What do you call words that sound like the thing they describe?

The formation of a word from a sound associated with the thing it describes is known as onomatopoeia; the related adjective is onomatopoeic. Examples of this type of word include atishoo,  cuckoo, croak, hiccup, miaow, ping-pong, splash, and sizzle. As these examples indicate, there is a variety of sounds that are ‘translated’ into human speech using onomatopoeias: from human exclamations and machinery, to physical and natural phenomena such as the sounds animals make.

The word onomatopoeia itself derives from Greek and came into the English language via Latin in the 16th century. It literally means ‘word-making’ (from the Greek onoma, onomat = name and –poios = making). Every onomatopoeia makes use of the sound inventory of the given language. This means that onomatopoeias for the same sound will differ in various languages. For example, in English the onomatopoeia for chewing is nom nom or om nom nom, whereas it is mampf in German.

As demonstrated by the examples in the first paragraph, many examples of onomatopoeia are found in the ‘translation’ of animal sounds into human speech. Very often, children will learn the onomatopoeia for an animal sound before the actual name of the animal. For example, rather than calling a cat a cat, a child is very likely to call it a miaow because it associates the animal with the sound it produces.

Again, the onomatopoeias for animal sounds vary across the world. Some are very similar across many languages: in English, a cat makes a miaow or meow, in German it is miau, in French miaou, in Spanish miau, and in Chinese miāo. On the other hand, the onomatopoeias used to describe the sound produced by a rooster are comparatively different. In English we would say cock a doodle doo, while German uses kikeriki. A French rooster says cocorico and an Arabic-speaking one will sound something like kuku-kookoo. Whereas the vowels differ in these examples, all of them contain a plosive (/k/). Another example where this is the case is the different onomatopoeias for the sound of a duck: quack in English, coin coin in French, cua cua in Spanish.

Read more about onomatopoeias on the OxfordWords blog.

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See also: What is the origin of the word 'OK'?

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