some onomatopoeia

The requests for treatment of various topics are still coming in much faster than I can deal with them. So here's one that goes back almost a year. Roxana wrote to say:
I teach English in Italy, and the books we use come from the UK. The other day I was a bit surprised to read a sentence in "English Files" that went like this: "Do you hoot if the driver in front of you is slow?" (not "toot") I would have said "honk".
Have you come across this?
Yes, cars in the UK hoot (among other sounds) and in the US they honk (among other sounds), and those are but a couple of examples of the arbitrariness of onomatopoeia (words whose sounds imitate what they refer to). "The arbitrariness of onomatopoeia?" I hear some of you thinking. "Surely not!" But I reply "Surely, surely."

Onomatopoeia is always raised by some student when I teach the notion of 'the arbitrariness of the sign'--i.e. the notion that there is no causal connection between the form of a sign (e.g. a word) and its meaning. For example, it's just a social convention that the word for that thing in the middle of your face is nose. You had to learn to associate that combination of sounds with that body part because there's no other way to know that those sounds symboli{s/z}e that thing. And people who speak Zulu had to learn to match a different set of sounds to that thing because there's nothing in nature forcing us to use those sounds for that thing.

But surely, my student reasons, onomatopoeia does involve a natural relation between meaning and form (sound). We call the sound of a gun bang because guns go bang and so forth. Except, of course, that they don't. That's the way that the sound is represented in English, but in French it's pan (with the 'n' pronounced as nasali{s/z}ation on the vowel). And in Icelandic, apparently, it's búmm. While onomatopoeia is iconic, it still relies on the particular sounds that belong to one's language and it relies on some conventionali{s/z}ation. In English, our guns go bang and our bombs go boom because that's what we've learned from other English speakers, not just because that's what guns and bombs sound like. So there's some room for variation among languages, and even within languages, on onomatopoetic matters.

So it is with car horns. In both BrE and AmE, one might imitate the sound as beep, but (especially as verbs for making the sound) BrE likes hoot, which Americans reserve for owls, and toot too, and AmE likes honk (which can also be used for goose noises--OED marks this as 'orig. N. Amer.').

Here I must mention an absolutely charming website, bzzzpeek, on which children from around the world say the sounds of animals and vehicles. If you don't believe me on UK/US differences in onomatopoeia, check with the children. (The UK is the first country on each page, the US is the last--so it takes some clicking to get to.)

Here is a selection of onomatopoeia that I've come across in day-to-day existence. It's mostly come to the fore as Better Half and I clash in our sound effects for the song "Grover Murphy had a farm" (also "Grover Murphy had a bath", "Grover Murphy had some lunch" and anything else I can think to do sound effects for--but of course we use her real first and second name, which, as luck--or possibly careful onomastic planning--would have it, is metrically identical to "Grover Murphy" and "Old MacDonald").

donkeys: in AmE they say hee-haw, but in BrE eeyore--which is basically pronounced like hee-haw without the aitches (the penny drops for many Pooh fans--see the comments here)

frogs: the verb is to croak in both dialects, but in AmE (originally and chiefly, says OED) they say ribbit. This may have made it across the ocean now--Better Half was surprised to learn it's originally AmE, but the British bzzzpeek child has frogs saying croak croak.

emergency vehicles: in BrE children (or adults talking to children) sometimes call these nee-naws after the sound they make, which (traditionally) in Britain is a two-tone sound that's different from the sirens of the US (which are sometimes represented as woo-woo--but I've never heard that used as a noun to represent the vehicles, like nee-naw is). This one is not a case of the dialects representing the same sounds differently, but of having different sounds to represent. One might make the argument that hoot and honk are the same sort of thing--the British drive little cars that go hoot and Americans drive big ones that go honk. Except that the OED has BrE hoots and AmE honks back in the early 20th century, when the size of the cars would have been about the same in the two countries.

trains: we've already discussed the AmE origin of choo-choo and the BrE alternative puff-puff, which seems to be a bit old-fashioned now. BH doesn't use puff-puff, but does use (BrE) puffer train as an equivalent to (AmE) choo-choo train. Grover and I take the train to work/crèche, and as we wait for it, I find myself saying "Here comes the choo-choo train" then feeling ridiculous for doing so, since the train makes a kind of electric hum rather than anything 'puffy' or 'choo-choo-y'.

