What is onomatopoeia? To describe it in a zip, an onomatopoeia is a word that smacks the reader’s ears and makes them pop. Onomatopoeia words describe sounds by copying the sound itself.
Crash! Bang! Whiz! An onomatopoeia doesn’t just describe sounds, it emulates the sound itself. With this literary device, you can hear the meow of a cat, the whoosh of a bicycle, the whir of the laundry machine, and the murmur of a stream.
While some onomatopoeia words might seem juvenile to use, there are many more words to choose from. These sound devices can texture your writing with style and flare, while also drawing the reader into the world of your writing. So, let’s listen to this delightful tool that revs in the writer’s toolkit. We’ll take a look at some onomatopoeia examples in literature and discuss the surprising poetics of this euphonious device.
But first, let’s start with the basics, defining what an onomatopoeia is and isn’t. what is onomatopoeia?
An onomatopoeia is a word that sounds like the noise it describes. The spelling and pronunciation of that word is directly influenced by the sound it defines in real life. All onomatopoeia words describe specific sounds.
Onomatopoeia definition: a word that sounds like the noise it describes.
Some onomatopoeia examples include the words boing, gargle, clap, zap, and pitter-patter. When these words are used in context, you can almost hear what they describe: the boing of a spring, the clap of chalkboard erasers, and the pitter-patter of rain falling on the pavement like tiny footsteps.
Including onomatopoeia words in your writing can enhance the imagery of your story or poem. Technically, onomatopoeia is not a form of auditory imagery, because auditory imagery is the use of figurative language (like similes and metaphors) to describe sound. But, an onomatopoeia can certainly complement auditory imagery, as both devices heighten the sonic qualities of the work.
Note that not all onomatopoeia words are words listed in the dictionary. Many authors have made up their own sounds to complement their writing. In our onomatopoeia examples, you’ll see nonce words like “skulch,” “glush,” and “pit-a-pat.”
Sometimes, when these nonce onomatopoeia words are used often enough in everyday speech, they become dictionary entries. The etymology for “tattarrattat” is James Joyce’s Ulysses. It is also the longest palindrome in the Oxford English Dictionary.
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Onomatopoeia vs Phanopoeia
A relative of onomatopoeia, phanopoeia is a literary device in which the general sensation of something is emulated in the sounds of the words that the author uses.
This is easier demonstrated than explained. Read this short poem below, by Franz Wright:
I lived as a monster, my only
hope is to die like a child.
In the otherwise vacant
and seemingly ceilingless
vastness of a snowlit Boston
church, a voice
can do that–if you ask me, I will do it
In bold is phanopoeia. The repetition of “s” sounds, as well as the spaciousness of the poem’s stanza breaks, resembles the sounds of echoes in a mostly empty church. The reader can experience the vastness of the church through alliteration and stanza breaks. There is a sonic and spacious quality to the poem that the reader, if attentive, can climb into and never leave. The poem does not have onomatopoeia, however: none of the words used are emulating real life sounds.
How to Pronounce Onomatopoeia
Onomatopoeia is pronounced “On-oh-mah-tow-pee-uh.” The bolded syllables are stressed.
It’s a weird looking word, right? Onomatopoeia comes from the Greek “onoma” (word or name) + “poiein” (to make). In other words, this literary device is “word making,” as these words are invented using the sounds that they describe.
Poiein is also the root of the modern words “poet” and “poetry,” as the Greeks viewed the act of writing poetry as an act of invention, creating something from nothing.
Onomatopoeia Examples in Literature
Let’s take a look at how authors have used this device in some onomatopoeia examples.
“The Pied Piper of Hamelin” by Robert Browning
Just as he said this, what should hap
At the chamber door but a gentle tap?
Bless us, cried the Mayor, what’s that?
(With the Corporation as he sate,
Looking little though wondrous fat);
Only a scraping of shoes on the mat?
Anything like the sound of a rat
Makes my heart go pit-a-pat!
This poem, which is about the invasion of rats in a town called Hamelin, makes frequent use of onomatopoeia to emulate the sounds of scurrying rodents. Words like tap, scrape, and pit-a-pat situate the reader into the narrative poem’s anxiety and rat problems.
