Japanese use a plenty of onomatopoeia in expressing the degree and level of joyfulness / funniness when laughing and sorrow when crying, and they always come in refrains of onomatopoeia. For examples:

We laugh,’ Wat, ha, ha,” or “Kyatkya, kya” when laugh loud.

We laugh “Geta geta” or "Kero kero" when we laugh rustically.

We laugh "Niya, niya" when we laugh indecently.

We laugh “Niko, niko” when we laugh mildly, or smile.

We laugh "Hera hera" when we laugh ingratiatingly.

We laugh “Kusu, kusu” when we chuckle.

We cry “Wah wah” or “Gyah, gyah” when we cry loudly or bitterly.

We cry “Meso, meso” or “Same zame” when we weep.

We cry “Shiku, shiku” or "Beso, beso" when we snivel.

These onomatopoeia are not only uttered and heard in voice, but also writen and read in literature. I wonder if this is unique to Japanese language. I don't know if Chinese and Koreans have the similar linguistic (or behavioral) trait or not, though I understand we imported the phrase,"呵々大笑 – laugh ha, ha (loudly)” from Chinese idiom.

Though I’ve never seen the case, do Anglophones use onomatopoeia in describing the degree or level of laughter and tearful voice? If the answer is No, the case is closed.

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    We have "hee hee" or "tee hee" for laughter and "boo hoo" for crying but I'm not sure there's anything that illustrates the degree of emotion.
    – Ste
    Aug 19, 2013 at 6:54
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    @Ste I'd have said that these were so far from the actual non-verbal sounds usually emitted by people that they were purely in the domain of pre-school-childrens authors (I've chosen the apostrophe-free version). But my daughter, without ever having been exposed to them to my knowledge, came up with both 'tee hee' and 'boo hoo' when she was very young. Aug 19, 2013 at 8:49
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    @EdwinAshworth - It's an interesting one. I am not sure we've got recognised non-verbal sounds but that was the closest I could get. How about "Wah" for crying?
    – Ste
    Aug 19, 2013 at 9:15
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    Tee hee is chuckling. Ho-ho is jovially and deep (Santa laugh). Har-di-har-har is sarcastic.
    – mplungjan
    Aug 19, 2013 at 9:52
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    And bwahaha for evil laughter, nyeh-nyeh-nyeh for cackling… However, given the sheer multitude and complexity of Japanese onomatopoeia and kinetics, it is not surprising that it has more words for this than English. The only onomatopoeia I've been able to stomp Japanese people with when asking for Japanese counterparts is the Chinese 咿唔, which means “the sound of reading inwardly”. Aug 19, 2013 at 16:04

4 Answers 4


I enjoyed your question. The answer is yes, we use onomatopoeia to indicate degrees of laughter and crying.

The list that users have supplied so far (with a couple of additions from me):

Degrees of regular laughter

  • yuk yuk - head-tossing or belly-holding (after a really funny joke, for example)
  • ho ho - jovial and deep
  • Ha ha - hearty or mild (or sometimes mocking)
  • heh heh - half-hearted
  • hee hee or tee hee - a peep of laughter

Context specific laughter

  • bwahaha or mwahaha - evil
  • nyeh-nyeh-nyeh - cackling
  • nyuck nyuck - imbecilic
  • har-di-har-har or har har or haw haw - sarcastic or mocking

Degrees of crying

  • wah - full force
  • boo hoo - mild or medium
  • sniff sniff - sniveling

I don't think anyone has offered an expression for weeping.


The various terms for laughing in English are:

  • to cackle - to laugh sharply in a high pitch like a crow
  • to giggle - a suppressed laugh
  • to guffaw - a deep belly laugh
  • to chuckle - an understated laugh
  • to snicker, snigger - to laugh through the noise (mouth closed) at something rude

There's quite a bit more nuance and presonality to these different words than the dictionary gives. Also, this isn't a comprehensive list.

They aren't strictly onomatopoeic but they are close, some more so than others. To twitter sounds like an old lady barely laughing, to guffaw like a big fat man letting it all out.

There is also a selection of ways of spelling 'tee hee' for 'titter', 'haw haw' for 'guffaw'. But these are not set in stone. Also, the sound-words like 'tee hee' are not actually the sound that people use (for example like how a sneeze doesn't actually sound like 'atchoo' which how it is normally presented in wwriting).

Some words sound very much like what they describe (like words for animal sounds). In the other extreme, for most words for noises, there is no connection with the sound of the word and the sound itself ('to bray' for a donkey sound).

