Monday, September 8, 2008

Bow-wow, boom, smash: onomatopoeia

Today's entry will be a quick one, because I'm planning my entry for tomorrow on "show not tell" (also called "show don't tell"), and it's a complex one because I'm basing it on several forum discussions I've been having over the last few days. Hearing about others' experiences has shown me there are a lot more dimensions to the topic than I imagined.

Today I'm talking about sounds, written down.

Every so often there comes a time in a story when something happens - like a glass breaking on the floor, or a door slamming, or something like that, where it's so instantaneous the best way I can think to put it in is in a single line of onomatopoeia:


(often I'll alter the spelling for a more sound-effect-like feel)
Maybe you could call it the manga effect - I've always loved how comics write out their sound effects. Any of you who read manga might already realize that Japanese sound words aren't the same as ours. Each language has its own way of interpreting and transcribing natural sounds.

Take dog and cat sounds, for example:

English = woof
French = ouah
Japanese = wan-wan

English = meow
French = miaou
Japanese = nyaa-nyaa

Japanese actually has tons and tons of sounds that are onomatopoetic, and they aren't always used for the obvious animal sounds, crash and smash sounds, etc. Some are used for "a slippery feeling" or even for silence (which I always found amusing. How can silence "say" anything?).

Even English has more onomatopoeia than you might think. If you look at words that have the "a" sound of hat, then you see they have a feeling in common. Splat, crash, bash, smack, crack... Some of them are sounds, but others are halfway between sound and word.

Looking across languages, you can actually see common trends in onomatopoeia. Some vowels, like "a" and "ee" are associated with some types of action, while others like "o" and "oo" are connected with others. Voiced sounds, like "b" "d" "g" etc. tend to occur in actions or sounds with greater intensity or lower pitch, while their unvoiced equivalents "p" "t" "k" tend to occur in actions with lesser intensity. Japanese illustrates this really well:

hyoro-hyoro = dripping tears
poro-poro = dripping of light rain
boro-boro = dripping of heavier rain

So just in case any of you are thinking of creating local-language onomatopoeia, you might want to think about the human associations of sound with intensity, brightness, etc. while you do it!


  1. When I was in India I was surprised because the dogs actually sounded different.

    I've been enjoying these entries, by the way. Thank you.

  2. Thanks right back! I've heard wonderful things about you from Dario Ciriello, as well as in print, and I'm honored to have you visiting.


  3. I didn't know you knew Dario! Such a lovely man.

  4. Do you know if people who live in different environments come up with more words representing certain sounds? I'd expect if your culture is primarily located on small islands, there might be more words related to how the ocean sounds, while if you live in a desert, you might have more wind-sound words.

    Do those types of words move from culture to culture? If a society had never seen a cat, would they develop their own word for its voice or adapt one from another culture?