Onomatopoeia is the process of creating a word that phonetically imitates, resembles, or suggests the sound that it describes. Such a word itself is also called an onomatopoeia. Common onomatopoeias include animal noises such as ''oink'', ''meow'' (or ''miaow''), ''roar'', and ''chirp''. Onomatopoeia can differ between languages: it conforms to some extent to the broader linguistic system; hence the sound of a clock may be expressed as ''tick tock'' in English, in Spanish and Italian (shown in the picture), in Mandarin, in
Japanese Japanese may refer to: * Something from or related to Japan Japan ( ja, 日本, or , and formally , ''Nihonkoku'') is an island country in East Asia. It is situated in the northwest Pacific Ocean, and is bordered on the west by the Sea ...
, or in
Hindi Hindi (Devanāgarī: or , ), or more precisely Modern Standard Hindi (Devanagari: ), is an Indo-Aryan languages, Indo-Aryan language spoken chiefly in the Hindi Belt region encompassing parts of North India, northern, Central India, centr ...
. The English term comes from the
Ancient Greek Ancient Greek includes the forms of the Greek language used in ancient Greece and the classical antiquity, ancient world from around 1500 BC to 300 BC. It is often roughly divided into the following periods: Mycenaean Greek (), Greek Dark ...
compound ''onomatopoeia'', 'name-making', composed of ''onomato''- 'name' and -''poeia'' 'making'. Thus, words that imitate sounds can be said to be onomatopoeic or onomatopoetic.


In the case of a frog croaking, the spelling may vary because different frog species around the world make different sounds:
Ancient Greek Ancient Greek includes the forms of the Greek language used in ancient Greece and the classical antiquity, ancient world from around 1500 BC to 300 BC. It is often roughly divided into the following periods: Mycenaean Greek (), Greek Dark ...
(only in
Aristophanes Aristophanes (; grc, Ἀριστοφάνης, ; c. 446 – c. 386 BC), son of Philippus, of the deme Kydathenaion ( la, Cydathenaeum), was a comedy, comic playwright or comedy-writer of Classical Athens, ancient Athens and a poet of Ancient G ...
' comic play ''
The Frogs ''The Frogs'' ( grc-gre, Βάτραχοι, Bátrakhoi, Frogs; la, Ranae, often abbreviated ''Ran.'' or ''Ra.'') is a Greek comedy, comedy written by the Ancient Greek playwright Aristophanes. It was performed at the Lenaia, one of the :Greek fest ...
'') probably for marsh frogs; English '' ribbit'' for species of frog found in North America; English verb '' croak'' for the common frog. 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 of interference). Human sounds sometimes provide instances of onomatopoeia, as when '' mwah'' is used to represent a kiss. For animal sounds, words like '' quack'' (duck), ''moo'' (cow), '' bark'' or ''woof'' (dog), '' roar'' (lion), ''
meow A meow or miaow is a Cat communication, cat vocalization. ''Meows'' may have diverse tones and are sometimes chattered, murmured or whispered. Adult cats rarely meow to each other, so an adult cat meowing to human beings is probably a post-do ...
''/'' miaow'' or ''
purr A purr is a tonal fluttering sound made by some species of felids and two species of genet (animal), genets. It varies in loudness and tone among species and in the same animal. Felids are a family of mammals that belong to the order Carnivor ...
'' (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 the process is no longer recognized as onomatopoeia. One example is the English word ''bleat'' for sheep noise: in
medieval In the history of Europe, the Middle Ages or medieval period lasted approximately from the late 5th to the late 15th centuries, similar to the post-classical period of global history. It began with the fall of the Western Roman Empire ...
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 Cuckoos are birds in the Cuculidae family, the sole taxon in the order Cuculiformes . The cuckoo family includes the common cuckoo, common or European cuckoo, Geococcyx, roadrunners, koels, malkohas, couas, coucals and ani (bird), anis. The co ...
'', which, due to continuous familiarity with the bird noise down the centuries, has kept approximately the same pronunciation as in
Anglo-Saxon The Anglo-Saxons were a Cultural identity, cultural group who inhabited England in the Early Middle Ages. They traced their origins to settlers who came to Britain from mainland Europe in the 5th century. However, the ethnogenesis of the Anglo- ...
times and its vowels have not changed as they have in the word ''furrow''. '' Verba dicendi'' ('words of saying') are a method of integrating onomatopoeic words 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 Cuckoos are birds in the Cuculidae family, the sole taxon in the order Cuculiformes . The cuckoo family includes the common cuckoo, common or European cuckoo, Geococcyx, roadrunners, koels, malkohas, couas, coucals and ani (bird), anis. The co ...
, the chiffchaff, the whooping crane, the whip-poor-will, and the kookaburra. In Tamil and
Malayalam Malayalam (; , ) is a Dravidian languages, Dravidian language spoken in the Indian state of Kerala and the union territories of Lakshadweep and Puducherry (union territory), Puducherry (Mahé district) by the Malayali people. It is one of 2 ...
, the word for crow is . This practice is especially common in certain languages such as Māori, and so in names of animals borrowed from these languages.

