An onomatopoeia is a word that imitates the natural sound of a thing.
This “thing” could be anything a writer conceives of and would be recognizable to the reader.
Some onomatopoeias are quite obvious, while others take a bit more deciphering to pick out, especially if the poet uses it deftly. Often, the technique is associated with children’s literature or that of young adults. But this is not always the case. Words like “gushing,” “buzzing,” and many more could be used in any context.
Definition and Explanation
An onomatopoeia creates a sound that is recognizable as the thing it mimicking. This allows the writer to be more expressive, especially when it comes to exciting, dramatic moments in a piece of writing. The use of onomatopoeia also makes writing more interesting. Some onomatopoeic words have developed their own definitions, “whisper” is a perfect example.
Why Do Writers Use Onomatopoeia?
Onomatopoeia is a way of increasing the poignancy of imagery in a poem, short story, or novel. These words help readers hear the sounds of words they represent. This should also mean that the reader is taken deeper into the story and is more willing to suspend their disbelief. While some onomatopoeic words are more easily spotted than others, they all have an effect. These words also help to create emphasize and remind a reader that this word and that which it describes is important. The author’s intentions are more easily conveyed this way.
Examples of Onomatopoeia in Poetry
In ‘The Bells,’ Poe uses onomatopoeia skillfully and quite obviously. It is one of the best-known words of poetry to utilize the technique because it does so constantly throughout the lines. Take a look at these lines as examples:
How they clang, and clash, and roar!
What a horror they outpour
On the bosom of the palpitating air!
Yet the ear it fully knows,
By the twanging
And the clanging […]
In this section of the poem, the poet uses words like “twanging” and “clanging” to describe one of the four types of bells he’s interested in. These words contrast to those used to describe the silver bells, “jingle” and “tinkle,” as well as those which describe the iron bells like “toll.” This choice allows the reader to imagine exactly what these bells sound like.
In this well-loved Emily Dickinson poem, the speaker, who is dying, describes the flu’s buzzing as one of the last things she hears before she passes away. It’s all around her, in the “Stillness” of the room. Here are a few lines from the poem:
I heard a Fly buzz – when I died –
The Stillness in the Room
Was like the Stillness in the Air –
Between the Heaves of Storm –
In these lines, “buzz” is a very obvious example of a nature-based onomatopoeic word.
‘On The Ning Nang Nong’ is one of Milligan’s best-loved poems. It’s filled with nonce language, or made-up words, and was published in 1959. It’s a seventeen line poem in which he uses a great deal of repetition. There are numerous examples of onomatopoeic words in the poem. Here are a few lines from the poem:
On the Ning Nang Nong
Where the Cows go Bong!
and the monkeys all say BOO!
There’s a Nong Nang Ning
Where the trees go Ping!
And the tea pots jibber jabber joo.
Examples can be found in almost every line, such as “and the monkey’s all say BOO!” in line three. Another great example within the text is “jibber jabber joo.” Throughout, he also uses words like “Clang” and “Ping,” Not to mention the consistent rearrangement of “Ning,” “Nong,” and “Nang.”
Examples of Onomatopoeia in Literature
Ulysses by James Joyce
In Joyce’s masterpiece, readers can find an example of onomatopoeia and coined language. The word “tattarrattat” was created by Joyce and is a great example of a word that sounds like its meaning. He created this word to describe the sound of knocking at a door. It combines words like “rap” and “tap” and ends up with something very recognizable as a knock.
The Tempest by William Shakespeare
The Tempest is only one of several good examples of onomatopoeia in Shakespeare’s plays. Take a look at these lines spoken by the character Ariel:
The watch-dogs bark!
Hark, hark! I hear
The strain of strutting chanticleer
These eight lines contain several examples of the technique. For example, “Bow-wow” is used to describe a dog’s bark and “cock-a-diddle-dow” to describe the sound of a chanticleer.
Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare
Romeo and Juliet also provides readers with a few good examples of the technique. In one passage, the character Peter says, “I’ll re you, I’ll fa you. Do you note me?” This is a reference to the Solfege scales. It’s meant as a joke, one that the “First Musician” picks up on and uses back at him.
Onomatopoeia and Phanopoeia
Phanopoeia is a more complicated form of onomatopoeia. It’ss issued when a writer describes the sense of things, rather than the thing itself through its natural sounds. This might occur if a poet uses line breaks that help to imitate the motion of the sea, in a poem about the ocean, or as in D.H. Lawrence’s ‘Snake,’ his lines imitate the motion and hissing sounds of a snake. He uses alliteration and line breaks to accomplish this.
Related Literary Devices
- Assonance—occurs when two or more words that are close to one another use the same vowel sound.
- Consonance—the repetition of a consonant sound in words, phrases, sentences, or passages in prose and verse writing.
- Imagery— the elements of a poem that engage a reader’s senses. These are the important sights, sounds, feelings, and smells.