“I Heard a Fly Buzz—When I Died” by Emily Dickinson
What portion of me be
Assignable—and then it was
There interposed a Fly—
With Blue—uncertain—stumbling Buzz—
Between the light—and me—
And then the Windows failed—and then
I could not see to see—
There’s only one onomatopoeia here, and that’s the word buzz. The poem’s speaker hears this one final sound before her death. Thus, the buzzing carries a dual meaning: it is both figuratively and literally the only sound of the poem, and after that, silence.
“Honky Tonk in Cleveland, Ohio” by Carl Sandburg
It’s a jazz affair, drum crashes and cornet razzes.
The trombone pony neighs and the tuba jackass snorts.
The banjo tickles and titters too awful.
The chippies talk about the funnies in the papers.
The cartoonists weep in their beer.
The chaotic, cacophonous sounds of this poem perfectly emulate the feeling of being in a jazz bar. The instruments mixed with the peoples’ conversations overwhelms the reader, and the poem’s structured improvisation resembles jazz itself.
For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway
He saw nothing and heard nothing but he could feel his heart pounding and then he heard the clack on stone and the leaping, dropping clicks of a small rock falling.
This brief line offers so much context and imagery. With only the onomatopoeia words “pounding,” “clack,” and “clicks,” the reader can imagine a man standing at the edge of a cliff, overwhelmed by the grand endlessness of the world, feeling the terror of falling as pebbles skitter down the rocky earth.
“The Raven” by Edgar Allan Poe
Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore—
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door—
“‘Tis some visitor,” I muttered, “tapping at my chamber door—
Only this and nothing more.”
This poem’s tapping and rapping are so repetitive, the reader must feel how the speaker does—distracted and overwhelmed by an incessant sound. Poe is a master of using language to emulate sound: another poem of his, “The Bells,” repeats use of the word “bells” so much that the poem itself begins to jingle.
“The Weary Blues” by Langston Hughes
I heard that Negro sing, that old piano moan—
“Ain’t got nobody in all this world,
Ain’t got nobody but ma self.
I’s gwine to quit ma frownin’
And put ma troubles on the shelf.”
Thump, thump, thump, went his foot on the floor.
He played a few chords then he sang some more—
Langston Hughes is a prominent voice of the Harlem Renaissance, capturing the sound and vitality of mid-century Harlem, New York. This poem’s sounds and overall musicality capture the liveliness of the era, situating the reader in the sweet and soulful atmosphere of a blue’s bar.
Finnegan’s Wake by James Joyce
The fall (bababadalgharaghtakamminarronnkonnbronntonner-ronntuonnthunntrovarrhounawnskawntoohoohoordenenthur-nuk!) of a once wallstrait oldparr is retaled early in bed and later on life down through all christian minstrelsy.
James Joyce is famous for inventing and torturing language—to the point that native English speakers don’t recognize their own mother tongue. That long bababada word is an onomatopoeia that is supposed to represent the sound of thunder during the fall of Adam and Eve. While this nonce word may seem nonsensical, it actually pulls from a variety of languages, including the word “thunder” in Swedish, Hindi, Japanese, Danish, Gaelic, French, Italian, and Portuguese.
“I Was Sitting in McSorley’s” by E. E. Cumming
the Bar.tinking luscious jigs dint of ripe silver with warm-lyish wetflat splurging smells waltz the glush of squirting taps plus slush of foam knocked off and a faint piddle-of-drops she says I ploc spittle what the lands thaz me kid in no sir hopping sawdust you kiddo
he’s a palping wreaths of badly Yep cigars who jim him why gluey grins topple together eyes pout gestures stickily point made glints squinting who’s a wink bum-nothing and money fuzzily mouths take big wobbly foot
steps every goggle cent of it get out ears dribbles soft right old feller belch the chap hic summore eh chuckles skulch. . . .
E. Cummings’ Modernist poetry sought to translate experiences exactly as they happened. In “I Was Sitting in McSorley’s,” that experience is being drunk in a famous bar in the East Village, Manhattan. Cummings uses a variety of onomatopoeia words to capture the sounds and iniquities of the bar: real words, like tinking and slush, capture the sounds of drinks and glasses. But also, made-up words like glush, skulch, and ploc have a more disgusting sound to them, attempting to represent the grossness of the bar.
“Cynthia in the Snow” by Gwendolyn Brooks
The loudness in the road.
And laughs away from me.
It laughs a lovely whiteness,
And whitely whirs away,
Still white as milk or shirts.
So beautiful it hurts.
