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Kapow! Multilingual Onomatopoeia

Bang! Crash! Whack!

No, this isn’t a Batman comic. You’ll probably remember these words and others like them from learning about onomatopoeia as a child. If you weren’t taught what onomatopoeia is, firstly question the standard of education you received, and secondly, know that it is a word that sounds like its meaning.

The Science Behind It

In linguistic theory, there’s a lot of talk about whether words ever have any relation to their meaning. Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure said that in language, the relation between a “signifier” (the written or spoken word) and its “signified” (the concept it conveys) is arbitrary, i.e. completely random. The word “tree” has nothing to do with a physical tree. But in the case of onomatopoeia, there is certainly a link between the words we use and the noises they signify.

ona1Not only do onomatopoeic words match their noises, but there is even evidence that we may associate certain sounds with particular shapes. An experiment using two shapes, a “spikey” one and a “blobby” one, and two made up words, kiki and bouba, showed that people nearly always matched the shape with sharp edges to kiki and the rounded shape to bouba. This was conducted with English and Tamil speakers and a similar, earlier experiment showed the same effect with Spanish speakers. So the idea of hard, jagged noises and looser, blobby ones appears to reach across the language divide.

Foreign Sounds

This doesn’t mean we all express noises in exactly the same way, though. Even with onomatopoeia there is a wide range of words used to indicate the same noise in languages around the world. Some noises are expressed similarly in many languages; the sound of a baby crying, for example, is usually something like the wah-wah we use in English. But whereas we think a dog says woof, or perhaps yap if you’re not particularly fond of the tiny ones, Russian dogs say gav gav, or tyav tyav if they’re small and annoying.

ona2In Latvian a bubble popping goes bliukš, as do other short, sharp sounds and things that disappear (poof!). An English speaker’s maniacal laugh goes something like mwuhaha, but a Finnish evil mastermind says käkättää or hihittää if it’s more of a snicker. I often brrrrr in my cold house, but if I lived in Rwanda and spoke Kinyarwanda, I’d be more likely to shíshíshíshí.

Some languages really like to stick out from the crowd. While many European languages agree that cats make a noise akin to meow or mew, Japanese insists that cats say nyan nyan and Koreans hear yaong. On a side note, the noise I hear from the local cats at night can’t be expressed as any human sound; I fear it comes from the very depths of Hell.

What differences in onomatopoeia have you noticed on your travels or while learning another language? Does ‘Old McDonald Had a Farm’ sound completely alien with Chinese, Italian or Maori farm animals?