Living Language: Sounds Like

When I was much younger, onomatopoeia was one of my favourite words. I loved the fact that a word that means “words that sound like natural sounds” is itself so complicated that practically no-one could guess its meaning, let alone spelling. If I’m being honest, I had a hard time even saying the wretched thing.

But, like most children, I was a keen user of onomatopoeia: cars went vrooom; dogs went ruff ruff; water splish splash. And the joy of those words remains, even though I might nowadays aim for the sophistication of a susurrus (whistling or rustling) or tintinnabulation (ringing or tinkling).

There’s nothing overly mysterious about onomatopoeic words. For the most part they describe actual sounds, from the quack of a duck to the whoosh of deadlines flying by. Many of them are very old words: quack, like baa, moo and miaow, popped up in the Renaissance; susurrus and tintinnabulation both come from the Latin; while whoosh is newer as things only got that fast in the 19th century, and it took till the 1960s for engines to warrant a vroom.

Sometimes words become less onomatopoeic the longer they hang around: bleat used to be pronounced blet, with a long vowel, which sounds much more like the sound a sheep actually makes.

In the same way, new words pop up as the language finds a need for them; like zhuzh, the last-minute fancying up of an outfit that was introduced into the language by Queer Eye for the Straight Guy (more than a decade ago: I feel old!), or bah-bow, the tonal impersonation of a wrong answer buzzer that apparently began on an American quiz show before spreading to every teenager I know.

There’s a reason onomatopoeic words are so popular: you don’t really need to know their meaning in order to understand them. The first time you heard someone described as frumpy, the word itself gave you a sense of lumpy tiredness. Whereas the same person described as sleekit or schmick would clearly have invested in a haircut and new set of clothes, not to mention a shoe polish.

Onomatopoeia allows you to give a finer tone to the quality you are discussing than standard English. An explosion that goes pop is probably just a lid left on in the microwave, while one that goes bang is more likely to be at least errant fireworks. A boom will certainly do real damage and missiles whizzing past are definitely bad news. The sounds themselves indicate the severity of the blast.

This quality of self-explanatoriness can even work across language barriers. I had no idea what the Italian word for mosquito was, but when I saw a Roman look crossly at his arm and mutter “Zanzara!” it needed no translation app.

However, despite the fact that we’re mostly hearing the same sounds, there are some remarkable international onomatopoeic quirks. Some sounds have surprising universality. Variants on Shhh and Hahahaha commonly convey shushing or laughter in dozens of languages.

In others, we have only minor differences: the French plic ploc is in fact much better than English drip drop for a leaking tap, while the German plitsch platsch suggests you should really call the plumber sooner rather than later.

But others are wildly different. Illustrator James Chapman has a wonderful website ( where he shows how different languages represent different onomatopoeic words. One of my favourites is of cats: purr in English becomes ronron in French, nurr in Estonian, schnurr in German and goro goro in Japanese.

There are two possible explanations: either the cats have regional accents, or we’re listening to them through different sets of expectations. Now the first proposition isn’t wholly ridiculous. Songbirds are known to have regional song variants, as do whales, and some research suggests that domesticated animals take on aspects of the accents of the humans around them. I’ve patted cats around the world and there are definite cultural trends in their mannerisms.

But the Guardian’s Gary Nunn, who wrote a brilliant article on this topic titled “Why do pigs oink in English, boo boo in Japanese and nöff nöff in Swedish?” summed up the broader scientific argument with “it isn’t pigs that are multilingual, it’s us.” Apparently we hear animals and other sounds through the aural “lens” of our own language.

One fact that quickly stands out in international comparisons is the unusualness of Japanese onomatopoeia. It is the only language in which a cat’s miaow does not start with an M, rather, they say nyan nyan. Similarly, it is alone in having no Z or S sound in the word for bee noises: Japanese bees say boon boon.

It’s no casual difference. Japanese has not one, but three types of onomatopoeia: Giseigo, which are the sounds of living things; Giongo, which are the sounds of inanimate objects; and Gitaigo, which is for words that mimic qualities like businesslike or quickly. Unlike English, where this class of words is often used in a less formal manner, Japanese uses them in a wider variety of contexts and more commonly. Alas, it would require a far better grasp of linguistics (and Japanese) than mine to extrapolate from this to nyaning cats, but it is a good excuse to slip in that the gitaigo word for annoyed is mukamuka, which is clearly splendid and worth sneaking into English.

So the next time you find yourself lost for words and resort to, “She was all growl growl and he was all nyah nyah,” don’t bemoan your inability to remember adjectives. Celebrate the fact that your onomatopoeia is connecting you with a worldwide audience! Except, possibly, the Japanese.

Say It Like This

Some apparently random onomatopoeias make far more sense when pronounced with the right accent.
Ronron: French for a cat’s purr, it has a rolled R, a soft O and barely there N.
Nöff nöff: Swedish for a pig’s oink, it’s pronounced with a nasal vowel, like the French neuf (9).
Hamba: Bengali for moo. There’s no special pronunciation: cows in Bangladesh just seem a bit more cosmopolitan than others round the world, which mostly moo.

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