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A sign in a shop window in Italy proclaims "No Tic Tac", in imitation of the sound of a clock.

An onomatopoeia ("/ˌɒnəˌmætəˈpə, -ˌmɑː-/ (""About this sound listen);[1][2] from the "Greek ὀνοματοποιία;[3] ὄνομα for "name"[4] and ποιέω for "I make",[5] "adjectival form: "onomatopoeic" or "onomatopoetic") is a word that "phonetically imitates, resembles or suggests the sound that it describes. As an "uncountable noun, onomatopoeia refers to the property of such words. Common occurrences of onomatopoeia include animal noises such as "oink", "miaow" (or "meow"), "roar" and "chirp". Onomatopoeia can differ between languages: it conforms to some extent to the broader "linguistic system;[6][7] hence the sound of a clock may be expressed as tick tock in "English, dī dā in "Mandarin, or katchin katchin in "Japanese, or "tik-tik" (टिक-टिक) in "Hindi.

Although in the English language the term onomatopoeia means "the imitation of a sound", the compound word onomatopoeia (ὀνοματοποιία) in the Greek language means "making or creating names". For words that imitate sounds, the term ὴχομιμητικό (echomimetico) or "echomimetic) is used. ὴχομιμητικό (echomimetico) derives from ὴχώ, meaning echo or sound, and μιμητικό, meaning mimetic or imitation.



A bang flag gun, a humouristic "novelty item

In the case of a "frog croaking, the spelling may vary because different frog species around the world make different sounds: "Ancient Greek brekekekex koax koax (only in Aristophanes' comic play The Frogs) probably for "marsh frogs; English ribbit for species of frog found in North America; English verb croak for the "common frog.[8]

Some other very common English-language examples are hiccup, zoom, bang, beep, moo, and splash. "Machines and their sounds are also often described with onomatopoeia: honk or beep-beep for the horn of an automobile, and vroom or brum for the engine. In speaking of a mishap involving an audible "arcing of electricity, the word "zap" is often used (and its use has been extended to describe non-auditory effects generally connoting the same sort of localized but thorough["clarification needed] interference or destruction similar to that produced in short-circuit sparking).

Human sounds sometimes provide instances of onomatopoeia, as when mwah is used to represent a kiss.[9]

For animal sounds, words like "quack ("duck), moo (cow), "bark or woof (dog), "roar ("lion), "meow/"miaow or "purr (cat), cluck ("chicken) and baa (sheep) are typically used in English (both as nouns and as verbs).

Some languages flexibly integrate onomatopoeic words into their structure. This may evolve into a new word, up to the point that it is no longer recognized as onomatopoeia. One example is English "bleat" for the sheep noise: in "medieval times it was pronounced approximately as "blairt" (but without an R-component), or "blet" with the vowel drawled, which more closely resembles a sheep noise than the modern pronunciation.

An example of the opposite case is ""cuckoo", which, due to continuous familiarity with the bird noise down the centuries, has kept approximately the same pronunciation as in "Anglo-Saxon times and its vowels have not changed as they have in the word furrow.

"Verba dicendi ("words of saying") are a method of integrating onomatopoeia and "ideophones into grammar.

Sometimes things are named from the sounds they make. In English, for example, there is the universal fastener which is named for the sound it makes: the "zip (in the UK) or "zipper (in the U.S.) Many birds are named after their calls, such as the "bobwhite quail, the "weero, the "morepork, the "killdeer, "chickadees and "jays, the "cuckoo, the "chiffchaff, the "whooping crane, the "whip-poor-will, and the "kookaburra. In "Tamil and "Malayalam, the word for "crow is kaakaa. This practice is especially common in certain languages such as "Māori, and so in names of animals borrowed from these languages.

