Onomatopoeia is a word that imitates the sound it describes e.g. ‘Crash’ , ‘Miaow’ etc. and as such are possibly the origins of spoken languages being the simplest form of communication – imitating an object to communicate meaning ( for instance in Chinese ‘Mao’ 猫 has become the word for a cat, based originally on it’s sound). Onomatopoeic words are some of the most recent additions to languages, incorporating direct imitations of the post industrial world, ‘Beep’, ‘Zap’, ’squeak’…occasionally becoming nouns; ‘ratchet’, ‘Crank’ etc. Curiously onomatopoeic words vary considerably across the globe; different cultures seem to hear differently. Languages themselves once established obviously restrict and distort the ability to form ‘pure’ onomatopoeic words but cultural variations also play a part – in the same way that the perception of musical tone and harmony vary across cultures. As an experiment i propose a WIKI Onomatopoeia library which would allow anyone to describe their literal interpretation of sound – not the accepted cultural/linguistic form (e.g. ‘woof’ for a dog) but what the individual hears. This would form a living recording of audio interpretation and the cultural variations and distortions that occur in different regions.

As an example and a starting point for the project here’s an incomplete table of Onomatopoeic words in Chinese, Japanese (very keen on Onomatopoeia), Hindi and Arabic:

English Chinese Pinyin Japanese Japanese Arabic Hindi
Atishoo! (sneeze) gohhon
Baa (of a sheep) miē mee mee メーメー
Bang pēng
Bang (as on a door) pēng ton ton
Bang or boom hōng
Bark (of a dog) 汪汪 wàngwàng wan wan わんわん Howhow b’AU-b’AU
Buzz 嗡嗡 wēngwēng
Chirp or squeak 吱吱 zhīzhī
Chuckle 咯咯 gēgē
Clack 呱嗒 gūdā
Click 咔哒 kādā
Click or snap 咯噔 gēdēng
Click or tick 哒哒, 嗒嗒 dādā
Cluck (of a chicken) 咕咕 gūgū ku-ku-ku-ku
Crash or bang kuāng
Creak 嘎吱 gāzhī
Creak 咯吱 gēzhī
Gurgling sound 咕噜 gūlū
Ha ha (laughter) 哈哈 hāhā ahaha
Heartbeat (excitement) doki doki どきどき
Heartbeat (nervousness) hara hara はらはら
Hee hee (laughter) 嘻嘻 xīxī
Heh heh (laughter) 嘿嘿 hāihāi
Hiss (of a snake)
Hiss, fizz 噗哧 pūchī
Huh huh (chuckle) 呵呵 hēhē
Hum 哼哼 hēngheng
Meow (of a cat or kitten) 咪咪 mīmī nownow
Meow (of a cat) miāo nyaa nyaa ニャーニャー myAAUU
Moo (of a cow) moū mou-mou もうもう ma ma ba:N ba:N
Patter (as of rain) 稀里哗啦 xīlǐhuālā zaa zaa ざあざあ
Quack (of a duck) or croak (of a frog) 呱呱 gūgū couak couak baak-baak-baak
Rattle or clatter dādā
Roar (of a crowd) hōng
Rumble (e.g. an earthquake) 轰隆 hōnglōng
Sound of (small) bells; sound of jingling 叮当 dīngdāng
Sound of a big door closing guāng
Sound of a doorbell (ding dong) 叮咚 dīngdōng
Sound of a heavy object falling into water 噗嗵 pūtōng
Sound of a large heavy object rolling 咕隆 gūlōng
Sound of a small bell (ding) dīng
Sound of birds chirping 叽叽喳喳 jījichāchā piyo piyo
Sound of breaking or snapping 咔嚓 kāchā
Sound of crashing or rustling 哗啦 huālā
Sound of dripping water 嘀嗒 dīda bisho bisho びしょびしょ
Sound of slurping or snoring 稀里呼噜 xīlǐhūlū
Sound of trickling down 噗噜噜 pūlūlū poro poro
Sound of water flowing 哗哗 huāhuā tush
Splash (water) pocha pocha
Squeak or creak 咿咿呀呀 yīyīyāyā mishi mishi
Thud 噗咚 pūdōng
Thump or thud dēng
Thump, thud, or plop 咕咚 gūdōng
Whisper or murmur 唧唧咕咕 jījigūgū ghamghama غمغم
Whoosh xiū

