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The Translation of Onomatopoeias Across Languages

The Translation of Onomatopoeias Across Languages

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What springs to mind when you hear “ribbit”? If you are a native English speaker, it’ll likely conjure up an image of a frog. But if your native tongue is Spanish or Korean, it’s words like “croá-croá” or “gae–cool” respectively that will bring frogs to mind instead.

These are what is known as onomatopoeias: words coined to mimic the sounds associated with the action or object they describe. From animal onomatopeias like “oink oink” to onomatopeias describing natural phenomena like “boom” for thunder, there’s thousands upon thousands of different ways that languages interpret such expressions.

However, regardless of where exactly you are located, the sounds that pigs or thunder makes remain exactly identical. So what’s up with these insane variations? Technically, it’s mostly a reflection of the language’s phonetic system. Since every language pairs sounds together in its own way, this leads to differences in how its speakers will perceive them.

Quite fascinating, right? Below you’ll find human and animal onomatopoeias and their translations in different languages, both European and Asian. We strongly encourage you to try pronouncing them out loud. Enjoy!

Animal sounds

Cat meow

Starting out with the most obvious animal sound: our fluffy feline companions’! In between their attempts at devising various means of bringing about the destruction of the world, they make cute little meow sounds.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, there’s little variation to how these sounds come across from language to language. The most attention-grabbing onomatopoeia on this list would definitely be “nya” in Japanese. Why is it so different to the typical meow, miau or miao?
Well, in Japanese, there’s no direct equivalent to the “m” and “ou” sounds found in “miaou,” and so the “nya” sound is a closer approximation to the Japanese vocalization of a cat. What’s more, this sound adds a playful and cute element to the onomatopoeia. This interpretation resonates perfectly with the endearing image that cats have in Japan, a culture where feline adoration runs deep!
EnglishMeow, Miaow
Japaneseニャー (Nya)
RussianМяу (Myau)
Chinese喵 (Miāo)

The Translation of Onomatopoeias Across Languages

Dog bark

If you aren’t a massive cat fan, don’t worry – we couldn’t make our list without dedicating a section to dogs! Dogs and pups make a ton of adorable little sounds, but “woof” likely makes for the most prevalent one.
Speakers from different countries have their own interpretations of what a dog sounds like when it barks. In Russian and English, one can find alternative dog sounds depending on the size of the dog too, as you can see below:
English Woof (big dogs)
Yap yap (small dogs)
Japaneseワン (Wan)
RussianГав (Gav – small dogs)
Tяв, (Tyav – small dogs)
Chinese汪汪 (Wāng wāng)

Duck quack

The sounds of “meow” and “woof” might be largely similar across languages, but duck sounds show significantly more variation. Consider the Icelandic “bra bra” – how bizarre is that?
Such seemingly unusual or unexpected onomatopoeias exemplify the fascinating array of linguistic expressions found across the globe!
English Quack
FrenchCoin-coin (kwan kwan)
SpanishCuac cuac
Japaneseガーガー (Gā gā)
ItalianQua qua
RussianКря (Krya)
Chinese嘎嘎 (Gā gā)
IcelandicBra bra

Natural human sounds


Who doesn’t enjoy a good laugh? We are sure everyone does regardless of where they are from. When it comes to the sounds of laughter, even though they are acoustically indistinguishable across languages, their written representations vary greatly.
As you’ll see, in most European languages, laughter is represented as “ha ha” – not any differently to the way laughter sounds. Nevertheless, there’s sometimes a difference to the specific vowels and consonants being used. For example, French speakers often use “hi hi” or “héhé” instead of the usual “ha ha”. Similarly, Russian replaces “h” with “x” or “r”, resulting in хаха and “ra-ra” respectively.
Meanwhile, Japanese has an entirely different and quite fascinating interpretation to the sound –ufufu– which is described as a soft and gentle chackle.
English Ha ha
FrenchHa ha
Hi hi
SpanishJa ja
Japaneseウフフ (Ufufu)
GermanHa ha
ItalianAh ah
PortugueseHa ha
Russianха-ха (ha-ha)
га-га (ga-ga)
SwedishHa ha


There are a bazillion of different ways in which languages express the sound of a kiss in writing… without any of them actually effectively capturing the way a kiss sounds in real life! Take Japanese Chu, for example. Does that sound more like a kiss or a sneeze to you? Definitely the latter, right?
But there’s one thing that all these different sounds have in common, if you look at it from a phonological perspective (I see you there, linguists!). Words for kiss often incorporate sounds that mimic the act of pressing the lips together (like m, p, b), which imitates the gentle pursing of the lips during a real kiss. Alternatively, it may include sharper, “noisy” sounds (such as ch, ts, k) that resemble the audible intake of air when kissing. See it for yourself:
English Smooch
FrenchBisou, Mouah
Japaneseチュ (Chu)
RussianЦмок (Tsmok)
Chinese嘴嘟 (Zuǐ dū)

Thinking filler sounds

Sounds like “um” and “uh” serve a very important function in speech; they allow us to think our thoughts through before we express them without having to pause awkwardly mid-sentence.
Fillers like this aren’t exactly onomatopoeias, since they don’t mimic sounds associated with the object they represent. But they are still such common occurrences in natural speech that languages have invented multiple ways of expressing them. You can check them out below:
English Um
Japaneseあの (Ano)
RussianЭ-э (E-e)
Chinese那个 (Nèige)
You might have noticed that until now we’ve paid special attention to Japanese onomatopoeias. There’s a good reason for that – Japanese is renowned for its extensive and nuanced use of such linguistic expressions. In fact, Japanese boasts a whooping 1,000 onomatopoeias, a number that triples the quantity of English onomatopoeias!
This might not come as a surprise to manga fans out there. But since the Japanese language has a unique phonetic structure and an overwhelming low number of syllables, this allows for the formation of a wide variety of onomatopoeic expressions. Ufufu!
We hope you’ve had a good laugh (in your own language, of course) and gotten a glimpse into the fascinating world of the cross-linguistic variation of onomatopoeias. Until next time!
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