The thing that's struck me in thinking and talking to BrE speakers about these onomatopoetic items is that the American ones are mostly well-known here, but few people seem to reali{s/z}e that they were originally AmE. Considering how much disdain is felt for some AmE words in BrE, it's interesting that this section of the vocabulary seems somewhat resistant to that kind of prejudice. Or have I just missed it? And have I missed more onomatopoetic differences?


  1. I don't know if you've come across any examples but occasionally it's possible for an onomatopoeia to affect the sound (rather than vice versa).

    At first you might think that the French use of "atchoum" for the sound of a sneeze is a bit different from our "achoo". But if you listen to them very closely, you notice that they do close their mouths at the end of the sneeze and pronounce the M!

  2. Nice post.

    And thanks for finally explaining why Eeyore is the only resident of the Hundred-Acre Woods not to have a name based on what kind of animal he is. This has bothered me since I was a kid!

  3. Double epiphany: "eeyore" and [maybe - please advise] "puffer-bellies" as in that song my (American) mom sang to me...

    "Down at the station, early in the morning
    See the little pufferbellies all in a row"

    I distinctly remember having to ask what "pufferbellies" were, and indeed have never heard or seen "puffer.."-anything outside of this context. Any info on this?

    1. Puffing Billies! From the name of one of the very earliest. The popular tourist train in the Dandenong Ranges east of Melbourne is known as Puffing Billy

  4. @nick - a sneeze in British English is often written "atishoo"! Question: do we put that 3rd syllable in?

    @dveej - I think they are "pufferbillies", not "pufferbellies"! After an early steam engine called "Puffing Billy".

    I can't make the bzzzpeek site work - it just comes up with an advert for T-shirts. Does it not work in Firefox?

  5. Ah, I meant to include atishoo (which I always hear as a tissue) versus achoo. Thanks, Mrs R.

    I have Firefox and the bzzzpeek site works for me--though the main show comes in a pop-up window. You seem to have got that far, though, because that's where the t-shirt ad is. Click on the silhouettes of the animals/vehicles around the border, and that will take you to the pages for those sounds.

  6. mrs redboots: You might have to allow popups, try your browser's preference settings (subheading "security" in Safari).

    The 'honk' sound, geese aside, is the (or my) AmE sound associated with 'horns.' Since automobiles had actual horns (with a squeeze-bulb providing the pressurized air), the 'honk' label made sense. It's odd that subsequently car 'horns' are much different, and make much different noises (which I would use 'beep' to represent) one simple cannot 'beep' a horn, they must be 'honked.' Thus the descriptor seem more attached to the word 'horn' than to the sound. Does this make a lick of sense? If so, it might be an interesting way of looking at the evolution of these sound words.

  7. I don't think "eeyore" is used in Britain other than in reference to the Pooh character. (Maybe he is referenced more often in Britain, though.) There's no OED entry for "eeyore", though there is one for "Eeyorish". The first citation for "hee-haw" ['the chants were interrupted at intervals with an Hiu Haw, in imitation of the Ass's braying'] is from a book published in London in 1815. (Called "Scribbleomania" -- read it on Google books if you can get past the scary hand)

    In Ireland one always "beeps", neither "honking" nor "tooting". The varied terminology is allegedy confusing for Japanese

  8. Thanks - I was able to make the site work!

  9. In the UK, the donkey sound is usually written "hee-haw" but generally pronounced "eeyore" (or rather "ee-aw").

    I remember a comedy sketch about a planned police raid -- but can't recall now whether it was Smith and Jones or Hale and Pace. A petulant officer wanted to use his "woo-woos" on a raid.
    SARGE: No, it's a surprise raid. No woo-woos.
    OFFICER: No, if I can't have my lights and woo-woos, I don't want to go.
    SARGE: OK, look, you can have your lights on until we come round the corner.
    OFFICER: And woo-woos.
    SARGE: No woo-woos!

    This was the first (and last) time my husband and I had heard anyone talk about "woo-woos", and we found it hilarious.

  10. In our son's babyhood we had a spiffy vacuum cleaner (which was ultimately stolen), which had a so-called power wand, an attachment that was self powered and beat rugs as it vacuumed them. Our son referred to the entire machine as a "woo woo," and we took amongst ourselves to referring to the power attachment as the "super woo woo."


  11. As a child I referred to the type of car wash with the huge rotating brushes as a "dumma-dumma" for the sound it makes when you're inside and the brushes beat against the roof and window.