Musical Onomatopoeia

Onomatopoeia also occurs in music. In the Gamelan tradition, each note is given a ’sound word’ which describes the pitch (and tone) of the note and the instruments themselves are strongly Onomatopoeic; Ceng-Ceng (a small cymbal instrument giving a clashing, shimmering tone), ‘Gong’ (deep resonant large metallic sound), ‘Kempli’ (a pot-gong that gives a metronomic beat), ‘Suling’ (a vertical reed flute). In India the Tabla has it’s own ‘language’, as system of notation and mnemonic learning called ‘Bol’ (’bolna’ to speak), each stroke or sound of the drum has a corresponding onomatopoeic word which builds up into phrases, sentences and entire compositions:

Basic North Indian Tabla Bols:

“GE”; Bass drum, resonant stroke, played with the finger tips. The wrist bends the pitch of the drum.

“KE”; Bass drum closed stroke, played with the whole hand flat

“TE”; Treble drum closed sound with flat fingers. Staccatto

“NA”; Treble drum, edge rim sound with index finger; Characteristic ringing tone of Tabla.

“TIN”; Treble drum, inner rim sound with index finger; Similar to na but with slightly more bass qualities.

“THUN”; Open resonant sound on treble drum

“TI”; Second finger on treble drum, third and fourth fingers down, index finger raised. Soft version of TE.

“NE”; Ring finger on edge of treble drum

Similarly Japanese Taiko Drumming has it’s own spoken system ‘Kuchi shōga’ (口唱歌):

Taiko Shimedaiko Atarigane, Canon Meaning & Musical Value
Don (Kon) Ten Chan A single loud beat to the center (hara) of the drum. The left hand on a taiko is sometimes called “kon.” This could be considered the equivalent of a quarter note; but could also be a half note, etc..
Do (Ko, Ro) Te (Ke, Re) Chi (Ki) A single firm beat to the hara, but with a value 1/2 that of “don” (i.e.: twice as fast). The left is sometimes called “ko” or “ke.” This would be an eighth note, if “don” is a quarter note.
DoKo TeKe ChiKi 2 Fast beats of equal sound, and power. This would be the equivalent of 2 eighth notes.
DoRo TeRe ChiRi 2 Fast beats, but with a slight “rolling” feel to the beats. Played “right, left.”
Tsu Tsu Tsu A note played softly. The value of the note is variable.
TsuKu TsuKu TsuKu 2 Fast beats played softly (the left hand is “ku”).
Ka (Ta) Ka n/a A beat played on the edge of the drum (fuchi), sometimes on the body (ko). The left hand is sometimes notated as “ta.”
KaRa KaRa* n/a 2 Fast beats played on the fuchi, with a slight “rolling” feel to the beats. Played “right, left.”
Su Su Su A rest. The value of the rest is variable, but usually it is one beat of the pulse of the meter.
Zu Zu n/a Another term for a soft beat, sometimes played with a slight “drag” to the beat or used for notating a triplet.

This tradition blurs into ‘Solfege’ a musical notation tradition based on words representing pitch. In Europe this takes the octave form of “Do, Re, Mi, Fa, So, La, Ti” (originally based on the Arabic alphabet), In India as “Sa, Re, Ga, Ma, Pa, Dha, Ni, Sa” known as Sargam. A similar system called ‘Canntaireachd’ (pronounced “cownterochk”) is used in Celtic culture to teach bagpipe music:

Canntaireachd example:

“hin-o tra-o ho dro, hio-dro ro-din hio din, hin-to dare-a che-bendre-o”



Chinese onomatopeia http://www.sinosplice.com/lang/vocab/onomatopeia/

Tabla Bols http://www.chandrakantha.com/tablasite/bsicbols.htm

“language of the tabla”: http://www.sandip-tabla.com/tabla_pages/tabla_language.html

“Sargam notation”: http://ragapedia.com/raga/composition/list

“Japanese Sound effects and what they mean” http://www.oop-ack.com/manga/soundfx.html

Seed: Simon Crab