Onomatopoeia zings, zooms, zips

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Words considered to be onomatopoeia might be my favorite nouns (and verbs, oftentimes) in the English language. There is something so satisfying about words that say what they mean, in the sense that they sound how they sound. As satisfying as a crunch, these words serve a unique purpose by encompassing sounds that are almost universal.

In my very topical splash into onomatopoeic words, one unique feature that came up is the wide variety of phonetic interpretations to describe different universal sounds. For example, a scholar at the University of Adelaide slapped together an amazing compilation of animal noises, and I can totally see (hear?) the validity of each one. No single one is necessarily perfect (reading the chicken expressions reminded me of the Arrested Development bit about various interpretations of the chirp), but they all work in a certain sense.  

What I enjoy about onomatopoeia is that even with these variations and differentiations and cross-lingual interpretations, I still can hear where each word is coming from and what it’s trying to express. This may just be my brain rationalizing sounds in the structure of pronounceable consonants and vowels attempting to replicate less-bounded noises, but the many attempts across languages are definitely amusing to explore. For example, the French “ron pchi” for the nasal intonations of a snore feels just as right as “snore” itself as an onomatopoeic phrase, even though they differ considerably.

I’m from Minnesota, and “uff da” is a phrase commonly used as an expression of exertion (almost the equivalent of a “huff”). It’s weird and pretty much confined to the Midwest, but most people kind of get it when I describe the meaning or demonstrate the use of the “uff da” after, say, lifting up a piece of furniture. I’ve also noticed from family members visiting from out of town that it’s the kind of phrase that gets picked up fairly quickly or slightly adapted from other expressions of exertion.

If anything, onomatopoeia is a testament to the variety and mutability of language. There’s something inherently satisfying about words that fit their meaning, even if this entire attempt is fairly abstract and subjective. And if only “onomatopoeia” itself were a little more sonoric!

More examples of onomatopoeia across the world.

Contact Camryn Bell at [email protected]