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An onomatopoeia (i//, or chiefly NZ //; from the Greek ὀνοματοποιία; ὄνομα for "name" and ποιέω for "I make", adjectival form: "onomatopoeic" or "onomatopoetic") is a word that phonetically imitates, resembles or suggests the source of the sound that it describes. Onomatopoeia (as an uncountable noun) refers to the property of such words. Common occurrences of onomatopoeias include animal noises such as "oink", "miaow" (or "meow"), "roar" or "chirp". Onomatopoeias are not the same across all languages; they conform to some extent to the broader linguistic system they are part of; hence the sound of a clock may be tick tock in English, dī dā in Mandarin, or katchin katchin in Japanese.
Although in the English language the term onomatopoeia means the imitation of a sound, in the Greek language the compound word onomatopoeia (ονοματοποιία) means "making or creating names". For words that imitate sounds the term Ηχομιμητικό (echomimetico or echomimetic) is used. Ηχομιμητικό (echomimetico) from Ηχώ meaning "echo or sound" and μιμητικό meaning "mimetic or imitation".
Uses of onomatopoeia
In the case of a frog croaking, the spelling may vary because different frog species around the world make different sounds: Ancient Greek brekekekex koax koax (only in Aristophanes' comic play The Frogs) for probably 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 include hiccup, zoom, bang, beep, moo, and splash. Machines and their sounds are also often described with onomatopoeia, as in honk or beep-beep for the horn of an automobile, and vroom or brum for the engine. When someone speaks of a mishap involving an audible arcing of electricity, the word "zap" is often used (and has subsequently been expanded and used to describe non-auditory effects generally connoting the same sort of localized but thorough interference or destruction similar to that produced in short-circuit sparking).
For animal sounds, words like quack (duck), moo (cow), bark or woof (dog), roar (lion), meow/miaow or purr (cat), cluck (chicken) and baa (sheep) are typically used in English. Some of these words are used 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 it is no longer recognized as onomatopoeia. One example is English "bleat" for the sheep noise: in medieval times it was pronounced approximately as "blairt" (but without an R-component), or "blet" with the vowel drawled, which is much more accurate as onomatopoeia than the modern pronunciation.
An example of the opposite case is "cuckoo", which, due to continuous familiarity with the bird noise down the centuries, has kept approximately the same pronunciation as in Anglo-Saxon times and its vowels have not changed as they have in the word "furrow".
Sometimes things are named from the sounds they make. In English, for example, there is the universal fastener which is named for the onomatopoeic of 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, chickadee, the cuckoo, the chiffchaff, the whooping crane and the whip-poor-will. In Tamil and Malayalam, the word for crow is kaakaa. This practice is especially common in certain languages such as Māori and, therefore, in names of animals borrowed from these languages.
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 su-su in Chinese, cri-cri in Italian, riqui-riqui in Spanish, terre-terre or treque-treque in Portuguese, krits-krits in modern Greek and katr-katr in Hindi. Similarly, the "honk" of a car's horn is ba-ba in Chinese, tut-tut in French, pu-pu in Japanese, bbang-bbang in Korean, bært-bært in Norwegian, fom-fom in Portuguese and bim-bim in Vietnamese.
Onomatopoeic effect without onomatopoeia words
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's The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. It may be noted that the words "followed" and "free" are not onomatopoeic in themselves, but in conjunction with "forrow", 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 strips and comic books made extensive use of onomatopoeia. Popular culture historian Tim DeForest noted the impact of writer-artist Roy Crane (1901–1977), the creator of Captain Easy 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.
Advertising uses onomatopoeia as a mnemonic, so 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 surface 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 seatbelts; AU campaign) or "click it or ticket" (click of the connecting seatbelt; US DOT campaign).
In many of the world's languages, onomatopoeia-like words are used to describe phenomena apart from the purely auditive. Japanese often utilizes such words to describe feelings or figurative expressions about objects or concepts. For instance, Japanese barabara is used to reflect an object's state of disarray or separation, and shiiin 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). 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, kirakira is used for glittery things.
Examples in media
- James Joyce in Ulysses (1922) coined the onomatopoeic tattarrattat for a knock on the door. It is listed as the longest palindromic word in The Oxford English Dictionary.
- 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.
