Onomatopoeia is defined as “a word that imitates the natural sounds of a thing. It creates a sound effect that mimics the thing described, making the description more expressive and interesting”. It certainly livens up the way we communicate, and makes us think hard as we interpret the sound. What could be more vivid, expressive and colourful!
Often the words come in combinations, reflecting different sounds for a single object. If we look at the sounds of water there’s plop, splash, gush, drizzle, etc. And likewise, with all matters windy, we can identify with swish, whiff, whoosh, whisper etc.
Rural British dialects have a love of translating action and sound through semi-onomatopoeic phrases: these jolly, affectionate and inventive known in the linguistics community as ‘Reduplicative Rhyming Compounds’ and made self-explanatory by the following examples: hockerty-cockerty (Scottish) with one leg on each shoulder; fidge-fadge (Yorkshire) a motion between walking and trotting and boris-noris (Dorset) careless, reckless, happy-go-lucky.
For the sound of human voices English provides us with words that are easy to interpret like 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 miaow. However, only English, it seems, thinks that owls go ‘tu-whit, tu-woo’ or a cockerel ‘cock-a-doodle-doo’. So not everyone agrees about the birds and the bees!
It has always been a bit of an urban myth that frogs go “rarebit” dating back to a Hollywood film, but I love the fact that frogs in Afrikaans go kwaak-kwaak, in the Munduruku tribe of Brazil go korekorekore while the Spanish dialect of Argentina they simply go berp!
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 translates as filling a pitcher with water; caracara, spurting water from a pump; and budubudu, bubbling, gushing water.
As for Indonesians sounds are vividly portrayed: kring is the sound of a bicycle bell; dentang, cans being hit repeatedly; reat-reot, the squeaking of a door; ning-nong, the ringing of a doorbell and jedar-jedor, of a door banging repeatedly.
The Basques of the Pyrenees also use highly expressive words. Recognisable perhaps are such terms as kuku (a cuckoo); miau (miaou); mu (moo); durrunda (thunder), zurrumurru (a whisper) and urtzintz (to sneeze). Similarly in Europe, is Maltese with raxxax (to drizzle), taptap (to patter) and capcap (to clap).
But I feel it’s the Japanese who take things a step further. Of course they too have rhymic 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. They are words that try to imitate, not just sounds, but states of feeling: so gatcha gatcha describes an annoying noise; harahara translates as 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!
Whilst 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 lushindo (Bemba, Congo and Zambia) the sound of footsteps; yuyin (Chinese) the remnants of sound which remain in the ears of the hearer and, my favourite, zonk zonk (Turkish) to throb terribly!