There’s a weekly column in the newspaper that I rarely miss. It is called Namasutra and explores the nuances of language in interesting ways. This week it was about onomatopoeia (Huh? How is it pronounced?). Onomatopoeia is about words that SOUND like the action they depict. Like the clock TICKs and you CLICK the camera. What a complex word for a simple idea!

My curiosity was aroused: an action must sound the same to all human ears? So any onomatopoeic word should sound the same in all languages? Absolutely not! An English rooster breaks the dawn with “cock-a-doodle-doo” while the best Tamilian poultry can only declare “kokkarako-ko”! Even animal-speak is different in different countries!

During the monster monsoon in Chennai, it was clear to my Tamilian ears that the rains came down with a “sala-sala” noise. Not once did it sound “pitter-patter” like my English teacher taught me. I loved the scene in Manzil when a beautifully rain-soaked Moushumi Chatterjee ran through the Bombay roads singing “Rim-jhim gire saawan…”. But even she cannot convince me that the rain, even remotely, sounds “rim-jhim”!


In English comics, when the hero sinks his fist into the villain’s teeth, the noise is “kapow”. Now Indian comic heroes are more effective: they go “dishoom”! When a cowboy shoots, it is “bam” or sometimes even “blam”; when a Tamil hero fires, the gun goes “dumeel” (ugh, what kind of a sound is that?). When a North Indian knocks at your door at midnight, it is always “khat-khat”. In all the detective novels in Tamil, it is in reverse: “tak-tak”. Perhaps you use the forehand in the Hindi belt and the back hand in the South. Different strokes for different folks. Now, this could open new avenues in whodunit stories!

When I met my wife for the first time, my heart went “pada-pada” rapidly. Nothing like that happened to her. It is not as if she had no feelings for me; it transpires that it went “dhak-dhak”, as the dil-ki-dhadkan sounds softer in the North. Perhaps South Indians are more excitable after all!

If you ever want to convey something extreme, but with minimum sounds, choose Tamil. So a polished marble is “vazha-vazha” and shines with a “pala-pala”, while a coarse surface is “sora-sora”. Good food always has a “gama-gama” aroma. And a voluptuous wench who looked “thala-thala” in her youth must become a “gudu-gudu” old woman one day. You think I am throwing random slang at you? No, Ancient Tamil Grammar texts even had a specific term for expressing yourself this way: IRATTAI KILAVI! So dude, it is official!

PS: The Japanese, who produce some of the world’s best cameras can never CLICK a photo. The Japanese language has no “L” sound, so the best they can do is CRICK their cameras!


7 thoughts on “Onomatopoeia

  1. Hi Kaushik, nice one. Recent research suggests that we instinctively link certain sounds with certain sensory perceptions.

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