatopoeia In Different Languages

Boom! Or boum if you’re French, or bom if you’re Swedish, or bum if you’re Italian. That was an example of onomatopoeia in different languages, and it illustrates an interesting dilemma: if these words are merely designed to sound like the noise they’re trying to describe, then why is there so much variance across different languages?

“Boom” was perhaps not the best example of this. To really get a sense of how different cultures can conceive of the same sounds in drastically different ways, I present you with the “woof.”

In English, dogs either woof, or they bark. Russian dogs say gav gav, French ones say ouaf ouaf, Swedish ones (the yappy kind) say bjäbb bjäbb; in Spain, guau guau; in China, wang wang.

The word “onomatopoeia” has Greek and Latin roots, and it basically means “the making of a name or word.”

Truth be told, all language could, in theory, fit this definition. But onomatopoeia refers specifically to the words we use to mimic naturally occurring sounds that fall beyond the realm of human language. Animal noises are one example, as are noises made by machines and the human body.

That there’s so much variety in the way humans transliterate the same sounds does raise an interesting possibility: that the phonemes and syntactical structures of your language might limit how you perceive, or at least describe, the world around you.

However, there’s been little academic research into this topic, so the best we can do for now is raise interesting possibilities — and share entertaining examples of onomatopoeia in different languages. Here are a few fun ones.

Italian
Ticchettio — The sound of a clock ticking

Spanish
Carcajada — A guffaw or loud laugh

German
Kladderadatsch — The sound of a large object crashing to the ground (aka a big scandal)

Russian
шныряет (shnyryayet) — Digging around for something

Japanese
ドキドキ (doki doki) — The sound of a heart thumping

French
Ron pshi — Snoring

Swedish
Svisch — The sound of wind blowing

Korean
칙칙폭폭 (chikchik-pokpok) – The sound of a train 

Portuguese
Tatibitate — A stutterer or fool

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Author Headshot
Steph Koyfman
Steph is a writer, lindy hopper, and astrologer. She’s also a language enthusiast who grew up bilingual and had an early love affair with books. She has mostly proved herself as a New Yorker, and she can introduce herself in Swedish thanks to Babbel. She also speaks Russian and Spanish, but she’s a little rusty on those fronts.
Steph is a writer, lindy hopper, and astrologer. She’s also a language enthusiast who grew up bilingual and had an early love affair with books. She has mostly proved herself as a New Yorker, and she can introduce herself in Swedish thanks to Babbel. She also speaks Russian and Spanish, but she’s a little rusty on those fronts.

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