This poem has great onomatopoeia examples and phanopoeia examples. The repeated “sh” sounds make this poem feel blanketed by snow. You know how, after the first snowfall, the entire world is hushed? How there’s barely a breeze and no one outside and the sounds are muffled in blankets of “lovely whiteness”? This poem captures that through sound, making it an excellent onomatopoeia poem.
“TV People” by Haruki Murakami
You can find an archive of this story here. Originally published in The New Yorker, and then in Murakami’s collection The Elephant Vanishes.
The TV people exit and leave me alone. My sense of reality comes back to me. These hands are once again my hands. It’s only then I notice that the dusk has been swallowed by darkness. I turn on the light. Then I close my eyes. Yes, that’s a TV set sitting there. Meanwhile, the clock keeps ticking away the minutes. TRPP Q SCHAOUS TRPP Q SCHAOUS
Murakami is an endlessly inventive storyteller, and what I love most about this onomatopoeia example is how specific the sound is. Rather than describe a simple “swish” or “whir” of a moving pendulum, Murakami invents something that feels incessant, swift, and mechanical. When you try to speak this onomatopoeia out loud, you come pretty close to speaking the sound.
The following onomatopoeia list includes examples of the device that can be found in the dictionary.
Make note of two things: first, there are many onomatopoeia examples that exist outside of the dictionary. Because these words attempt to represent real sounds, they can be made up for whatever occasion in your own writing.
Second, some onomatopoeia words have multiple definitions. “Jingle,” for example, sounds like Christmas bells, but it also means a catchy song for advertising.
Some onomatopoeia words have multiple definitions. “Jingle,” for example, sounds like Christmas bells, but it also means a catchy song for advertising.
Try to use these fun sound words in your own writing!
- cock a doodle doo
- ba dum tss
A Note on the Translation of Onomatopoeia Words
Onomatopoeia words present an interesting conundrum to linguists and translators. Because these devices seek to directly emulate sound, one would assume that onomatopoeia words are the same across languages.
Oddly enough, this isn’t the case. For example, while in English the sound a dog makes is “woof” or “arf,” some Spanish speakers represent the dog’s bark as “guau;” in Japanese, “wan wan,” and in Catalan, “bup.”
How can this be? If you just speak English, you probably won’t hear “bup” no matter how much you listen to your dog. This conundrum points towards the unconscious ways that language shapes reality. The languages we speak restrict the sounds that we can produce and readily hear, so while an English speaker certainly hears their dog woof, a Japanese speaker undoubtedly hears their dog’s wan wan. (The Japanese language also possesses numerous onomatopoeia words, more than most languages do. Take a look at this list to see how Japanese language speakers hear sounds differently than English speakers.)
At the same time, many onomatopoeia examples in the English language come from Latin and Greek. “Bowwow,” for example, is influenced by the Latin baubor and the Greek bauzein, words which themselves are likely onomatopoeic. Of course, Latin and Greek root words make up about 60% of the English language dictionary. Perhaps that influences why we hear what the Ancient Greeks and Romans heard?
By noticing the ways that culture and language shape onomatopoeia words, you can also notice the many possible sounds that language hasn’t yet captured. The onomatopoeia is an experimental literary device, so play around with it, research how sounds are transcribed in other languages (for fun!), and lean into the possibilities of words and sounds.
Why Use Onomatopoeia in Your Writing?
Onomatopoeia words serve many different functions in writing. These include:
- Resembling Real Life. By capturing the sounds of everyday life in language, the writer makes the world of their story or poem much more accessible.
- Playing With Language. Onomatopoeia words can be very experimental, and whether the writer uses existing words or comes up with new onomatopoeia words, this device offers a playfulness with language that all writers should embrace.
- Drawing the Reader in. For the most part, readers love onomatopoeia words. These words are fun, interesting, and compelling to the reader, and they help establish the mood of a certain passage.
- Writing Comics. Comic book writers and graphic novel writers often rely on onomatopoeia words, both pre-existing and made-up, to show sound effects and keep the story interesting.
- Style. An easy way to add texture and variety to your writing style is with this literary device.
- Developing Mental Images. Although an onomatopoeia is not imagery on its own, it does help build a mental image of the writing’s sights and sounds. Imagery and “show, don’t tell writing” are essential tools in the author’s toolbox.
Explore Onomatopoeia at Writers.com
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