There really are no words that -are- what they describe.

So in comparison to Japanese, English doesn't seem to have such a rich set of words for laughing, and what it has is not so closely onomatopoeic, but there is something of the same system.

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    When I sneeze, it certainly does sound like “(h)atchoo”! Aug 19, 2013 at 16:07
  • +1 for guffaw and chuckle, which I would have answered – plus also the related chortle. Aug 20, 2013 at 10:40
  • @JanusBahsJacquet: Before you could read, did they sound that way? Is that the sound of a sneeze by a Japanese person?
    – Mitch
    Aug 20, 2013 at 12:35
  • @Mitch, I can’t remember what my sneezes sounded like before I could read—but even when I try (and I have tried, consciously) to make a different sound when sneezing, I cannot. To be precise, it sounds like ‘ha-choo’ or ‘ha-chiu’ when I sneeze, nearly always with a preceding h. Aug 20, 2013 at 12:38
  • @ Janus Bahs Jacquet re "even when I try (and I have tried, consciously) to make a different sound when sneezing." I know what I'm going to be doing on my next lazy Sunday. hee hee
    – user49891
    Aug 21, 2013 at 0:52

Assuming that you are referring to a literary context; a quick review of English-speaking authors such as Jane Austen returns very few, if any, results for this type of expression save for the rare, "Ah!" Revewing the text for instances where onomotapeia could be used (where a character is crying or laughing) the author generally prefers to explain the circumstances around the emotion, rather than how that character expressed the emotion: "She was awake the whole night, and she wept the greatest part of it."

There are some common expressions, as noted in the comments above, which are similar in written form and whose meaning is determined by the tone or inflections used when spoken. For example, "Ha ha" could be a hearty laugh, a mild laugh, or in the case of Nelson, the bully from the Simpsons, mockery of someone's fate. Written variants on that phrase exist ("Har, Har," "Haw, Haw", etc.), but other information usually accompanies it to explain the meaning.

Other exemples include: "Uh-huh," for agreement; "Nyuck, Nyuck" was an imbecilic laugh made famous by the Three Stooges; more recently, we say, "Meh" when we don't care; and "Gah!" when we are surprised.


Your question opens up a can of worms, to be sure. While onomatopoeia is the use of words whose pronunciation imitates the sound the word describes, Anglophones have perhaps more words that bear no relationship (or very little relationship) to real-world sounds than they do to words that do.

Buzz (or bzzzzz) is a good example of the latter, and screech is a good example of the former. In other words, very often the connection between sound and pronunciation is sometimes rather a product of imagination, as Robert A. Harris points out in his "A Handbook of Rhetorical Devices." Furthermore, "Onomatopoeia can produce a lively sentence, adding a kind of flavoring by its sound effects, no matter the lack of a real-life "referent."

It would appear, then, Japanese has many more layers of meaning that can be communicated onomatopoeically than English, at least pertaining to humor and sadness. What Anglophones seem to lack in this regard they more than make up for, however, in nonverbal cues that liven their quasi-onomatopoeic words.

For example, when we say "boo-hoo" in a facetious or even sarcastic way, we might take our fists, put them up to our eyes, and in a circular motion with a "sad" look on our faces say "boo-hoo," thus communicating mock sadness, as if to say, "Grow up and quit acting like a baby!"

Another nonverbal cue with sarcastic overtones is the "smallest violin playing the saddest song" gesture, in which a person rubs his index finger and thumb together at the tips in a rocking motion to communicate mock sadness. The gesture, I assume, imitates (the heart of onomatopoeia) the see-saw motion of a violinist as s/he plays the violin!

The words cited by the commenters, above, are good examples, but again, they do not really imitate any real-life sounds. Combined with gestures, facial expressions, and general "body English," they do, however, communicate shades of meaning. What's more, you do not necessarily have to be a good actor to pull them off; people use them all the time quite naturally!

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    None of the accompanying body language would be useful in written English unless they were spelled out with the onomatopoeic text, such as "He rubbed his balled-up fists in his eyes and cried out "BOO HOO HOO!", in a sarcastic way." What seems to be more to the OP's point is whether we have those onomatopoeic sounds in English. We may not have as many as the Japanese and the ones we have may not be as idiomatic as "ha ha" and "boo hoo", but there are plenty in use by writers of English language literature. Aug 19, 2013 at 15:40
  • @KristinaLopez: Hey, what can I say? I have an oral fixation. By the way, we do speak in English, do we not? Aug 20, 2013 at 4:32

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