Onomatopoeia and Mimetic Words

We are all familiar with onomatopoeia from our early, elementary days of reading. Most of us were first introduced to the concept by words like “kaboom”, “chomp chomp” and “buzz”. Above and beyond that playful, childlike stage, however, onomatopoeia in English do not exactly satisfy the artistic or aesthetic demands of more advanced writing styles – even of those of the creative sort.  If you were well into a good novel and the author described a midnight phone call as, “the phone rang bring bring in the middle of the night”, it would seem more than just a little out of place.

Even orally, Americans do not make much use of their onomatopoeia, particularly when describing an action or a situation. Imagine your friend came up to you and told you that she was driving her car “vroom vroom very fast”. You’d think she was trying to make a nursery rhyme or, frankly, under the influence of something.

Other languages seem to take the opposite approach and fully embrace onomatopoeia. Korean is ripe with them and even takes the concept a step further. In addition to words designed to embody a sound (의성어 / onomatopoeia), Korean also has a profusion of what some people call “mimetic words” (의태어). Mimetic words do much the same thing as onomatopoeia except instead of imitating a sound they imitate some physical movement, action, or attribute. A very common one of these words in Korean is 반짝반짝 (banjjak banjjak), which is used to describe light that as gleaming/shiny/twinkling.

Last night I read a story in Korean that happened to be full of this kind of language. It makes the writing so much richer when you read it because these words, often repetitive, will easily evoke an image in your brain. When applied to a person’s actions they can also give you insight into how that person feels because it’s essentially a phonic interpretation of body language.

Unfortunately, I find this type of vocabulary very difficult to learn and apply and I’m still not sure what they best way to go about it would be. I find it difficult to use the onomatopoeia and mimetic words that I’ve learned either because it never comes to mind or it always seems awkward or inappropriate. I’m hoping that as I continue to be exposed to more and more of these words, I will become more apt to learn and use them. If anyone has any recommendations on tackling 의성어 and 의태어, I’d love to hear your thoughts.


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