  12. My parents made me read the French versions of Tintin, Asterix and Lucky Luke as a child, so I've long been familiar with the arbitrariness of onomatopoeia. "Woof" in French (comics) is alternately "ouah" (Milou), "ouap" (Idefix) or "ouaf" (Rantanplan). The boars in Asterix went "groin" or "grouink".

  13. What about using "Honk" as a verb? As in "Honk the horn" is it "Hoot the horn" in BrE?

  14. Definitely "hoot your horn", or "hoot him!" or "use your horn". Geese honk, car horns don't!

  15. I heard a great factoid about "ribbit" (possibly on QI, but then that's where I've started to attribute most things I know...), which is that the only frogs that make a noise anything like "ribbit" are the ones that live in the area of the US that includes Los Angeles, and therefore the frog-noise heard in most Hollywood movies. Don't know how true/significant/relevant that is, but it's interesting...

  16. I seem to recall in some countries they say that a duck says 'wank wank' and thats most definitely not the case in either of our countries!

  17. The comment about the ducks reminds me of when my friends explained that in Chinese, a dog says 'wang wang' as opposed to 'bow wow' or 'woof woof.' I've never thought 'bow wow' was precisely accurate, but 'wang wang' seemed terribly foreign to me, although it may depend on the inflection (which I'm not sure about).

    Then, when I was in a Spanish literature class, I discovered that Spanish dogs say 'guau guau' (sounding somewhat like 'hwow') and I thought that was a very apt onomatopoeia, although I don't think I've ever used it.

  18. OK, the timing of your Eeyore comment is just scary. It was only about 9 hours earlier that, after driving past a donkey in a field, my own BrE BH made the "eeyore" noise - and "the penny dropped" for this AmE Pooh fan.

    Well done!

  19. What about dogs? I was brought up to think of them saying "woof-woof" (or "bow-wow"), but nowadays people often use "ruff-ruff". Is that American?
    I'd never heard of "ribbit" for frogs until quite recently.

    Kate (Derby, UK)

  20. All of those dog noises are familiar to me from my American childhood, but I can't tell you whether ruff-ruff is particularly American. Neither OED nor AHD includes it.

  21. Also, 9 times out of 10, a cat's noise will be "Meow" but every once and a while, you will come across "Mew"...(AmE)

  22. Barely related from one of my other favorite sites...

  23. In Britain, we may say 'yum yum' or 'mmmm' when eating something delicious, but I'm pretty sure that 'yummy' as an adjective - and 'yucky' fron the sound 'yeuch' for something distasteful - are two of the most useful AmE imports based on onomatopoeia.

    In 'The Wind in the Willows', Mr Toad stole a car that went 'poop poop' - evidently an early roadster, with a proper squeeze-bulb horn.

    I had a French colleague who described an electronic alarm as 'il fait beep-beep'...

  24. This comment has been removed by the author.

  25. Sorry, didn't proof-read carefully enough first time of asking!

    Increasingly people here (UK) appear to say, or at least write, "nom, nom" for something delicious, which I think is from the Caribbean.

    I have often read in American children's books that the characters say "Ew" when confronted by something disgusting. I wonder if that is a literal rendition of the sound I would write "ugh" - and then I wondered whether the work "yuck" comes from a literal pronunciation of that word!

    And both my siblings refer to their dogs as "the wows", probably dating from their days with or as small children.

    1. Mrs. Redsquish, do your boots say squish when you walk in mud?

      I live in Sweden where "namnam" suggests something tasty or sweets (lollies/candy) and it is pronounced as "numb numb". I feel it should be written as "nam nam" to more accurately represent the sound, but hey, it is not my language.

      Swedish and partially English are derived from Old Norse. Also "nom nom" and "nam nam" seem similar, so the origin may be Norse. That does not disprove or rule out a Caribbean origin.

  26. German dogs say "wau wau" (pronounced wow wow). Curious as in German w normally has a v sound.

    And I (ScE) have always known the cat sound as "miaow" rather than "meow". Is that a transatlantic spelling difference? I've had one or two set-tos with Americans over it!

    PS Congratulations to all my American friends on last night's incredible events. I had tears in my eyes frequently, and actually gasped as Obama walked on to the stage in Chicago with his family, at the sudden making real of the fact that your first family consists of a woman who has never been fully proud of her country before and two lovely little girls who not so long ago, in the south at least, would have been referred to as picaninnies. Amazing. But off topic, so I'll stop now.