Cross-cultural differences[edit]

Although a particular sound is heard similarly by people of different cultures, it is often expressed through the use of different consonant strings in different languages. For example, the snip of a pair of scissors is cri-cri in Italian, riqui-riqui in Spanish, terre-terre or treque-treque in Portuguese, krits-krits in modern Greek and katr-katr in Hindi.[10] Similarly, the "honk" of a car's horn is ba-ba ("Han: 叭叭) in "Mandarin, tut-tut in "French, pu-pu in "Japanese, bbang-bbang in "Korean, bært-bært in "Norwegian, fom-fom in Portuguese and bim-bim in "Vietnamese.

Onomatopoeic effect without onomatopoeia words[edit]

Onomatopoeic effect can also be produced in a phrase or word string with the help of "alliteration and "consonance alone, without using any onomatopoeic words. The most famous example is the phrase "furrow followed free" in "Samuel Taylor Coleridge's "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. The words "followed" and "free" are not onomatopoeic in themselves, but in conjunction with "furrow" they reproduce the sound of ripples following in the wake of a speeding ship. Similarly, alliteration has been used in the line "as the surf surged up the sun swept shore...", to recreate the sound of breaking waves, in the poem "I, She and the Sea".

Comics and advertising[edit]

A sound effect of breaking a door

"Comic strips and "comic books make extensive use of onomatopoeia. Popular culture historian Tim DeForest noted the impact of writer-artist "Roy Crane (1901–1977), the creator of "Captain Easy and "Buz Sawyer:

It was Crane who pioneered the use of onomatopoeic sound effects in comics, adding "bam," "pow" and "wham" to what had previously been an almost entirely visual vocabulary. Crane had fun with this, tossing in an occasional "ker-splash" or "lickety-wop" along with what would become the more standard effects. Words as well as images became vehicles for carrying along his increasingly fast-paced storylines.[11]

In 2002, "DC Comics introduced a villain named "Onomatopoeia, an athlete, martial artist and weapons expert who often speaks sounds.

"Advertising uses onomatopoeia as a "mnemonic, so that consumers will remember their products, as in "Alka-Seltzer's "Plop, plop, fizz, fizz. Oh, what a relief it is!" jingle, recorded in two different versions (big band and rock) by "Sammy Davis, Jr.

"Rice Krispies (US and UK) and "Rice Bubbles (AU)["clarification needed] make a "snap, crackle, pop" when one pours on milk. During the 1930s, the illustrator "Vernon Grant developed "Snap, Crackle and Pop as gnome-like mascots for the "Kellogg Company.

Sounds appear in road safety advertisements: "clunk click, every trip" (click the seatbelt on after clunking the car door closed; UK campaign) or "click, clack, front and back" (click, clack of connecting the seatbelts; AU campaign) or "click it or ticket" (click of the connecting seatbelt, with the implied penalty of a traffic ticket for not using a seatbelt; US DOT (Department of Transportation) campaign).

The sound of the container opening and closing gives "Tic Tac its name.

Manner imitation[edit]

In many of the world's languages, onomatopoeia-like words are used to describe phenomena beyond the purely auditive. Japanese often uses such words to describe feelings or figurative expressions about objects or concepts. For instance, Japanese barabara is used to reflect an object's state of disarray or separation, and shiiin is the onomatopoetic form of absolute silence (used at the time an English speaker might expect to hear the sound of "crickets chirping or a pin dropping in a silent room, or someone coughing). It is used in "English as well with terms like "bling, which describes the glinting of light on things like gold, chrome or precious stones. In Japanese, kirakira is used for glittery things.

Examples in media[edit]

Cross-linguistic examples[edit]

In linguistics[edit]

A key component of language is its arbitrariness and what a word can represent["clarification needed], as a word is a sound created by humans with attached meaning to said sound.[14] No one can determine the meaning of a word purely by how it sounds. However, in onomatopoeic words these sounds are much less arbitrary; they are connected in their imitation of other objects or sounds in nature. Vocal sounds in the imitation of natural sounds doesn't necessarily gain meaning, but can gain symbolic meaning.["clarification needed][15] An example of this "sound symbolism in the English language is the use of words starting with sn-. Some of these words symbolize concepts related to the nose (sneeze, snot, snore). This does not mean that all words with that sound relate to the nose, but at some level we recognize a sort of symbolism associated with the sound itself. Onomatopoeia, while a facet of language, is also in a sense outside of the confines of language.[16]

