12 Onomatopoeias from Around the World

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Marz Jr.

Boom! Clang! Splat! English is full of onomatopoeia—words that sound like the noises things make. But the words don't reproduce those noises exactly. They are language-conditioned versions of those noises. They have to fit the patterns of English, and they have to be learned. Other languages have their own ways of representing sounds in the world. Here are 12 wonderfully evocative onomatopoeias from around the world.

1. Korean—chik chik pok pok (칙칙폭폭)

The sound of a train.

Where we would use "chugga chugga choo choo," Koreans use chik chik pok pok. It's the sound of train wheels bumping over the tracks, so it's actually closer to the "chugga chugga" part than the "choo choo" part.

2. German—mampf mampf

Munching.

This is like the English "nom nom." There's also a noun der Mampf, slang for a meal or a nosh, and a verb mampfen, "to nom on" or "chow down on."

3. Russian—gav gav (гав-гав)

A dog barking.

Not all dogs speak the same language! Russian dogs say gav gav, and if they are small dogs they say tyav tyav.

4. Japanese—pachi pachi (パチパチ)

The sound of a crackling fire.

Pachi pachi can be used for all sorts of small popping or clicking noises. It is also used for clapping, the sound of popping popcorn or bubblewrap, and the noise ice makes when it cracks as hot liquid is poured on it.

5. French—ron pshi

Snoring

Where English focuses on the "zzzzz" of the long snoring exhale, French includes both the inhale and exhale in its sound image of the snore. 

6. Thai—suaan saeh haeh haa (สรวลเสเฮฮา)

Merry-making.

This means something like "Jolly! Delight! Yipee! Ha ha!" and refers to the sound of a crowd of people being happy and having a good time.

7. Latin—tux tax

Hitting, smacking

In the play Persa, one of the earliest surviving works in Latin, a character remarks of his master, "tux tax erit meo, non curo!" ("He will whack! bam! beat me, but I don't care!")

8. Georgian—ghrutu ghrutu (ღრუტუ ღრუტუ)

Pig grunting.

In Georgia, pigs sound tougher. They say, “ghrutu ghrutu.” 

9. Latvian—bliukš

Bubble popping.

Can also be used for short sharp sounds, like the popping of fireworks or the smack of a fly-swatter. Also has the metaphorical sense of "poof!"—things disappearing.

10. Vietnamese—hớt hơ hớt hải

Gasping for breath.

This representation of heavy breathing has also taken on the meaning of being panic-stricken or in a hurry.

11. Kinyarwanda—shíshíshíshí

Shivering with cold.

While we focus on lip shivering with our "brrr,” in Kinyarwanda, the language of Rwanda, you show you're cold with a different shivery sound.

12. Finnish – käkättää

Evil laugh.

In addition to this word for a malevolent, mocking cackle, Finnish also has kikattaa (a giggle), hekottaa (a guffaw), and hihittää (a snicker).

A version of this story originally appeared in mental_floss magazine. You can get a free issue here or check out our iPad edition.

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August 1, 2013 - 11:00am
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