Every language has its stock of onomatopoeic expressions, but they vary across nationalities and cultures.

For example, the American “bow wow” (a rapper’s name) has its Japanese equivalent in “wan-wan.” And the Korean equivalent is probably “mong mong.” The American “pitter-patter” has “para-para” in Japanese. American “chugalug,” Japanese “goku-goku.” And many others.

Of course the Japanese expressions above are written in Romaji or Western script, but there’s no denying that the whole reception of sounds is different.

My question is: Is there any technical term (or subfield) that can be used to refer to or that can best summarize this phenomenon? Of how almost exactly the same events would lead to completely different onomatopoeia across languages?

  • Interesting question. I was tempted to say the phonology of the language in question, but sometimes onomatopoeic words use sounds outside the language's normal inventory such as the Japanese /p/, which otherwise occurs only in foreign words and in sandhi.
    – Colin Fine
    Commented Jun 22, 2012 at 12:11
  • Thanks Colin. I hope there'll be an answer. I'm not so sure coz of the nature of the topic. I'd like to write a short essay about this particular phenomenon, if I'm able to nail it down somewhat
    – Cool Elf
    Commented Jun 22, 2012 at 12:23
  • Good question. One thing that you learn pretty early on when learning a new language is that the animal sound are “different” in that language. For example, here is an English-language page on the Spanish animal sounds. Roosters no longer say cockle-doodle-do; instead they say kikirikí (or quiquiriquí) and so forth. Also perhaps noteworthy is that critters of onomatopoetic names in one language (like, chickadees) are often not such in another language.
    – tchrist
    Commented Jun 22, 2012 at 12:43
  • @tchrist, yes, I think it's a fascinating subject. What I learned from Mitch today is that they "conform to some extent to the broader linguistic system." I'd like to read more about the "to some extent" and the deeper nature of onomatopoeias as a whole, but there's probably none available at this time
    – Cool Elf
    Commented Jun 22, 2012 at 14:15

2 Answers 2


Mitch is right. But onomatopoiea per se is a very insignificant phenomenon, since it can only refer to words about sounds, and how often do we talk about sounds?

Onomatopoeia is, however, part of a larger, more general, and sporadically studied field of linguistic research called (variously) sound symbolism, phonosemantics, ideophones, assonance/rime analysis, and probably other names as well. Here's a list of my own research in the area, with a bibliography of assonance/rime phonosemantics.

In English, for instance, well over half of the shorter words have part of their meaning correlated with their sound, particularly initial consonant clusters (called "assonances", like /kl/ in cluster) and "rimes" (vowel nucleus plus coda, like /-əmp/ in stump).

Aural meaning types (e.g, clang, clatter, clap, clink, clunk) are very common, and each one of the meaningful clusters and rimes usually has some aural sense as well; in the case of kl-, which means something like 'contiguous; connect', the aural senses mostly have to do with noises made by things coming together.

And every language has stuff like this going on. Lots of it.

  • Thanks John for sharing work of your own! I suppose it'll take more than one postgraduate semester to digest all this. But I'll definitely enjoy browsing through them. Thus far you have the most extensive background on this topic
    – Cool Elf
    Commented Jun 22, 2012 at 15:49
  • As I said, it's only sporadically studied. It's the kind of phenomenon that doesn't fit easily into the type of linguistic theories that are stylish these days, so it's not glamorous enough to get a grant or a promotion. Though that's changing. Commented Jun 26, 2012 at 19:46
  • I hope it does change. These days, onomatopoeias have some ready application in online chats. And they reveal a basic and deep connection to how different nationalities perceive sounds
    – Cool Elf
    Commented Jun 27, 2012 at 0:33
  • They certainly do that. There are other linguists who're enthusiastic about them; I'm considered fairly conservative, believe it or not. But it never pays to get too far ahead of what your colleagues are willing to listen to. Commented Jun 27, 2012 at 0:36
  • Thanks for your insights into onomotapoeia and linguistic research in general:-)
    – Cool Elf
    Commented Jun 27, 2012 at 3:00

Your stated question is:

Is there any technical term (or subfield) that can be used to refer to or that can best summarize this phenomenon?

Informally, no, there's not a subfield of phonology studying this phenomenon that has its own special one word latinate name.

Of course, there may be papers on the subject (which would de facto comprise a 'subfield') but then it would called the study of


To find out more about examples see that article and links to lists there, but see especially Cross-linguistic_onomatopoeias.

  • Thanks Mitch. I checked out the link you gave me, and what I learned is: "onomatopoeias conform to some extent to the broader linguistic system they are part of." I'm hoping there's a closer and deeper take on it than "Cross-linguistic onomatopoeias" but there's probably none yet
    – Cool Elf
    Commented Jun 22, 2012 at 14:07
  • onomatopoeiology?
    – Charles
    Commented Jun 22, 2012 at 14:41
  • @Charles how onomatopoetic of you Commented Jun 22, 2012 at 15:20
  • @Charles, Andy, Are we calling dibs on naming a new branch of linguistics (albeit so trivial)? :-)
    – Cool Elf
    Commented Jun 22, 2012 at 15:45

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