Cross-cultural differences

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 ' in Italian, ' in Spanish, ' or ' in Portuguese, ' in modern Greek, ' in Albanian, and ' in Hindi. Similarly, the "honk" of a car's horn is ' ( Han: ) in Mandarin, ' in French, ' in Japanese, ' in Korean, ' in Norwegian, ' in Portuguese and ' in Vietnamese.

Onomatopoeic effect without onomatopoeic words

An 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 Samuel Taylor Coleridge (; 21 October 177225 July 1834) was an English poetry, English poet, literary criticism, literary critic, philosopher, and theologian who, with his friend William Wordsworth, was a founder of the Romanticism, Romantic ...
'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

Comic strip A comic strip is a Comics, sequence of drawings, often cartoons, arranged in interrelated panels to display brief humor or form a narrative, often Serial (literature), serialized, with text in Speech balloon, balloons and Glossary of comics ter ...
s 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 '' Captain Easy, Soldier of Fortune '' is an American action/adventure comic strip created by Roy Crane that was syndicated by Newspaper Enterprise Association beginning on Sunday, July 30, 1933. The strip ran for more than five decades until it w ...
'' 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. In 2002,
DC Comics DC Comics, Inc. (doing business as DC) is an American comic book publisher and the flagship unit of DC Entertainment, a subsidiary of Warner Bros. Discovery. DC Comics is one of the largest and oldest American comic book companies, with their f ...
introduced a villain named
Onomatopoeia Onomatopoeia is the process of creating a word that phonetics, phonetically imitates, resembles, or suggests the sound that it describes. Such a word itself is also called an onomatopoeia. Common onomatopoeias include animal noises such as Oin ...
, an athlete, martial artist, and weapons expert, who often speaks pure sounds. Advertising uses onomatopoeia for
mnemonic A mnemonic ( ) device, or memory device, is any learning technique that aids information retention or retrieval (remembering) in the human memory for better understanding. Mnemonics make use of elaborative encoding, retrieval cues, and imagery ...
purposes, 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) 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 seat belts; AU campaign) or "click it or ticket" (click of the connecting seat belt, with the implied penalty of a traffic ticket for not using a seat belt; US DOT (Department of Transportation) campaign). The sound of the container opening and closing gives
Tic Tac Tic Tac (stylized as "tic tac") is a brand of small, hard mint manufactured by the Italian company Ferrero. They were first produced in 1969 and are now available in a variety of flavours in over 100 countries. Tic Tacs are usually sold in sm ...
its name.

Manner imitation

In many of the world's languages, onomatopoeic-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 is used to reflect an object's state of disarray or separation, and 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). In Albanian, is used to describe someone who is hasty. 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, is used for glittery things.