In linguistics, onomatopoeia is described as the connection, or symbolism, of a sound that is interpreted and reproduced within the context of a language, usually out of mimicry of a sound.[17] It is a figure of speech, in a sense. Considered a vague term on its own, there are a few varying defining factors in classifying onomatopoeia. In one manner, it is defined simply as the imitation of some kind of non-vocal sound using the vocal sounds of a language, like the hum of a bee being imitated with a “buzz” sound. In another sense, it is described as the phenomena of making a new word entirely.

Onomatopoeia work in the sense of symbolizing an idea in a phonological context, not necessarily constituting a direct meaningful word in the process.[18] The symbolic properties of a sound in a word, or a "phoneme, is related to a sound in an environment, and are restricted in part by a language's own phonetic inventory, hence why many languages can have distinct onomatopoeia for the same natural sound. Depending on a language’s connection to a sound's meaning, that language’s onomatopoeia inventory can differ proportionally. For example, a language like English generally holds little symbolic representation when it comes to sounds, hence why English tends to have a smaller representation of sound mimicry then a language like Japanese, which overall has a much higher amount of symbolism related to the sounds of the language.

The evolution of language[edit]

In ancient Greek philosophy, onomatopoeia was used as evidence for how natural a language was: it was theorized that language itself was derived from natural sounds in the world around us; symbolism in sounds was seen as deriving from this.[19] Some linguists hold that onomatopoeia may have been the first form of human language.[16]

In the development of a language, sounds that are associated with natural objects then go on to form words with related meanings.[15] For example, gl- at the beginning of an English word can denote something that is shining or iridescent (e.g. glitter, glisten, gleam).["dubious ]

Role in early language acquisition[edit]

When first exposed to sound and communication, humans are biologically inclined to mimic the sounds they hear, whether they are actual pieces of language or other natural sounds.[20] This early on in development, an infant will vary his/her utterances between sounds that are well established within the phonetic range of the language(s) most heavily spoken in their environment, which may be called "tame" onomatopoeia, and the full range of sounds that the vocal tract can produce, or "wild" onomatopoeia.[18] As one begins to acquire one's first language, the proportion of "wild" onomatopoeia reduces in favor of sounds which are congruent with those of the language they are acquiring.

During the native language acquisition period, it has been documented that infants may react strongly to the more wild speech features to which they are exposed, compared to more tame and familiar speech features. But the results of such tests are inconclusive, and can vary with factors of language["clarification needed] and between individual infants.

In the context of language acquisition, sound symbolism has been shown to play an important role.[15] The association of foreign words to subjects and how they relate to general objects, such as the association of the words takete and baluma["are these arbitrary nonsense words which are used in tests?] with either a round or angular shape["clarification needed], has been tested to see how languages symbolize sounds.["clarification needed]

In other languages[edit]


Onomatopoeia, or giongo in Japanese, is common in the Japanese language, from day to day conversation to serious news.[21] In general, onomatopoeia in Japanese can be categorized into three types:

Japanese also uses a system of sound symbolic words called mimetics. Though not entirely different from onomatopoeia, words that are mimetic are generally distinguished from onomatopoeia. Mimetic, or gitaigo in Japanese, words are a phonological representation of some kind of state of being, or something that doesn't exactly make sound.["clarification needed]

Sometimes Japanese onomatopoeia produces reduplicated words.[19]


There is a documented correlation within the Malay language of onomatopoeia that begin with the sound bu- and the implication of something that is rounded. As well as with the sound of -lok within a word conveying curvature in such words like lok, kelok and telok (locomotive, cove and curve respectively).[22]


Within the Qur'an, written in Arabic, instances of onomatopoeia are documented.[16] Out of about 77,701 words, there are 9 words that are onomatopoeic, 3 which are animal sounds (e.g. mooing), 2 which are sounds of nature (e.g. thunder) and 4 that are human sounds (e.g. whisper or groan).

