The Complete Guide to Onomatopoeia in Chinese
Onomatopoeias are a playful and easy way to imitate sounds in the natural world—like how splish splash and drip drop are the sounds of water in English.
Chinese onomatopoeias— 象声词 (xiàng shēng cí)—are divided into two general categories: classical Chinese and modern spoken Chinese.
Classical Chinese onomatopoeias come from written records and include tone marks, whereas modern spoken onomatopoeias usually don’t.
In this post, you’ll learn essential Chinese onomatopoeias, onomatopoeia categories and how to use them in real life.
- Simple Chinese Onomatopoeia
- Reduplicated Chinese Onomatopoeia
- Onomatopoeic Words with Infixes
Simple Chinese Onomatopoeia
Simple Chinese onomatopoeias comprise most reduplicated words and words with affixes. A firm grasp of these one-word characters will help you build more complicated phrases.
Simple onomatopoeic words are monosyllabic characters.
These are one-character words that will usually not have a tone to them.
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.
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
Some words don’t fall in so easily to the above categories but are still simple two-character onomatopoeias. Such as:
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 repeat certain characters in specific 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 immediately recognize these sounds.
AA and AAA
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 these onomatopoeic words that take on a AA form can also be transformed to take on the AAA form.
Like how “haha” can become “hahaha,” a character in AAA form usually represents a more intense version of the sound.
Words in the ABB form will be composed of a disyllabic word where the second syllable is repeated.
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 comprises 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 Infixes
A-li BC words follow this pattern (based on a word in AB form):
1. 1st syllable — 1st syllable of a disyllabic word (A)
2. 2nd syllable — 里 (lǐ)
3. 3rd syllable — 2nd syllable of a disyllabic word (B)
4. 4th syllable — begins with the letter “l” with the same final as the 3rd
AB: 叽咕 (jī gū) — whisper
A-li BC: 叽里咕噜 (jī lĭ gū lū) — whispering sound
A-li BC: 噼里啪啦 (pī lĭ pā la) — patting or slapping sound
A-li BC: 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!