  27. I assumed 'nom nom' came from the land of the internet. Ditto 'Eeeuw' - the more 'e's, the more disgusting.

    And I would like to second Cameron's PS. No need to pretend to be Canadian any more...

  28. To me, 'ew', 'ugh' and 'yuck' are three different sounds.

    Ew is a drawn-out version of the vowel in 'pew'. To me, 'ugh' is pronounced 'ugg' though it can have a bit more of a fricative thing going on than a straight /g/. 'Yuck' is pronounced as it's spel{led/t}.

    When my Liverpudlian colleague and I were studying children's antonyms, I suggested searching for 'yummy' and 'yucky'. He looked at me like I was a bit weird. (Not for the first time.) We were looking at American children's speech, so it was a reasonable thing to look for. (We didn't find any in our corpus, though.)

  29. Can we expect then to see a poster soon called Gruntled?

  30. To me, "nom nom" wouldn't be repeated just twice as an equivalent of yum yum, but more often, as "nom nom nom nom nom" to show extreme approval of a morsel. It would need to be said faster than yum yum too, but this is getting a tad scary going into this much detail about things like this. A linguist's lot must be a surreal one at time.

  31. "Nom Nom Nom" is, at least in my experience related to something cute eating. Generally something like a Hamster or a small seen here:

    I think it is pictures like this that started it's use more frequently...

  32. Here in Northern California we use "num*" interchangeably with "yum*". E.g.:

    "Yum, yum!" <> "Num, num!"
    "That's YUMMY!" <> "That's NUMMY!"

    The only instance in my memory contradicting the "num*=yum*' equivalency is: a friend of mine has a son who, until he was unusually old (I think around 4 years of age), she allowed to suckle at her breast. (Don't know if she was still expressing milk at that point - didn't ask, as I was a tiny bit taken aback by the information as well as by it being mentioned matter-of-factly in the course of an otherwise unremarkable conversation...that family is a, to say the least...) The point of all this is: the kid's code word for "I want to suckle" was a plaintive "I want num-nums!" I have never heard this in any other context (and never known anyone else who allowed a child to do that so long...sorry if too much information, but it seemed interesting and linguistically pertinent...).

  33. I had the Eeyore revelation twenty years ago when I heard a real donkey for the first time while I was in Egypt. The animal had terrible gas and huge farts between braying, poor thing. I wasn't sure if a donkey only speaks when in pain, or if the gas problem was a standard thing with donkeys.

    Hee-haw sounds more like doofy farmers laughing, maybe due to that show from the seventies (that I don't remember very well, but involved overalls and knee slapping).

    I've been impressed with the nearly ubiquitous use of the letter m across languages in words meaning mother. This may be related to the nurturing (nursing) relationship between mother and infant.

    Fascinating topic. My kids love Richard Scarry, especially his book of sounds. A helicopter says wuppa wuppa, a policeman's whistle says breet. I think there are definitely resemblances between many languages and the words they use to imitate sounds. Train sounds, chugga chugga choo choo, I think I can, I think I can. These sounds pretty much apply to steam engines though. The modern trains, well NY subways would be a hellish screeching, but the DC subways are more like a whoosh or hush sound. or Shoop?

    This is fun!

    I've noticed that the police, ambulance and fire-engines all have different sirens around here. The ambulance siren is very much nee-naw, nee-naw. The fire-engine more WOOOOOOOOoooooooooo-OOOOOOOOooo.

    I'm looking forward to browsing around the bzzzpeek site.

    It seems to me that dogs make different sounds. Sandra Boynton has a good kids book out with ten different dogs that make different sounds. Yap-yap, yip yip, nnn-nnn (whining, crying). It makes sense to me that "vov", if this is how "wow" is pronounced, the v is close to the f sound, which brings the word closer closer to woof woof or ruff ruff.

  34. Hmm. I feel poorly represented. The child doing the American sounds on bzzzpeek sounds pretty anaemic to me.

  35. Whereas I pronounce the word "ugh" more like "Ew", but with a - is it called fricative? - at the end, like the Scottish "loch" sort of noise. Definitely not "ugg"!

    And as for nom and num - when my daughter was a baby, my sister, then aged about 14, persisted in referring to my being about to feed her as "Time for Nemi-num-nums!" (My daughter's first name is Emily, hence the "Nemi").

