Have you ever wondered if cats still "meow" or if dogs still "woof" in Chinese?
Onomatopoeias are a playful and easy way to imitate sounds in the natural world. They can sometimes be hard to grasp unless through an example, like how splish splash and drip drop illustrate the sounds of water in English.
When learning other languages, it's obvious that onomatopoeias will slightly differ. Whether this is based on the language itself or cultural differences, some Chinese onomatopoeias may be familiar to English speakers, while others may be foreign to the tongue.
So let's zoom into these words and get started!
Chinese onomatopoeias, or 象声词 (xiàng shēng cí), can usually be recognized because most words will have the 口 (kǒu) radical. This is because the mouth radical usually symbolizes a sound being made.
The categories below will allow you to understand how Chinese onomatopoeic words are being formed, making it easier to pick them out and use in conversation. Here are the main categories and some helpful examples to get you started on mastering Chinese onomatopoeias.
Simple Chinese Onomatopoeia
Simple Chinese onomatopoeias make up many of the rest of the reduplicated and words with affixes. Having a firm grasp of these one-word characters will help with building up more complicated phrases.
Simple onomatopoeic words include characters that are monosyllabic. These are one character words that will usually not have a tone to them. Some simple one-character words and their English equivalents include:
轰 (hōng) — boom
啪 (pā) — bang
砰 (pēng) — thump
唰 (shuā) — swish
Some simple onomatopoeic words will be alliterative, where both syllables use the same initial. Examples include:
叮当 (dīng dāng) — clashing of metal or porcelain objects sounds
嘀嗒 (dí dā) — equivalent to English "tick-tock"
噼啪 (pī pā) — cracking or slapping sound
Vowel rhymes are where both syllables use the same final. For example:
哗啦 (huá la) — crashing or flowing sound of water
轰隆 (hōng lóng) — rumbling sound
呼噜 (hū lū) — snoring sound
咔嚓 (kā chā) — cracking sound
Other Two-character Words
There are some other words that do not fall in so easily to the above categories, but are still simple two-character onomatopoeias.
刺溜 (cì liū) — sliding sound
嘎吱 (gā zī) — breaking or creaking sound due to heaviness
扑通 (pū tōng) — the sound when heavy objects are landing
Reduplicated Chinese Onomatopoeia
Reduplicated onomatopoeias are ones that will repeat certain characters in certain patterns. This is similar to onomatopoeia sounds in English like how a clicking sound can turn into "click click," the sound of rain takes on "pitter patter, pitter patter" or a dog bark sounds like "woof woof." Many of these will be similar to their English counterparts, so you may recognize these sounds right away.
AA and AAA
These will make up the basis of the other forms, but can be simplified to these characters:
哈哈 (hā hā) — laughter sound
呼呼 (hū hū) — sound of the wind
哗哗 (huá huá) — sound of water or rain falling
唧唧 (jī jī) — buzzing or chirping sound, usually related to insects
喵喵 (miāo miāo) — meowing sound
哇哇 (wā wā) — crying sound
汪汪 (wāng wāng) — the sound of the bark of a dog
嘻嘻 (xī xī) — giggling sound
Any of the above onomatopoeic words that take on a AA form can also be transformed to take on the AAA form. Just as we differentiate "haha" from "hahaha," a character in AAA form will usually represent a more intense version of the sound.
Note that cats do still "meow" in Chinese, but dogs "wang" instead of "woof!"
Words in the ABB form will be composed of a disyllabic word where the second syllable is repeated. For example:
嘀铃铃 (dí líng líng) — telephone ringing sound
咕噜噜 (gū lū lū) — water or rolling sound
轰隆隆 (hōng lóng lóng) — rumbling noise
哗啦啦 (huá la la) — wind or flowing water sound
The opposite of words in ABB form, AAB form is made up of a disyllabic word whose first syllable is repeated.
叮叮当 (dīng dīng dāng) — the sound when metal strikes on metal, or sounds of bells
乒乒乓 (pīng pīng pāng) — the sound that happens when objects strike each other
Words in AABB form will usually be separated by a hyphen to show the difference between AA and BB.
滴滴-嗒嗒 (dī dī-dā dā) — ticking clock sound
唧唧-咕咕 (jī jī-gū gū) — whispering sound
叽叽-喳喳 (jī jī-zhā zhā) — birds chirping sound
噼噼-啪啪 (pī pī-pā pā) — patting or slapping sound
乒乒-乓乓 (pīng pīng-pāng pāng) — the sound that happens when objects strike each other
Onomatopoeias in ABAB form are usually from the simple category above, and are duplicated for a dramatized version and effect.
嘀嗒嘀嗒 (dī dā dī dā) — ticking clock sound
哗啦哗啦 (huá la huá la) — wind or flowing water sound
扑通扑通 (pū tōng pū tōng) — the sound when heavy objects are landing
Onomatopoeic Words with Affixes
This last category contains words with four syllables that are formed by using a disyllabic word for the first and third syllables, usually using the infix "里 lǐ" as the second syllable. The fourth syllable will begin with the letter "l" and will have the same final as the third syllable.
This may sound confusing, but will make sense with a couple of helpful examples. Taking some of the examples above and fitting them into this form would look like:
叽咕 (jī gū) becomes 叽里咕噜 (jī lĭ gū lū) — whispering sound
噼啪 (pī pī) becomes 噼里啪啦 (pī lĭ pāi la) — patting or slapping sound
乒乓 (pīng pāng) becomes 乒里乓啷 (pīng lĭ pāng lāng) — the sound that happens when objects strike each other
With the basic forms and vocabulary in mind, you'll be able to start using onomatopoeias in your own conversations. Try a few now and surprise your Chinese-speaking friends!
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