Examples in media

James Joyce James Augustine Aloysius Joyce (2 February 1882 – 13 January 1941) was an Irish novelist, poet, and literary critic. He contributed to the Modernism, modernist avant-garde movement and is regarded as one of the most influential and important ...
in '' Ulysses'' (1922) coined the onomatopoeic ' for a knock on the door. It is listed as the longest palindromic word in ''
The Oxford English Dictionary The ''Oxford English Dictionary'' (''OED'') is the first and foundational historical dictionary of the English language, published by Oxford University Press (OUP). It traces the historical development of the English language, providing a com ...
''. * '' Whaam!'' (1963) by Roy Lichtenstein is an early example of pop art, featuring a reproduction of comic book art that depicts a fighter aircraft striking another with rockets with dazzling red and yellow explosions. * In the 1960s TV series ''
Batman Batman is a superhero appearing in American comic books published by DC Comics. The character was created by artist Bob Kane and writer Bill Finger, and debuted in Detective Comics 27, the 27th issue of the comic book ''Detective Comics'' on ...
'', comic book style onomatopoeic words such as ''wham!'', ''pow!'', ''biff!'', ''crunch!'' and ''zounds!'' appear onscreen during fight scenes. * Ubisoft's '' XIII'' employed the use of comic book onomatopoeic words such as ''bam!'', ''boom!'' and ''!'' during gameplay for gunshots, explosions and kills, respectively. The comic-book style is apparent throughout the game and is a core theme, and the game is an adaptation of a comic book of the same name. * The chorus of American popular songwriter John Prine's song "Onomatopoeia" incorporates onomatopoeic words: "Bang! went the pistol", "Crash! went the window", "Ouch! went the son of a gun". * The marble game KerPlunk has an onomatopoeic word for a title, from the sound of marbles dropping when one too many sticks has been removed. * The
Nickelodeon Nickelodeon (often shortened to Nick) is an American pay television television channel, channel which launched on April 1, 1979, as the first cable channel for children. It is run by Paramount Global through its List of assets owned by Param ...
cartoon's title '' KaBlam!'' is implied to be onomatopoeic to a crash. * Each episode of the TV series '' Harper's Island'' is given an onomatopoeic name which imitates the sound made in that episode when a character dies. For example, in the episode titled ''"Bang"'' a character is shot and fatally wounded, with the "Bang" mimicking the sound of the gunshot. * '' Mad'' Magazine cartoonist Don Martin, already popular for his exaggerated artwork, often employed creative comic-book style onomatopoeic sound effects in his drawings (for example, ' is the sound of a sheet of paper being yanked from a typewriter). Fans have compiled ''The Don Martin Dictionary'', cataloging each sound and its meaning.

Cross-linguistic examples

In linguistics

A key component of language is its arbitrariness and what a word can represent, as a word is a sound created by humans with attached meaning to said sound. 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. 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. 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. 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 works in the sense of symbolizing an idea in a phonological context, not necessarily constituting a direct meaningful word in the process. The symbolic properties of a sound in a word, or a
phoneme In phonology and linguistics, a phoneme () is a unit of sound that can distinguish one word from another in a particular language. For example, in most List of dialects of English, dialects of English, with the notable exception of the West M ...
, 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, which is the reason English tends to have a smaller representation of sound mimicry then a language like Japanese that overall has a much higher amount of symbolism related to the sounds of the language.

Evolution of language

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. Some linguists hold that onomatopoeia may have been the first form of human language.

Role in early language acquisition

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. 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. 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. In the context of language acquisition, sound symbolism has been shown to play an important role. The association of foreign words to subjects and how they relate to general objects, such as the association of the words takete and baluma with either a round or angular shape, has been tested to see how languages symbolize sounds.

