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.
Ticchettio — The sound of a clock ticking
Carcajada — A guffaw or loud laugh
Kladderadatsch — The sound of a large object crashing to the ground (aka a big scandal)
шныряет (shnyryayet) — Digging around for something
ドキドキ (doki doki) — The sound of a heart thumping
Ron pshi — Snoring
Svisch — The sound of wind blowing
칙칙폭폭 (chikchik-pokpok) – The sound of a train
Tatibitate — A stutterer or fool