  36. 'Toot' is also used in AmE to mean 'passing gas', especially by a small child, as in: "Is the baby filling her diaper or just tooting?" (a sentence spoken too frequently in my house).

  37. The word for water running down the plughole in English is 'gurgle', which is pretty much as it sounds. But I far prefer the French version - 'glouglou'.

  38. I don't know if you saw the recent "Road to Germany" episode of Family Guy, but they had some fun with a European See & Say (e.g. "the cow says 'sha-zoom'").

  39. That website is great! Animal noises were the first instances I came across of this phenomenon. I remember being stunned that French dogs don't go 'woof'

    I wonder when 'honk' made it over to the UK, though. My mother has always said 'honk the horn', and she is from North England.

  40. The spelling "meow" for a cat noise was recently disallowed on Countdown as being the American spelling. The English spelling is "miaow".

    I just proofread a (UK) crossword with the clue "Sound of a car horn" and the answer HONK. Then again, another crossword in the same magazine gave the answer TOOT for essentially the same clue.

    It's been conjectured that "ma" sounds for mother are basic among humans, and ultimately stem from a baby saying "ah" (the most basic vocal noise of all) while opening and closing its mouth around a nipple. Similarly "n" sounds for rejection and negation stem from a closed mouth and pushing-away motion with the tongue.

    1. Hmm, that seems a bit Indoeuro-centric to me - I'm not proficient in any non-Indoeuropean languages, but according to google translate there's no m in "mother" in Finnish, Japanese, Turkish or Yoruba, just for a few examples.

  41. On the subject of cat noises, I've always been a fan of James Joyce's representation of it: mkgnao. It's just perfect.

  42. Every time I read one of your posts I think before I'm through with the first paragraph, "yes, yes, I will comment about this, only to find you've gone over it at length in the paragraphs below!

    On the subject of trains: I just learned of a class of British diesel-electrics, the 230s I believe, that were called "thumpers" after their loud characteristic banging motors.

  43. Another one: "pshaw". As a child reading P.G. Wodehouse, I assume this was in fact pronounced "pish-aw", and was something that classy people would say. I never associated it with the sound "pffft", as an American might render it, the unvoiced fricative expression of disbelief and contempt.

  44. Well tsk at you, fnarf.

  45. I think we're starting to confuse onomatopoeia and garden-variety interjections.

  46. What sound does the rain make in England? Is it the same sound as the bare feet of children on the floor?

    I think that car or train horns are more likely to go toot-toot than just toot and this maybe distinguishes them from farts. Both toot and poot are words for little farts. Pfft.

    Ew, ugh, and yuck are all prononced differently to me, same as Lynne pointed out. Is pshaw not pronounced pshaw?

    What sound does a cash-register make?

    We are reading a lot of graphic novels and comic books, my six-year old and I. It's fun to read all the sound effects: Boom, bang, tat-tat-tat, rrring, zzzz, snap, beep-beep, vroom, punt (kicking!), whissk, swish...

    1. What sound does the rain make in England? Is it the same sound as the bare feet of children on the floor?

      A very English song written in 1924 but best known as sung by Flanagan and Allen after 1939, The Umbrella Man goes

      Pitter, patter, patter,
      Pitter, patter patter,
      Here comes the rain.
      Let it pitter, patter,
      Let it pitter, patter,
      Don't mind the rain.

      A standard cliché in Britain (I can't speak for America) to indicate that somebody is expecting a baby is:

      You're going to hear the patter of tiny feet.

      I see Trinovant39 thinks that pitter can also go with feet. This doesn't sound right to me.

      What sound does a cash-register make?


    2. The classic use of toot for a train noise:

      I’d rather drive an engine than
      Be a little gentleman
      I'd rather go shunting and hooting
      Than hunting and shooting

  47. For the old car horns: arrooga arrooga. (Might not have the spelling right.)

  48. I am suddenly curious about the word for burp across languages.

  49. @Anne T. You beat me to it. In both BrE and AmE both rain and childrens' feet go pitter-patter.

    It's clear that other languages' onomatopeias are more interesting than our own.

    I had a friend raised in the Bronx of Catalan and Cuban parents who told me that rain pitter-patter was 'chipoli-chipoli'.

    You gotta love it.