In other languages


The Japanese language has a large inventory of ideophone words that are symbolic sounds. These are used in contexts ranging from day to day conversation to serious news.Inose, Hiroko. "Translating Japanese Onomatopoeia and Mimetic Words." N.p., n.d. Web. These words fall into four categories: * : mimics humans and animals. (e.g. for a dog's bark) * : mimics general noises in nature or inanimate objects. (e.g. for rain on a roof) * : describes states of the external world * : describes psychological states or bodily feelings. The two former correspond directly to the concept of onomatopoeia, while the two latter are similar to onomatopoeia in that they are intended to represent a concept mimetically and performatively rather than referentially, but different from onomatopoeia in that they aren't just imitative of sounds. For example, represents something being silent, just as how an anglophone might say "clatter, crash, bang!" to represent something being noisy. That "representative" or "performative" aspect is the similarity to onomatopoeia. Sometimes Japanese onomatopoeia produces reduplicated words.


As in Japanese, onomatopoeia in Hebrew sometimes produces reduplicated verbs: Zuckermann, Ghil'ad (2003), Language Contact and Lexical Enrichment in Israeli Hebrew.
Palgrave Macmillan Palgrave Macmillan is a British academic and trade publishing company headquartered in the London Borough of Camden. Its programme includes textbooks, journals, monographs, professional and reference works in print and online. It maintains offi ...
. /

/ref> ** "to make noise, rustle". ** "to make noise, rustle".


There is a documented correlation within the
Malay language Malay (; ms, Bahasa Melayu, links=no, Jawi alphabet, Jawi: , Rejang script, Rencong: ) is an Austronesian languages, Austronesian language that is an official language of Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore, and that is also spo ...
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 , and ('locomotive', 'cove', and 'curve' respectively).


The Qur'an, written in Arabic, documents instances of onomatopoeia. Of about 77,701 words, there are nine words that are onomatopoeic: three are animal sounds (e.g., "mooing"), two are sounds of nature (e.g.; "thunder"), and four that are human sounds (e.g., "whisper" or "groan").


There is wide array of objects and animals in the
Albanian language Albanian ( endonym: or ) is an Indo-European language and an independent branch of that family of languages. It is spoken by the Albanians in the Balkans The Balkans ( ), also known as the Balkan Peninsula, is a geographical ar ...
that have been named after the sound they produce. Such onomatopoeic words are (matches), named after the distinct sound of friction and ignition of the match head; (ashtray) mimicking the sound it makes when placed on a table; (rain) resembling the continuous sound of pouring rain; (
Little owl The little owl (''Athene noctua''), also known as the owl of Athena or owl of Minerva, is a bird that inhabits much of the temperate and warmer parts of Europe, the Palearctic east to Korea, and North Africa. It was introduced into Britain at t ...
) after its "cuckoo" hoot; (brush) for its rustling sound; (slippers and flip-flops); (loud flatulence) and (silent flatulence).


Hindi Hindi (Devanāgarī: or , ), or more precisely Modern Standard Hindi (Devanagari: ), is an Indo-Aryan languages, Indo-Aryan language spoken chiefly in the Hindi Belt region encompassing parts of North India, northern, Central India, centr ...
Urdu Urdu (;"Urdu"
''Random House Webster's Unabridged Dictionary''.
ur, , link=no, ) is an Indo-Aryan languages, In ...
, onomatopoeic words like are used to indicate silly talk. Other examples of onomatopoeic words being used to represent actions are (to do something fast), (to represent fear with the sound of fast beating heart), (to signify a leaky tap) etc. Movement of animals or objects is also sometimes represented with onomatopoeic words like (for a housefly) and (the sound of a cloth being dragged on or off a piece of furniture). refers to whispering. means bark.

See also

* Anguish Languish * Japanese sound symbolism * List of animal sounds * List of onomatopoeias * Sound mimesis in various cultures * Sound symbolism * Vocal learning




General references

* *

External links

Derek Abbott's Animal Noise Page

Over 300 Examples of Onomatopoeia

BBC Radio 4 show discussing animal noises

Tutorial on Drawing Onomatopoeia for Comics and Cartoons (using fonts)

WrittenSound, onomatopoeic word list

Examples of Onomatopeia
{{Authority control Types of words Poetic devices Style (fiction)