Onomatopoeia is defined as a word that imitates the natural sounds of a thing, creating a sound effect that mimics the thing described, making the description more expressive and interesting. It certainly livens up the way we communicate — what could be more vivid, expressive and colorful!
Often the words come in combinations, reflecting, as they do, different sounds for a single object. If we look at the sounds of water there’s plop, splash, gush, drizzle and so on. And likewise, with all matters windy, we tend to identify with swish, whiff, whoosh and whisper.
Rural British dialects love identifying action and sound through semi-onomatopoeic phrases, particularly with jolly, affectionate and inventive phrases known in the linguistics community as reduplicative rhyming compounds. These are made self-explanatory by the following examples: hockerty-cockerty (Scottish) meaning with one leg on each shoulder; fidge-fadge (Yorkshire) meaning a motion between walking and trotting; and boris-noris (Dorset) meaning careless, reckless or happy-go-lucky.
For the sound of human voices, English proper provides us with words such as growl, giggle, grunt, blurt and chatter. But for the amazing kingdom of animals the range is naturally wider and more graphic with the well-known moo, neigh, oink and baa. Similarly, in Albanian, Danish, Hebrew and Polish, bees make a buzzing sound, and cats meow. However, only English speakers, it seems, think that a rooster says cock-a-doodle-doo. So not everyone agrees about the birds and the bees!
It is surely obvious that with the more exotic and broader range from abroad things get a bit more singular and descriptive. I love the fact that frogs in Afrikaans go kwaak-kwaak and say korekorekore in the Munduruku tribe of Brazil, while in the Spanish dialect of Argentina they simply go berp.
In its more complicated use, onomatopoeia takes the form of phanopoeia. This describes the sense of things as opposed to their natural sounds. D. H. Lawrence, in his poem “Snake” uses this form, and with rhythm, length and the use of hissing sounds, he creates a picture of a snake in the minds of the readers:
“He reached down from a fissure in the earth-wall in the gloom/ and trailed his yellow-brown slackness soft-bellied down, over the edge of the stone trough/ and rested his throat upon the stone bottom/ and where the water had dripped from the tap, in a small clearness/ he sipped with his straight mouth …”
Around the world, it is true that local experience shapes local language. The Tulu people of India, for example, have a fine array of evocative, specific words to do with water: gulugulu is filling a pitcher with water, caracara refers to spurting water from a pump and budubudu means bubbling, gushing water.
In Indonesian, sounds are vividly portrayed: kring is the sound of a bicycle bell; dentang refers to cans being hit repeatedly; reat-reot is the squeaking of a door; ning-nong is the ringing of a doorbell; and jedar-jedor is a door banging repeatedly.
The Basques of the Pyrenees also use highly expressive words. Recognizable perhaps are such terms as kuku (a cuckoo); mu (moo); durrunda (thunder), zurrumurru (a whisper) and urtzintz (to sneeze). There is Maltese with raxxax (to drizzle), taptap (to patter) and capcap (to clap).
But it’s the Japanese who take things a step further. Of course they too have rhythmic words to denote sounds — such as shikushiku, to cry continuously while sniffling, and zeizei, the sound of air being forced through the windpipe when one has a cold or respiratory illness.
But what’s special is that they have the singular concept of gitatigo. These are words that try to imitate not just sounds but states of feeling, so gatcha gatcha describes an annoying noise; harahara refers to one’s reaction to something one is directly involved in; and, better still, ichaicha is used of a couple engaging in a public display of affection viewed as unsavoury by passers-by.
While every language has onomatopoeic words, some thankfully keep diversity alive and articulate sentiments and scenarios not expressed by the might of the English dictionary with examples such as lushindo (Bemba, Congo and Zambia) meaning the sound of footsteps; Chinese yuyin, the remnants of a sound that remains in the ears of the hearer and, my favorite, Turkish zonk zonk, to throb terribly.