Saying It Like It Sounds — Onomatopoeia

Language is actually quite a neat little concept, how it can be simplified to the expression of ideas, concepts, experiences and memories by the utterance of sounds that make sense to people who speak the same tongue. Sociology, human interactions with other humans and the environment, and the time-attested evolution could all impact a language’s course and structure. With it, comes new words to express things and sounds and abstract ideas. While some have their own derivations, others may just use whatever the thing sounds like and run with them. Welcome to the world of onomatopoeia, where words are pretty much like what they sound like.

Formally speaking, onomatopoeia is a process where words are created based on phonetic imitation, resemblance or suggestion of the sound the word describes. The end product is a word, which is also referred to as an onomatopoeia. Somehow, this term is derived from Greek roots, literally translating as “name-making”, or “word-making” as it makes its way into late Latin, and later, into English and other languages.

From animal, machine and human sounds to sounds made by various actions such as punching, breaking and popping, onomatopoeia has found its way deep into human languages, often showing up in certain words, and comic strips and books, where you would find “bam”, “pow”, “wham” and “whack” representing sounds when a character is punching, or hitting another character with their arms or a stick.

In the field of linguistics, there are several aspects in which onomatopoeia can be analysed. First, comes the field of sound symbolism. This stems from the idea that a key component of language is the arbitrariness and what a word can represent, since words are essentially sounds created by humans with an attached meaning to those respective sounds. Onomatopoeia are connected by their imitation of other objects or sounds in nature, but more often than not, the mimicry of the sound. By symbolising an idea in a phonological context, one that is produced by humans, there would be some symbolic properties attached, even when it does not quite carry a direct meaningful word. In phonetics, onomatopoeia can be limited by the possible sounds in a speaker’s language, which could be a reason why there can be a huge number of distinct, different onomatopoeia for the same natural sound. For example, the onomatopoeia for drinking actions can range from “zurrut” in Basque to “glouglouglou” in French.

However, different languages have different sizes of onomatopoeia inventories. Japanese is known to have a much higher amount of symbolism related to the sounds of the language compared to languages like English. Linguists argue that this stems from the language’s connection to a sound’s meaning, or symbolic representation. With four main categories of Japanese sound-symbolic words, expressing sounds from animate and inanimate objects to even psychological states, the symbolic representation of each word may be way larger than one would expect. The world of Japanese sound symbolism is actually quite a fascinating one possibly due to the presence of phenomimetic and psychomimetic words, words to describe states, conditions, or manners of the external world, as well as psychological states and bodily feelings. Albanian is also known for its onomatopoeia too, as animals and objects often have been named after the sounds they produce respectively. The ashtray (take-tuke), named after the sound made when placed on a table, rain (shi), mimicking the sound of pouring rain, and slippers (shapka), imitating the sound of the shuffling made when walking with slippers, are all notable examples.

Seeing how the process of forming onomatopoeia works, it has lead to some linguists postulating the evolution of language, and how language might be acquired in its early stages. The idea that the first languages were derived from natural sounds stemmed as far back as ancient Greek philosophy, who thought that onomatopoetic words served as evidence for nature in language. This idea is still held on to by some linguists today.

Early on in our lives, our exposure to sounds, communication and objects activates our instinct to mimic these sounds we hear, natural or not. This may involve sound symbolism, as we learn to acquire language from the people around us, as well as the environment. However, studies examining the native language acquisition period, where infants pick up their first language from parents, people and environment around them, did not produce conclusive results when infants’ reaction to different kinds of onomatopoeia were assessed. All these aspects prompt ideas, further studies and assessments for linguists to understand how such onomatopoeia finds their way into the languages we speak.

Even though the use of onomatopoeia in our languages is indeed extensive, there are notable “mythbusting” that must be done to sort of, clear up some misconceptions about onomatopoetic words in certain languages. Welsh, for instance, is often known for its use of “popty ping” to refer to a microwave oven, due to the “ping” sound when the microwave timer runs out. It is more of a colloquial thing, as the actual term is “ffwrn meicrodon”, the literal translation of “microwave oven”. However, the term “popty ping” stuck on, not just because of the onomatopoetic characteristic, it is also embraced by some Welsh speakers who appreciate the humour behind the creation of such a term, although some would revile it, saying it makes fun of the Welsh language. Other terms for the word include “microdon”, “ffwrn fflach” and “popdy sydyn, depending on the region of Wales.

Another myth one would find about Welsh is the wibbly-wobbly fish, that is, “psygod wibli-wobli”, the so-called term for jellyfish. Yet possibly another stab at making fun of the Welsh language, several mythbusting searches reveal that the official Welsh term for jellyfish is “cont y môr”, or  “sglefren fôr”. These terms do not ring as much of an onomatopoetic bell as the comedic versions, but their counterparts have found themselves rather popularised due to the ring, and possibly more so, the stereotypical humour that is often carried with them.

To conclude this short post on onomatopoeia, this class of words is quite literally, saying, or referring to things as they sound. Catching the attention of linguists, these words have been thought of as possible ways of early language acquisition, finding its way into other neurolinguistic studies like those in sound symbolism. Belonging to a larger class of words known as ideophones, some languages sort of took this concept and ran with it, such as some Japanese mimetic words. Overall, the presence of onomatopoeia has certainly opened up a nice aspect of research and exploration in the field of linguistics.


I recall using onomatopoeia before realising the actual term for the said words, even until today. One fond example is the metal tongs we use in every barbecue party, where I would very often use the words “kiap-kiap” to refer to them, because of the sound they make when you use it. With this, I am interested to know, if you have created your own onomatopoeia to refer to things before you learned the actual words for them. Let me know in the comments!

This will be the last post on The Language Closet in 2020, and our next one will be scheduled for 2 January 2021. In the meantime, I wish you all a very happy holiday season, a merry Christmas, happy Kwanza, or any festivities you observe in this period.

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