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How to say om nom nom in Hungarian, and other onomatopoeic insights

All languages have words that imitate sounds in the real world. But how does a French dog bark, and a Turkish duck quack?

The Guardian December 17, 2014

If this giant inflatable duck were French, it would say ‘coin coin’. Photograph: Jason Reed/Reuters

We all have our tastes when it comes to style. Last month it was revealed that Time magazine’s are fairly conservative. Its suggestion that the word “feminist” be banned sparked a furore (it subsequently apologised). It also recoiled at the slangy use of “bae”, “turnt” and “yaaasssss”. It named and shamed “literally”, literally years after everyone else. Some business jargon made it in there too, as did the odd internet abbreviation. So far, so familiar. One bugbear, however, is going to be particularly difficult to eradicate. “Om nom nom nom”, you see, has an important linguistic principle on its side.

Like its pre-internet equivalent, “yum yum yum”, it uses repeated bilabial consonants in imitation of the jaw movements made when eating; as these consonants are also nasal – formed with air escaping through the nose – it gives the impression of a mouth full of food. Normally the sound of a word has no relationship with its meaning, but when it does linguists talk of iconicity. The more familiar word is onomatopoeia.

Something like “om nom nom nom” is always going to be with us, as the sound of eating is pretty easy to convey using the mouth, for obvious reasons. In fact the formula is startlingly similar across languages.

  • Danish nam nam, mam mam
  • French miam miam
  • Turkish ham hum, nam nam
  • Finnish nam nam, nami nami
  • Indonesian nyam nyam
  • Hungarian nyamm nyamm

That isn’t always the case. You might assume onomatopoeic words for similar things would be as recognisable in French or in Chinese. Often they aren’t. That’s because onomatopoeia involves a non-linguistic sound being filtered through a linguistic sound system. That system is made up of phonemes, the individual building blocks of meaningful speech. The choice of phonemes available to speakers varies massively depending on what language they’re using. Rotokas, for example, spoken in Papua New Guinea, has only six consonants: p, t, k, b, d, g (standard British English has 24). In contrast, !Xóõ, spoken in Botswana has 122, many of which are clicks – giving it a much greater imitative range.

Taking seven unrelated languages, you can see how diverse onomatopeia can be. For example, the sounds dogs make:

  • Arabic haw haw
  • English woof woof
  • Finnish hau hau
  • French ouah ouah
  • Russian gav gav
  • Tagalog aw aw
  • Turkish hav hav

(Health warning: These examples are culled from the Wikipedia page on cross-linguistic onomatopoeia, which despite having “multiple issues” is the biggest collection of its kind I’ve been able to discover. The transliteration may not be consistent, and the words given might not be those every native speaker would have picked. So please bear that in mind – I’d be grateful for corrections or adjustments in the comments. Pinpoint accuracy here is sacrificed for a general idea of how onomatopoeia works.)

What about about ducks? Perhaps because the call is so distinctive and doesn’t vary a great deal, the onomatopoeia is fairly regular.

  • Arabic wak wak
  • English quack quack
  • Finnish kvaak kvaak
  • French coin coin
  • Russian krja krja
  • Tagalog kwak kwak
  • Turkish vak vak

A bird singing?

  • Arabic siq siq
  • English tweet tweet
  • Finnish tsirp tsirp
  • French cui cui, piou piou
  • Russian chiric chiric
  • Tagalog twit twit
  • Turkish cik cik

A chicken?

  • Arabic qur qur
  • English cluck cluck
  • Finnish kot kot
  • French cot cot cot
  • Russian kud kuda
  • Tagalog po kok
  • Turkish gıt gıt gıdaak

Man about to burst a balloon on a football pitch with his foot

About to go putók. Photograph: Scott Heavey/Action Images


Away from the animal kingdom, noises that are consistently the same often give rise to onomatopoeia.

A balloon or bubble bursting:

  • Arabic pakh, poof
  • English pop, bang
  • Finnish poks
  • French bang, hop
  • Russian bakh
  • Tagalog putók
  • Turkish bom

A car horn sounding: 

  • Arabic ṭiṭ ṭiṭ
  • English honk honk, beep beep
  • Finnish tööt tööt
  • French tut tut
  • Russian bi bi
  • Tagalog bip bip
  • Turkish düt düt

A telephone ringing:

  • Arabic terren terren
  • English ring ring, brrring brrring
  • Finnish ring ring
  • French dring dring
  • Russian dzyn’ dzyn’
  • Tagalog kring kring
  • Turkish zır zır

Early in the history of linguistic thought, it was believed that many, if not all words, had a natural relationship to the things they described. It’s an intuitive conclusion: if you’re English, you could be forgiven for thinking of the word “ow” as being the natural, unmediated sound a human being makes when hurt. If you’re French, however, that would be “aiee”. One of the oldest versions of this argument is set out in the Platonic dialogueCratylus. “The letter rho seems to me to be an instrument expressing all motion,” says Socrates, before listing words meaning “tremble” “flow” and “whirl” which contain the letter. But ever since de Saussure, it’s been an article of faith for linguists that the relationship between the sound and the thing it represents is arbitrary. As a result it’s easy to minimise the role onomatopoeia plays in language. 

Yes, it’s marginal in terms of linguistic structure. But there’s no doubting its expressive importance. And I’m not talking about “om nom nom nom”. I’ll leave you with a translation (by Richmond Lattimore, said to capture the onomatopoeia of the original) of a section from the Odyssey, describing the blinding of Cyclops.

Victim of an onomatopoeic blinding: the Cyclops from Ray Harryhausen's The 7th Voyage of Sinbad', 1958.

Victim of an onomatopoeic blinding: the Cyclops from Ray Harryhausen’s The 7th Voyage of Sinbad’, 1958. Photograph: Columbia Pictures/Getty Images


The blast and scorch of the burning ball singed all his eyebrows and eyelids, and the fire made the roots of his eye crackle.

As when a man who works as a blacksmith plunges a screaming giant axe blade or adze into cold water, treating it for temper, since this is the way steel is made strong, even so Cyclops’ eye sizzled about the beam of the olive.

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