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.
If you watch popular Chinese movies or read even the easiest Chinese books, you’ll have probably already have encountered some onomatopoeias without even realizing it. Chinese onomatopoeias aren’t hard, plus they’re pretty fun to learn!
Not only do they make an expression more vivid, they also imply a strong understanding of Chinese culture and language. Onomatopoeias can also be neat to use in daily conversation, and can separate you as a learner who takes the extra effort to go outside of the basic phrases/vocab.
So let’s zoom into these words and get started!
Classical Versus Modern Chinese Origins
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.
Chinese onomatopoeic words are divided into two general categories. The first are words that develop from classical Chinese. These will have been passed down through written records and are still mainly used in writing. You will usually be able to tell these apart from the modern Chinese origins because they will include marked tones.
Some Chinese onomatopoeic words will come from modern spoken Chinese, and these will usually not be marked with tones. This is because they lack fixed Chinese character forms, and it’s difficult to fix their tones.
Each word can be broken down even further into separate categories. After you learn some of the basic vocabulary that make up most of the onomatopoeias, you can begin to reorganize them into various forms for different circumstances.
Learning the basic vocabulary associated with onomatopoeias is easy: you simply need access to authentic Chinese learning material. For that I suggest FluentU!
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.
10 Common Types of Chinese Onomatopoeia You’ll Love Saying
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.
1. One-character Words
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
3. Vowel Rhymes
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
4. 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.
5. 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
- 旺旺 (wàng wàng) — 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
10. A-li BC
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!
And One More Thing...
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FluentU has a wide range of contemporary videos—like dramas, TV shows, commercials and music videos. In fact, below you'll even see the song "Let It Go" from the hit movie "Frozen":
FluentU brings these native Chinese videos within reach via interactive captions. You can tap on any word to instantly look it up. All words have carefully written definitions and examples that will help you understand how a word is used. Tap to add words you'd like to review to a vocab list.
FluentU's Learn Mode turns every video into a language learning lesson. You can always swipe left or right to see more examples for the word you're learning.
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