Onomatopoeias in Different Languages: Cock-a-doodle-doo or Chicchirichì?

We use them every day and sometimes they can facilitate communication among speakers of different languages: we’re not talking about gestures (although, if you want to find out more about that, you can click here!), but rather about another linguistic device known as onomatopoeia. This word – which, let’s be honest, everyone has struggled to spell at least once in their lives! – comes from Ancient Greek and is made up of two words: “ὄνομα” (noun/name) and “ποιέω” (to make). So this word literally means “to create names”.

 

Onomatopoeias are essentially sounds expressed in a written form (think slurp in a comic book) and, looking at its etymology, the word onomatopoeia itself definitely sounds like a very fitting denomination, especially when we take into account how different and hence arbitrary onomatopoeias look in different languages. The truth is that the reason behind these differences is much more related to the nature of each language and the range of sounds they have available than it is arbitrary. Of course dogs barking sound the same wherever in the world they may be barking, even though their size may imply slight variations (more on that later!), but languages process that same sound in different ways due to the nature of their phonetics, which may prefer certain consonants or vowels to describe a specific sound.

 

Even so, some onomatopoeias can actually be very obscure if compared with their equivalent in other languages. This is why there has always been a rather heated debate in the world of linguistics as to whether onomatopoeias are indeed the result of arbitrary word-crafting or instead the product of a rational process. Regardless of their origins, onomatopoeias are certainly a very fascinating linguistic device and they often help us get across the message more than other words can do. Read on for a list of our top five favourite onomatopoeias and their equivalent in other languages!

 

Woof woof

Among the various types of onomatopoeias that exist, animal sounds is one of the most common. Take a dog barking, for instance. In English, the sound it makes will be something like “woof woof”, but how does that become “guau guau” (gwow gwow) in Spanish?

If you found that baffling, did you know that in some languages the onomatopoeia actually changes depending on the size of the dog? In Russian, “гав-гав” (gaf-gaf) is a fairly generic one that can be used for any dog, while “тяф-тяф” (tyaf-tyaf) is only used for small ones! A bit like the difference between “woof woof” and “yap yap”.

 

Bang

This one can also change considerably across languages. While a gunshot or explosion are generally written as “bang” in English and “バーンバーン” in Japanese – which transliterated would be something like “ban ban”, i.e. pretty similar to English – in French this sound is usually written as “boum” (boom).

 

Cock-a-doodle-doo

This one couldn’t not make it to the list! The English onomatopoeia for a rooster crowing is the fairly peculiar “cock-a-doodle-doo”, which some think may come from a popular nursery rhyme first recorded in the late eighteenth century.

Interestingly enough, the English onomatopoeia stands out from its equivalent in most other languages, at least in Europe, where the written form of this sound focuses on the guttural sound /k/ (written as “k” or “c” depending on the language). In Italian, for instance, this sound is written as “chicchirichì” and in Spanish as “kikiriki” (both pronounced as “keekeereekee”).

 

Nom nom

Onomatopoeias describing the sounds we make while eating and drinking are abundant, and the one for eating seems to be fairly consistent across a number of languages. The English “nom nom” is indeed “gnam gnam” in Italian and “nham nham” in Portuguese, both pronounced more or less as “nyam nyam”.

 

Knock knock

Last but not least, knocking on a door. As with many other onomatopoeias, knocking is generally rendered with two words, or better one word repeated twice: see the English “knock knock” or the German “klopf klopf” (klopf klopf).

In Arabic, though, the doubling device is… doubled! The onomatopoeia for knocking is “دق دق” (daqq daqq), and it comes from the verb “دَقَّ” (daqqa) which is itself what is known in Arabic grammar as a doubled verb – i.e. one where the last two consonants of the root are the same, hence doubled.

 

Do you know any interesting onomatopoeias in your language? We would love to find out all about them in the comments down below!

 

Photo Credit: Yayasya via iStock