The word may feel silly as it rolls off the tongue, but onomatopoeia serves a serious purpose. Present in every spoken language, “noise words” help hearing-abled humans in communication. Here are three important purposes of onomatopoeia in English and Language Arts.

Onomatopoeia: sounds like it says

The basic purpose onomatopoeia — describing something you heard by the way it sounds — is one of the most essential linguistic devices. It is often easier to define an event, action or organism by relevant noises rather than describing it. Although sounds are not always universal, generally sounds cross language barriers.

Take the word zipper as an example. If one described the process, it would be complicated: “Two matched, jagged, flexible metal strips interlock via…” etc. However, the noise of a jacket or jeans closing is much easier: “ziiiiiiip!”

Consider trying to tell someone with a different native language that you saw an animal. While the specific phonetic spelling of the noise may vary, the gist often remains the same. English speakers can say “meow” and a French speaker will probably understand that person is describing a cat, which goes “miaou.”

Onomatopoeia sets a mood

Poetic onomatopoeia is one of the more well-known uses of this language device. From the anonymous “twinkle, twinkle, little star,” to Poe’s “and so faintly you came tapping, tapping at my door,” poetry abounds with onomatopoeias. These noisy words cast a mood and give context, setting the intensity of the moment.

Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Raven” wouldn’t have quite the same effect if he wrote, “and so faintly you came lightly touching your finger to the door in small rapid movements.” Instead, Poe’s onomatopoeia draws the reader in, instantly showing the character’s actions. As well, it adds a sense of mystery as we wonder why someone tapped instead of knocked or rapped on the door.

In written digital communication, onomatopoeia also sets a mood. Mood language is important for faceless interactions with limited character space, such as text messages and e-mails. These media lack the visual cues on which sighted individuals rely. Therefore, misunderstandings can happen easily. Onomatopoeia lets readers know how someone really feels in a situation. Adding visual cues, such as symbols and gifs, is another way to clarify meaning. However, online users often reference “noisy gifs,” or images that you can “hear,” which increases their usage.

Onomatopoeia encourages awareness

When conveying information, multi-sensory channels increase memory retainment. Onomatopoeias are inherently multi-sensory. Thus, when kids receive instructions with definitions and sounds, the more likely they are to remember them. Consequently, that can also translate to associations, such as how to appropriately respond to a situation.

For example, think about how adults talk about the home. If the faucet is turned on, or “dripping,” it needs to be turned off or fixed. For mature children, who use electronic devices, the computer “hums” when it’s operating properly, but other noises indicate issues. Thus, adolescents have an increased awareness of their surroundings with sounds and know when to alert adults. Moreover, onomatopoeia expands vocabulary to precisely describe the situation.

The purposes of onomatopoeia are essential to digital communication

For language speakers and hearing abled individuals, noisy words convey nuance. As a result, they are also essential to digital communication, which lacks clarity. While visual cues such as emojis have done well among children, noise is a missing element to current character communication. Saying “yippee” or sending a simple smile can leave room for interpretation: was that sarcasm? However, adding yippee to a brightly smiling face leaves no room for error.

Onomojis seek to bridge the current gap between visual characters and written onomatopoeias. By combining these two linguistic devices, Onomojis give hearing-enabled users, especially children, multi-sensory nuance to broaden their digital expression.


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