by Kate Woodford
What do the words crash, whisper and purr have in common? They’re all onomatopoeias. An onomatopoeia is a word that copies or in some way suggests the sound of the action that it refers to, whether it is ‘crash!’, (the loud noise of two things hitting each other and causing damage), ‘whisper’, (to speak very quietly, using only the breath), or ‘purr’, (to make a quiet, continuous sound, such as a happy cat does). ‘Onomatopoeia’ is also an uncountable noun, referring to the use or quality of such words. This week, we are looking at this interesting category of words in sets of different types. As ever, we are focusing on frequent words that you are likely to hear or read.
Animal noises are a fairly obvious example of onomatopoeia. In the English language, dogs bark, lions roar, wolves howl, sheep bleat and mice squeak. (These verbs are also used as nouns.) There is another, smaller set of onomatopoeic animal sound words used mainly by small children or by adults speaking to small children. This set includes moo! for cows, baa! for sheep, woof woof! for dogs and hiss! for snakes. Interestingly, many animal sounds are represented by different words in other languages, even though animals everywhere tend to make the same – or similar – sounds.
Of course, it is not only animal noises that are described using onomatopoeic words. People too make sounds that we describe in this way, (and not always pleasant sounds!). When we suddenly allow air from the stomach to come out through the mouth, we burp or belch. Both of these words are onomatopoeic. (Try saying them in a deep voice!). If you have a cold and you take air in quickly through your nose to stop the liquid coming out, you sniff. The word copies the sound that is made. The hiccups refers to the repeated, loud noises that you make for a short period when the muscle just below your chest becomes tight. Again, the word imitates the two sounds (hɪk – ʌp) that people typically make when they are suffering from this condition. If you are very hungry, you may say that your stomach grumbles, in imitation of the low, continuous noise that it makes. Finally for this set, a person who vomits (=has the food from their stomach come up through their mouth) retches as they do so.
There is another set of onomatopoeic human noise words, but this time spoken noises. A person who speaks quietly, often to complain about something, is sometimes said to mutter, copying the low, unhappy sound that their words make: He muttered something about having too much work. Other onomatopoeic ‘complaining’ words are grumble and groan: She was grumbling about her job./ The kids were groaning about having to walk. Groan is also used onomatopoeically to refer to the deep, long sound that is made by someone in great pain: He lay on the floor, groaning with pain. Finally, a more positive spoken onomatopoeic word is the cat’s sound purr, when used of people. Someone who purrs, speaks in a quiet, low voice that suggests pleasure: ‘I love it when you stroke my back, ‘ she purred.