"What is Onomatopoeia?": A Literary Guide for English Students and Teachers

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What is Onomatopoeia? - Transcript (English and Spanish Subtitles Available in the Video. Click HERE for the Spanish transcript)

By Raymond Malewitz, Oregon State Associate Professor of American Literatures

As anyone who has studied a second language knows, the relationship between a word and the concept it carries is arbitrary.  When I say the word “pencil,” there is nothing inherent in the sound of that word or the way that it is written that is pencil-like.  We call it a pencil because of convention—everyone who speaks English has learned that the sound “pencil” means this thing.

In German, this same thing is referred to as a Bleistift.  And is Spanish it is “lápiz.”  And in Bengali it is পেন্সিল [pēnsila]. And again, there is nothing inherently bleistift-y or lápiz-y or pēnsila-y about a pencil.

As the great linguist Ferdinand de Saussure observed over a century ago, there is never a singular, natural relationship between a word and the concept that it signifies. Otherwise, we’d all be speaking the same language! Word don’t mimic the natural world.  They replace that natural world with a series of arbitrary sounds and signs that help up to process it.

But wait a second.  What about a word like boom, or chuckle, or hiccup, or cock-a-doodle-do?  These words seem to mimic what they represent out there in the world—the sounds of explosions, of laughter, of hiccups, and of roosters.

The literary term for these kinds of words is “onomatopoeia,” from the Greek words “onoma,” meaning name, and “poiein” meaning to make. But instead of making or using arbitrary words to signify some unrelated thing (like a pencil), when we speak in onomatopoeias, we are using words that sound like the things they describe.  “Boom” sounds a lot like, well, this… [BOOM].  Does this mean that some words DO have a natural relationship to the world out there? 

Saussure takes up this question in his Course in General Linguistics, published in 1916, and his answer is… well, not exactly.  After all, he reasons, onomatopoeias sound different as we move from language to language.  In English, we say “cock-a-doodle-do” to describe the crowing of a rooster.  In French, however, the word is “cocorico,” and in German it is “kikeriki.” The same goes for hiccup, which is “hoquet” in French and “hipo” in Spanish.

Now, French and German roosters probably don’t have French or German accents. And people around the world all probably hiccup in the same way. So what accounts for these differences? 

What Saussure concludes is that we understand the sounds that we hear out there in the world not only through the actual sound of a rooster, a hiccup, or an explosion but also through the languages that we know. 

Onomatopoeias are therefore strange words that mimic the sounds of the natural world at the same time as they are shaped by the language we speak. And this is what makes them so fascinating to poets and other literary authors. 

To my mind, the most interesting forms on onomatopoeia call attention to this relationship between sound and language. I am thinking here of words and phrases that produce what is called an onomatopoetic effect, even if the words are not, strictly speaking, onomatopoeia.  Let me give you one example. 

William Carlos Williams’ 1946 poem “The Injury” opens with the following lines:

From this hospital bed
I can hear an engine
breathing—somewhere
  in the night:

—Soft coal, soft coal,
  soft coal!

 Williams’s speaker is listening to the engine of a train here, which takes in “soft coal” in the same way that we inhale oxygen to breathe.  But Williams’ metaphor stretches into the realm of onomatopoeia in the repetition of the last lines: “soft coal, soft coal, soft coal!”, which mimics the chuffing of a coal-fired steam train. 

The words themselves—soft and coal--would never be considered onomatopoeia.  Instead, they work like normal words: they are arbitrary sounds for two different concepts.  But by placing them in sequence within the stanza, Williams brings forth a surprising sound that is BOTH natural and linguistic. In this way, his poem shows how onomatopoeias align the sounds of the world out there with the words that we use to understand that world.

If you have any other examples of onomatopoeia or onomatopoetic effects, I hope you’ll share them with me in the comment section below.  Happy reading, everybody.

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The Oregon State Guide to English Literary Terms