Onomatopoeia – how to understand it
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Onomatopoeia – definition
Onomatopoeia is a figure of speech in which the sound of a word echoes the thing it describes.
It is a form of symbolism in sound.
buzz pop bang swish cuckoo hissing burble sizzle
Onomatopoeia is used for emphasis or stylistic effect.
It is featured very heavily in children’s rhymes and poetry in general.
It is also used extensively in advertising, as in the slogan
‘Snap, crackle, pop!’
NB! ‘Onomatopoeia’ is derived from the Greek term ‘make a word’.
‘Onomatopoeia’ is the only example in English of a word which has a direct and intrinsic connection with the thing it describes.
For example, if we say that the boy made a ‘splash’ jumping into the pool, the noun ‘splash’ actually imitates the thing to which it refers.
‘Splash’ is not simply an arbitrary code for the sound made when someone jumps into a swimming pool. It is an aural echo of that very thing.
The very concrete nature of onomatopoeia needs to be stressed. This applies in most cases where a word imitates a sound which we all recognise.
The English language is a coded system in which most words have a completely arbitrary link with the object or state which they describe.
For example, the word ‘house’ is a code term for the building with rooms in which we live. Similarly, ‘fear’ is a four-letter code for the unpleasant sensation of acute apprehension. [These terms are quite different in other languages.]
Onomatopoeia is thus an exceptional case because the word has at least an aural similarity with the thing it describes.
Perhaps the original symbols which comprise a pictographic language such as Chinese can be seen as a useful visual analogy with onomatopoeia. Chinese characters derive from pictures of the things they describe. They therefore have an intrinsic connection with them, just as the English words such as ‘splash’ ‘plop’ ‘bang’ ‘tinkle’ are the auditory equivalent.
Studying onomatopoeia thus highlights the ideographic nature of English and to take this to a purist extreme, we see that even the most literal use of language is only literal in a relative sense because the words themselves are at a semantic distance from the thing to which they refer.
We learn to connect the word ‘house’ with the building we call home, but we take it completely on trust because there is no essential connection there between word and phenomenon.
The same principle applies to every unit of meaning except onomatopoeic words and for that reason alone onomatopoeia is of interest to linguists.
Animal calls are evoked onomatopoeically in all languages. For example ‘cock-a-doodle-do!’ is conventionally the English representation for the crowing of a cock. Interestingly, the French represent the same phenomenon as ‘cocorico!’, which is significantly different, although logic tells us that the rooster’s cry is constant across the world.
This variation in the representation of animal calls has helped researchers into language change to chart developments in the English language. In ancient poetry, for instance, if the word ‘go’ was rhymed with ‘cuckoo’, we could be fairly sure that the pronunciation of the word ‘go’ had changed rather than the birdsong.
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© Roy Johnson 2003
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