- Marvel Comics has trademarked two words of their own invention: thwip!, the sound of Spider-Man's web shooter, and snikt! the switchblade-sound of Wolverine's claws coming out of his hands.
- In the Garfield comic strip and television series, there is a running gag about a "splut," which is usually the sound of a pie hitting someone in the face.
- In the 1960s TV series Batman, comic book style onomatopoeias such as wham!, pow!, biff!, crunch! and zounds! appear onscreen during fight scenes. This is often the subject of parody, for example in the Simpsons episode "Radioactive Man" where the onomatopoeic words are replaced with snuh!, newt! and mint! which are references to other Simpsons episodes.
- Ubisoft's XIII employed the use of comic book onomatopoeias such as bam!, boom! and noooo! 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.
- In book 4 of Jonathan Swift's novel Gulliver's Travels, the name of the Houyhnhnms is an onomatopoeia for the whinny of a horse.
- The chorus of American popular song writer John Prine's song "Onomatopoeia" cleverly incorporates onomatopoeic words (though as discussed, 'ouch!' is not the sound of pain): "Bang! went the pistol. | Crash! went the window. | Ouch! went the son of a gun. | Onomatopoeia | I don't wanna see ya | Speaking in a foreign tongue."
- A well-known rhetorical question is "Why doesn't onomatopoeia sound like what it is?". Iain M. Banks references this in his novel Against a Dark Background, when a character claims that the word onomatopoeia is spelled "just the way it sounds!".
- The marble game KerPlunk is an onomatopoeia for the sound of the marbles dropping when one too many sticks has been removed.
- The Nickelodeon cartoon Kablam is implied to be onomotapoeic to a crash.
- In a 2002 episode of The West Wing, Rob Lowe (Sam Seaborn) and Ian McShane (portraying a Russian negotiator) have a conversation about how the word 'frumpy' "onomatopoetically sounds right".
- Each episode of the TV series Harper's Island are 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.
- In The Transformers, the Autobot Warpath speaks with onomatopoeia in his speech, which includes "Wham", "Bang", "Blam", "Whack", "Woosh", "Bam", "Zoom", "Zap", "Boom", "Wow", "Clang", "Pow", and "Boing".
- Anguish Languish
- List of animal sounds
- List of onomatopoeias
- Sound symbolism
- Vocal learning
- Sound mimesis in various cultures
- Wells, John C. (2008), Longman Pronunciation Dictionary (3rd ed.), Longman, ISBN 9781405881180
- Roach, Peter (2011), Cambridge English Pronouncing Dictionary (18th ed.), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, ISBN 9780521152532
- ὀνοματοποιία, Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon, on Perseus
- ὄνομα, Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon, on Perseus
- ποιέω, Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon, on Perseus
- Onomatopoeia as a Figure and a Linguistic Principle, Hugh Bredin, The Johns Hopkins University, Retrieved November 14, 2013
- Definition of Onomatopoeia, Retrieved November 14, 2013
- Basic Reading of Sound Words-Onomatopoeia, Yale University, retrieved October 11, 2013
- Uses of onomatopoeia, Princeton University, retrieved October 11, 2013
- Earl Anderson, A Grammar of Iconism, Fairleigh Dickinson, 1999
- DeForest, Tim (2004). Storytelling in the Pulps, Comics, and Radio: How Technology Changed Popular Fiction in America. McFarland.
- James Joyce (1982). Ulysses. Editions Artisan Devereaux. pp. 434–. ISBN 978-1-936694-38-9.
...I was just beginning to yawn with nerves thinking he was trying to make a fool of me when I knew his tattarrattat at the door he must ...
- O.A. Booty (1 January 2002). Funny Side of English. Pustak Mahal. pp. 203–. ISBN 978-81-223-0799-3.
The longest palindromic word in English has 12 letters: tattarrattat. This word, appearing in the Oxford English Dictionary, was invented by James Joyce and used in his book Ulysses (1922), and is an imitation of the sound of someone ...
- The West Wing, Enemies Foreign and Domestic, Memorable Quotes
- Crystal, David (1997). The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language (2nd ed.). Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-55967-7.
- Smyth, Herbert Weir (1920). Greek Grammar. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press. p. 680. ISBN 0-674-36250-0.
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