  50. My older US/UK dual citizen child never referred to a nee-naw, but to a dees-kah (aka police car; also intoned on alternating pitches: dees-kah, dees-kah, dees-kah). So all vehicles with sirens remained dees-kahs when his little brother came along. Frogs go bibbit in our house - this one from my British husband.

    My Southern roots ensure that I am familiar with many onomatopoeic names for birds - bobwhite, whippoorwill etc. but apart from the cuckoo I wasn't aware of any British birds so named. That was until my mother moved down to Somerset and heard locals referring to the large green woodpeckers as yaffles.

  51. I've heard of the British word "whinging" which I like a lot and I think, though may be mistaken, that it is onomotopaeic. Maybe someone can refine the meaning for me, but it seems to be some combination of whining and cringing- so it represents both and audio aspect as well as a physical movement. It has not caught on or even really come to American's awareness, I don't think. Great word, though.

  52. As I was trying the bzzspeak site, I found that my cats were very interested in ALL of the cat onomatopoeia (coming close to the computer to try to hear what was going on) but they didn't react any of the others. I don't know what it means, but it is interesting.

  53. BrE likes hoot, which Americans reserve for owls,

    and baboons.

  54. Going right back to the first and fourth comments - on sneezes - I wonder if 'atishoo' in BrE arises from the use in the (BrE version of) 'Ring a Ring o' Roses'.
    The word a-TI-shoo scans better in the chorus than the more accurate onomatopoeia of a-CHOO:

    a-TI-shoo, a-TI-shoo, we all fall down

  55. Except that AmE uses 'ashes, ashes, we all fall down', which scans well for me, and doesn't have the extra syllable. So, why not just TI-shoo, TI-shoo?

  56. but we do need the a- inspired sound, and to get emphasis in the right place we have to convert tchoo into tishoo?
    Not a linguist as you can see!

  57. In American we say Ashes Ashes, we all fall down. Not achoo or atissue. My mother sneezes akachingie akachingie akachingie (usually in threes) but that is neither here nor there.

  58. Oh, whoops, didn't see Lynne's post. (I've been drinking, it's my birthday.)

  59. In Japanese, a frog says けろけろ (kero-kero), a cat says にゃにゃ (nyaa-nyaa) and a cow goes もうもう (moh-moh).

  60. U.S. here, but for cat onomatopoeia, I tend to use "mraow" and "miao" more often than "meow"...

    Though, I did once have a cat that sounded like a Wookiee -- we started calling him "the Urt" because he said "urt" and "nyurt".

    We also had a siamese cat that said "prung'niao" and "praow".

  61. Where I grew up in the UK (South Wales) Frogs did indeed "croak", but only in as much as a donkey "brays". The onomatopoeic equivalent of "Ee-Aw" for Frogs was "Reddit".

    Hence the joke about the Frog in the library; They got a new book every week but he'd already read it.

  62. Dveej up above, you may be surprised to find out that the worldwide age for weaning - and that's averaging in all the children who are never breastfed as well! - is the age of four. Many cultures breastfeed longer than that even! The World Health Organization, of course, recommends that women nurse for two years, and then for as long as it is mutually desirable. The AAP has a similar recommendation.

    Breastfeeding, at any age, can hardly be described as disgusting - at least, no more so than it is for any adult, well past the age of weaning, to go and drink the milk from a non-human! (And then to curdle the milk, scoop out the rotten milk solids, and call it cheese. Yummy, but whose bright idea was that???)

    And of course it can be brought up normally. Why shouldn't it be? People bring up all sorts of actually disgusting information about their kids (if I have to hear about potty training accidents ONE MORE TIME...!), and nobody says boo, so?

    You might find this page interesting:

    Anonymous at the end, that reminds me of a phrase used in the crafting community. When you have to undo a bit of work, it's called frogging. Why? Because you "rip it, rip it".

    Back on the original topic a bit more, all these various "boom" and "bang" noise for guns going off, and yet, whenever I read about somebody reporting on *actual* gunfire they always describe it as a "pop pop pop" noise.

  63. Veering away from English again...

    I've recently been told that Japanese has a whole lexicon of "onomatopoieic" words that refer to non-audible events. There's an agreed "sound" of being surprised, for instance, or falling in love.

    How true is this, and does anyone know some of the words?

    PS - In Esperanto both frogs and ducks say "kvak".

  64. Since you bring up other languages, in Russian frogs say "kva" and ducks "kra". We were very surprised at "ribbit" when we came to the US. To us that doesn't sound like a frog at all.