See also[edit]



  1. ^ Wells, John C. (2008), Longman Pronunciation Dictionary (3rd ed.), Longman, "ISBN "978-1-4058-8118-0 
  2. ^ Roach, Peter (2011), Cambridge English Pronouncing Dictionary (18th ed.), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, "ISBN "978-0-521-15253-2 
  3. ^ ὀνοματοποιία, Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon, on Perseus
  4. ^ ὄνομα, Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon, on Perseus
  5. ^ ποιέω, Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon, on Perseus
  6. ^ Onomatopoeia as a Figure and a Linguistic Principle, Hugh Bredin, The Johns Hopkins University, Retrieved November 14, 2013
  7. ^ Definition of Onomatopoeia, Retrieved November 14, 2013
  8. ^ Basic Reading of Sound Words-Onomatopoeia, Yale University, retrieved October 11, 2013 
  9. ^ English Oxford Living Dictionaries
  10. ^ Earl Anderson, A Grammar of Iconism, Fairleigh Dickinson, 1999
  11. ^ DeForest, Tim (2004). Storytelling in the Pulps, Comics, and Radio: How Technology Changed Popular Fiction in America. McFarland. 
  12. ^ James Joyce (1982). Ulysses. Editions Artisan Devereaux. pp. 434–. "ISBN "978-1-936694-38-9. ...I was just beginning to yawn with nerves thinking he was trying to make a fool of me when I knew his tattarrattat at the door he must ... 
  13. ^ O.A. Booty (1 January 2002). Funny Side of English. Pustak Mahal. pp. 203–. "ISBN "978-81-223-0799-3. The longest palindromic word in English has 12 letters: tattarrattat. This word, appearing in the Oxford English Dictionary, was invented by James Joyce and used in his book Ulysses (1922), and is an imitation of the sound of someone ... 
  14. ^ Assaneo, María Florencia; Nichols, Juan Ignacio; Trevisan, Marcos Alberto (2011-01-01). "The anatomy of onomatopoeia". PLoS One. 6 (12): e28317. "doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0028317. "ISSN 1932-6203. "PMC 3237459Freely accessible. "PMID 22194825. 
  15. ^ a b c RHODES, R (1994). "Aural Images". In J. Ohala, L. Hinton & J. Nichols (eds.) Sound Symbolism. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. 
  16. ^ a b c "The Study of Onomatopoeia in the Muslims' Holy Write: Qur'an: OneSearch for Articles, Books, and More". Retrieved 2017-02-27. 
  17. ^ Bredin, Hugh (1996-08-01). "Onomatopoeia as a Figure and a Linguistic Principle". New Literary History. 27 (3): 555–569. "doi:10.1353/nlh.1996.0031. "ISSN 1080-661X. 
  18. ^ a b Laing, C. E. (2014-09-15). "A phonological analysis of onomatopoeia in early word production". First Language. "doi:10.1177/0142723714550110. 
  19. ^ a b Osaka, Naoyuki (1990). "Multidimensional Analysis of Onomatopoeia -A note to make sensory scale from word" (PDF). Studia phonologica: 25–33 – via Kyoto University Research Information Repository. 
  20. ^ Assaneo, María Florencia; Nichols, Juan Ignacio; Trevisan, Marcos Alberto (2011-12-14). "The Anatomy of Onomatopoeia". PLoS ONE. 6 (12): e28317. "doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0028317. "ISSN 1932-6203. "PMC 3237459Freely accessible. "PMID 22194825. 
  21. ^ INOSE, HIROKO. "Translating Japanese Onomatopoeia and Mimetic Words." N.p., n.d. Web.
  22. ^ WILKINSON, R. J. (1936-01-01). "ONOMATOPOEIA IN MALAY". Journal of the Malayan Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society. 14 (3 (126)): 72–88. "JSTOR 41559855. 

General references[edit]

External links[edit]

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