The wonders of Arabic onomatopoeia

Boom. Splat. Buzzzzz. Sizzle. Pop!

These are all examples of onomatopoeia — the literary term we struggled to spell back in our school days.

But onomatopoeia is more than just that — it refers to the formation of a word from a sound associated with what is named.

In other words — how do we convey the sounds we hear around us in writing? That’s where onomatopoeia comes in.

We take these noises, it might be the sound of your alarm clock blaring to the birds singing outside your window, and turn them into a word that we can read on the page.

Alright then, enough English — onto Arabic! How does the Arabic language handle this phenomenon?

In many ways — similarly to English. But Arabic also has a very special group of onomatopoeic quadrilateral verbs. We’ll get to those in a bit.

One example of onomatopoeia in Arabic would be the verb for ‘to knock’, which is.

دَقَّ يَدُقُّ

Daqqa, yaduqqu’. Does that sound like knocking to you?

To convey the sounds of modern technology Arabic also uses onomatopoeia. Have a go at this one (read it aloud!)

بييييب

Perhaps you’ll hear this when stuck in a traffic jam:

طيط-طيط

Then, of course, there are the animal sounds. Which bird makes this sound?

كواك كواك

And just like in English, we have the onomatopoeic ‘miaow’, Arabic has:

مُواَء

And don’t forget the click of a camera

تشك تشك

Finally, for comedic effect:

!هاها

Now that we’ve established ‘classic’ onomatopoeia in the Arabic language, let’s get onto the good stuff.

Most Arabic verbs are made up of three consonants, like the verb ‘to write’.

كَتَبَ

But some verbs are made up of four consonants, a commonly used example being the verb ‘to translate’.

تَرْجَمَ

There’s a special group of these quadrilateral verbs where the first two consonants repeat themselves.

You can think of these as being similar to the English: ‘chitchat’, ‘zigzag’ and ‘mishmash’.

When referring to a sound, these verbs are almost always onomatopoeic. Let’s have a look at some examples.

وَسْوَسَ ‘to whisper’

رَفْرَفَ ‘to flutter’

غَرْغَرَ ‘to gargle’

زَلْزَلَ ‘to shake’

ثَرْثَرَ ‘to chatter’

دَمْدَمَ ‘to destroy’

I’ll leave this last one with you to guess the meaning.

هَمْهَمَ

What do you think it means?

The verbs listed are just a small handful of these special quadrilateral onomatopoeic verbs. Keep an eye out for them in your Arabic studies or as you read the Noble Qur’an. Happy hunting!

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We are BA Arabic graduates who met while studying at SOAS, University of London. After graduating, we set up the Arabic education platform - Ihsan Arabic.

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Ihsan Arabic

Ihsan Arabic

We are BA Arabic graduates who met while studying at SOAS, University of London. After graduating, we set up the Arabic education platform - Ihsan Arabic.

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