  65. Our UK emergency vehicles have sadly gone the way of the US now. I miss the two tone siren where, at least, you can tell if it is coming towards you or not.

  66. I found this article after a Google search when trying to figure out if there was an AmE equivalent to "pad pad pad." I understand BrE words I see on TV, but this one really makes my brain turn flips as I can't think of an onomatopoeic example for the same sound in AmE. We just say, "I heard footsteps." I wish there were more well-organized information on the subject; I find these nuances very intriguing.

  67. I've never seen 'pad pad pad' as a really conventionali{z/s}ed bit of onomatopoeia, so I haven't got much to say about it, but <a href=">this forum discussion on how to represent walking sounds</A> might be of interest.

  68. I actually have another theory regarding the etymology of Eeyore. In the Talmud, tractate Rosh Hashana (page 3a), the biblical king Sichon (mentioned in the Book of Numbers chapter 21) is related to the word Siye'ach. Rashi (the famous talmudic commentator) explains that siyeach means eey-yair ben soos in Aramaic. Ben soos in Hebrew means son of a horse, whereas Eey-yeir means a donkey. I guess if it is the son of a horse, then it must be a mule. But still. It sounds too similar to be a coincidence. (I found this blog after I did a google search to determine the etymology of Eeyore, since I thought I had found it after seeing that Rashi said this.)

  69. Since it's onomatopoetic, there is plenty of room for coincidence. Since mules make the same noises across the world, when people from diferentf language groups make imitative name for them, they will sound similar. If you want to find support for your theory, you'll need to determine whether AA Milne knew biblical languages.

  70. @AMG:

    But still. It sounds too similar to be a coincidence.

    Use Occam's Razor! To any speaker of nonrhotic British English, "Eeyore" is obviously simple onomatopoeia. There's no reason to bring in the Talmud, Nostradamus or the Da Vinci code...

  71. Very interesting read...

    I'm looking for written sound for hen and noted the terms "cluck" and "cackle" are used. Wondering if there is any difference between AmE and BrE?

    1. In my speech — and I think in British English generally —

      Cackle is more likely to be used of a hen that has just laid an egg.

      Cluck is more likely for a hen at other times.

      They are different sounds.

      An American Blues of the 1930s had the lines

      What you want with a rooster : he won't crow 'fore day
      What you want with a woman : won't do nothing she say
      What you want with a hen : won't cackle when she lay
      What you want with a man : won't do nothing he say

      From the White folk tradition there's a song performed to a banjo: Cluck Old Hen. One version includes:

      Cluck old hen cluck and sing
      You ain’t laid an egg since late last spring
      Cluck old hen cluck and squall
      Ain’t laid an egg since late last fall

      Cluck old hen cluck when I tell you
      Cluck old hen or I’m gonna sell you
      Last time she cackled cackled in the lot
      Next time she cackles cackle in the pot

    2. Many people know the cumulative song Old MacDonald Had A Farm — usually performed with imitation noises rather then onomatopoeic word. I prefer a song which — to the best of my recollection — builds up to

      Once I had an old horse
      My old horse didn't very well please me
      So every time i rode my horse
      I rode him around the trees, tree

      Horsie went neigh-neigh
      Cowie went moo-moo
      Sheepie went baa--baa
      Piggie went grunny-grun
      Goosie went gobby-gob
      Duckie went quack-quack
      Hennie went chicky-chack
      Cockie went cock-a-doodle-doo
      Here's luck to all my cocks and hens
      And my cock-a-doodle doo

    3. Hens like Bart but don't like art.

      "Art but but art.
      But art but but but butart.
      Bar butart but but but butart"!

      Their syntax is not entirely unlike a quagmire but their claim has been repeated thrice so it must be true.

  72. BrE. Some family examples of onomatopoeia.

    ATM/cash machine = biddly-bonk
    Any music where the beat overwhelms melody and lyrics = doof doof music.
    The latter also refers to the closing credits of the Br soap opera Eastenders: any end-of-episode cliffhanger is a “doof doof moment”.

  73. I hear "hoot hoot," and I think about a bunch of guys in a car, um... lustfully "complimenting" a lady walking down the side of the road... Kind of like catcalling but not... (Wish this wasn't where my brain goes, but here you go.)


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AmE = American English
BrE = British English
OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)