Tweeting, yapping, frothing… and teaching (English onomatopoeia)

kapowFor the last ten years or so, delicate birds in English-speaking countries the world over have been complaining about social networking – or to be more precise, about one site in particular. It’s not Facebook that has upset them, or LinkedIn, nor is it Instagram or Tumblr. It’s Twitter that has ruffled their feathers. The reason is simple; they can no longer do one of the things that delicate birds in English-speaking countries most like to do, at least not without everyone expecting them to keep it short and simple and add a couple of hashtags to the message. They can no longer twitter or tweet.

‘Why they had to go with our particular sound is beyond me,’ tweeted Warner Bros. veteran Tweety Bird, in an exclusive interview for Pearson ELT Learning Journeys. ‘Why couldn’t they have called it Oinker or Mooster? The pigs and the cows wouldn’t have minded. They could’ve done with the publicity.’ Meanwhile, groups of birds from other countries have expressed their relief that the site chose to go with English onomatopoeia rather than sound-words from their own languages. ‘Chu-u chu-u!’ chirped a Japanese spokes-bird, visibly relieved, while a Spanish owl in Madrid hooted in to say, ‘It’s bad enough that the pedestrian lights here go pío pío. Frankly, I’m relieved you’re not all pío-ing.’

Humans, however, have pointed out that the word ‘tweet’ is a very apt description of the activity Twitter users engage in: it’s short, it’s to the point, and everyone can go at it at once. The birds are just moaning and groaning, they say, muttering and mumbling about nothing, whereas the fact that Spanish speakers now say ‘tuitear’ and Japanese speakers ‘tsuiito’ should make them a whole lot chirpier. English is rich in onomatopoeia and it’s far from the first time that sounds originally associated with our fellow creatures have been co-opted for other purposes. There was no outcry from the bees and the wasps when Buzzfeed got going, and dogs don’t seem offended that their stereos have woofers. Ducks hoping to become professional doctors, however, have had a hard time finding work.

Onomatopoeia is fun to learn and teaching it can be a great way to practice pronunciation. Animal and bird sounds are straightforward to explain and comparing the English versions with those of the languages of your students always makes for an engaging activity, especially with young learners (who are also sure to enjoy the Dr. Seuss story Gerald McBoing Boing). For non-animate sounds, you can bring comics into class, as these often use a range of onomatopoeia as “sound effects”. Start the lesson by having your students match the sound-word with the corresponding object or action (bang with ‘explosion’, zap with ‘laser gun’, whoosh with ‘rushing air’ and so on). They should try to work out the connections by the sounds alone; bear in mind, however, that this might call for some exaggerated verbal demonstration on your part. That done, the students then read the comic and find out if they guessed correctly. This leads nicely into project work where the class create their own comics, filling them not only with pictures, narration and speech-bubble dialogue, but also lots of thwacks, glugs, splashes and ka-booms.

At higher levels, however, how do you go about explaining the difference in English between something that goes thud and something that goes thump? Drop a heavy dictionary on the floor then walk into the wall? What about a hinge that squeaks and a door that creaks? Should you take an apple into the lesson and bite into it to demonstrate the meaning of crunch, or a bag of autumn leaves to rustle? Without some heavy boots and a load of mud to tread through – hardly welcome in the classroom – how can you explain the word squelch? And unless you’re extremely hungry and letting your stomach do the talking, or there’s a thunderstorm raging outside, how on earth would you illustrate rumble?

Fear not; if you have an IWB and access to the internet, you’ll find plenty of sound effects online to help you out. You might even want to show videos of whirring helicopter blades, a crackling fire, a police car screeching to a halt or a sausage sizzling away in a saucepan, and have your students select from a list of options the word they think best matches what they’re hearing.

It’s also worth having a chit chat with them about certain tip-top pairings of English vowel sounds which are especially evident in onomatopoeia, giving us, for example, snip snap, click clack, jibber jabber, pitter patter and jingle jangle, as well as tick tock, ding dong, drip drop and clip clop (the fact that the order of the vowels is set – we don’t eat ‘Kat Kits’ or play ‘pong ping’ – has to do with ease of articulation). Keeping these vowel shift pairings in mind for a moment, and just to illustrate how often they tend to crop up beyond the semantic realms of onomatopoeia, a TEFLtastic prize goes to anyone who manages to convey to their students the unlikely scenario of a slipshod whipper-snapper in a wigwam full of bric-a-brac and knick-knacks, listening to some wishy-washy hip hop with the riff raff. (In his jimjams, wearing flip-flops.)

Finally, don’t forget to point out English usually introduces onomatopoeia with the verb go. Cows may ‘cry moh moh’ in Japanese, trains may ‘say chuu chuu’ in Spanish, but in English they go moo moo and go choo choo respectively, just as a champagne cork goes pop, sheep go baa, blood from a gunshot wound goes splat against a wall, and there are things that go bump in the night. This is correct usage (it would be unnatural to say ‘the blood says splat’ or ‘the bomb said bang’), and it accounts for the use of ‘go’ being carried over as a synonym for ‘say’ in informal discourse as well (e.g. ‘She went, “I don’t believe it, Daniel!”, and I went, “Well, it’s true!”), especially when mimicking somebody’s speech patterns as well as merely repeating their actual words, which, though considered by many to be non-standard, at least warrants pointing out.

So ka-pow! and ka-ching! – there you have it. If you like what you’ve learned in this blog post about onomatopoeia in English, and your fellow teachers want to know where you got it from, say a little bird told you – and then tweet it on.

2 thoughts on “Tweeting, yapping, frothing… and teaching (English onomatopoeia)

  1. Pingback: 5 poems for the English language classroom

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