Onomatopoeia (AH-nuh-mah-tuh-PEE-uh) is a unique and indispensable technique. It translates the sounds of tangible objects in the world around us into phonetic sounds, represented by letters of the alphabet. The end result is that the reader can hear in his head or imitate out loud the precise sound that the writer is describing.
The word onomatopoeia comes to us from Greek and literally means “making names.” Most language is abstract; that is, it represents real objects and concepts with sounds that have absolutely no connection with the object or concept being described. Onomatopoeia, however, makes names through mimicry.
Uses of Onomatopoeia
Onomatopoeia is an essential part of everyday speech and writing. How else would we convey to someone that a cat says meow, a dog says woof, and a horse says neigh?
Practical purposes aside, onomatopoeia has a marvelous ability to delight and entertain. Children are introduced to the concept from a young age, imitating animals in songs such as “Baa, Baa, Black Sheep” or “Old MacDonald Had a Farm.” Comic books are replete with words like bam and pow. Some onomatopoeic words are staples of jokes:
Don’t cry—it’s only a joke!
While many poems use onomatopoeic words, others rely on onomatopoeic effect. This effect works not by spelling out a sound, but by using words that work together to reproduce the sound nevertheless. One of the most commonly cited examples of onomatopoeic effect is this excerpt from “Come Down, O Maid” by Alfred Tennyson:
“…the moan of doves in immemorial elms,
And murmuring of innumerable bees.”
The repetition of m and n sounds in these two lines replicates the sound of murmuring.
Onomatopoeia Around the World
Of course, onomatopoeia is somewhat subjective. For example, there are English-speaking writers who insist that the word sigh is onomatopoeic despite the fact that very few people indeed actually say “sigh” when exhaling, even deeply and with emotion.
Furthermore, although we seldom realize it, onomatopoeic words are limited to some degree by linguistic convention. When describing a natural sound, we use phonetic sounds that are familiar to us, and then transcribe these with letters of our alphabet. Hence the reason that onomatopoeia varies from country to country.
For example, take the sound of a car horn:
- Honk honk (English).
- Tut tut (French).
- Dyt dyt (Danish).
- Fom fom (Portuguese).
- Bært bært (Norwegian).
- Bip bip (Hebrew).
- Düt düt (Turkish).
- Ba ba (Mandarin).
- Pu pu (Japanese).
- Din din (Indonesian).
Or the sound of a barking dog:
- Woof woof (English).
- Guau guau (Spanish).
- Wouaff wouaff (French).
- Ham ham (Romanian).
- Gav gav (Russian).
- Hav hav (Hebrew).
- Blaf blaf (Afrikaans).
- Wang wang (Mandarin).
- Wan wan (Japanese).
- Gong gong (Malay).
But there is no question—onomatopoeia is a necessity in any language. More than that, it can be used to establish a vivid atmosphere, to show rather than tell. For this reason, onomatopoeia cannot be dismissed as a quirky children’s pastime. It is a real tool that can achieve powerful results in the hands of a skillful writer.
- Create a comic strip using onomatopoeia.
- Write a diamond poem that uses onomatopoeia.
- Break out your favorite nursery rhyme book. See how many uses of onomatopoeia you can find. (Example: Baa, baa, black sheep.)
- Identify the onomatopoeia words in How the Grinch Stole Christmas by Dr. Seuss or another favorite Seuss book.
- Create a page in your language/grammar notebook for onomatopoeia words you come across in your reading.
Alliteration, Assonance, and Onomatopoeia
From Khan Academy. (You may want to install an ad blocker before viewing.)
Examples of Onomatopoeia
Dictionary of sorts.
Interactive from ReadWriteThink.org.
Comic Strip Creator Interactive
Also from ReadWriteThink.org.
Waku Waku Japanese
Learn fun Japanese onomatopoeia.
Lesson Plans & Unit Studies
Lesson plan for younger students that uses Old MacDonald Had a Farm.
All Aboard the Choo-Choo Train
Onomatopoeia lesson plan with a train focus.
Playing with Onomatopoeia
Lesson plan … for the entire family!
Notebooking Pages & Printables
List of several words that can help students start the onomatopoeia page in their grammar notebook mentioned above.
Or use this sheet that includes room at the bottom to add your own words.
Comic Strip Planning Sheet
Whether or not you use the interactive, you might appreciate this sheet for planning out your comic strip as mentioned in the suggestions above.