When learning German, many people instinctively focus on common vocabulary such as nouns and verbs.
As a result, other vocabulary like onomatopoeias - that is, “sound words” - are largely forgotten about.
But as a language learner, you’ll no doubt want to do everything you can to sound like a native. As such, it’s great to supplement your core syllabus with lesser known words and phrases, so you can show off your knowledge when the time comes.
Learning different onomatopoeias in German is ideal for this, particularly if you enjoy reading or writing in a foreign language.
In this guide, I’ll briefly explore what exactly an onomatopoeia is, followed by some common mimetic words in German. We’ll also examine the various animal noises, as these always differ between languages, despite the animals themselves remaining the same.
What’s an onomatopoeia?
Despite its complicated name, an onomatopoeia is a really simple concept.
Any word that’s formed from a sound can be called an onomatopoeia.
This includes sound effects, animal noises, and just about any vocal expression you can make with your mouth.
New onomatopoeias are created all the time. It’s a literary technique that writers use to add flavor to their language, or to paint a more emotive picture of a scene. Some classic onomatopoeias have stuck, like “crash” and “bang”, but others are more whimsical.
The famous author Dr. Seuss was a big believer in onomatopoeias.
His “whizzpops” and “sizzle-sizzles” have entertained readers for generations and are an excellent example of just how creative onomatopoeias can be. In fact, children’s literature generally exhibits a lot of sound words, which is why reading kids books in German can be very beneficial for the language learner.
Sounds in German
The first lot of German onomatopoeias worth knowing are fairly random.
Once you’ve tried to categorize onomatopoeias, you realize it’s actually quite hard. Nonetheless, we’ll take you through some of the most common sound words in German, from impacts to noises to actions.
A lot of these onomatopoeias have verbs that correspond to them.
Some derive from the verb, while others have verbs that derive from the sounds.
In any case, we’ll give you both the onomatopoeia and the verb (if it has one), so you can become even better at German.
This onomatopoeia is more commonly found in comics, normally when a character is drinking or is nervously swallowing.
The sound here comes from the verb schlucken, meaning “to swallow” or “to gulp”.
There’s also a noun that’s involved here too: Schluck, which means a “sip”.
Germans commonly use this alongside drinks, such as ein Schluck Wasser (“a sip of water”).
Meaning: Ring ring
It goes without saying that this is used for phone noises.
Doorbells sound similar to this in German, but go by a kling klang sound.
The verb related to this is klingeln, meaning “to ring”.
Another verb, klingen, is also linked and is used in the more metaphorical sense of “sounds like”, such as in the phrase “that sounds like a good idea”: Das klingt wie eine gute Idee.
Used in the same way as in English, hoppla is something you might say when you make a mistake.
Other ways of saying “oops” include ups,_ nanu_,__ and hoppala - the latter of the three more akin to “oops-a-daisy”.
This is perhaps one of the most common sounds you’ll hear, particularly during flu season!
In terms of writing, though, it’s a little more uncommon, but it’ll still crop up in the occasional novel.
Meaning: Munch munch
This comes from the verb mampfen, which means “to munch” or “to chomp”, and is used to portray hearty eating sounds.
There’s also a German idiom related to this: Ohne Mampf kein Kampf (literally: “no fight without munch”).
Its more accurate translation is “an army marches on its stomach”, in the sense that you must be well-fed to be effective.
German animal noises
The next lot of onomatopoeias are fairly common among children and children’s literature, but make fewer and fewer appearances as you get older.
Learning animal noises in a foreign language is a great way to show people that you’re serious about your studies.
It also sets you well on your way to becoming a near-native speaker, as animal noises are a fairly niche thing to know, especially because everyone forgets to learn them.
Without further ado, here are some of the most common animal noises and their German translations.
Very similar to English. In fact, you might even struggle to spell the English word!
Luckily, because German and English both have similar alphabets and sounds, a lot of animal noises are alike.
This may seem similar to the English and while that is the case, you must remember to pronounce the “w” as an English “v” sound.
Meaning: cheep cheep
This is the sound that birds make and is another onomatopoeia that is almost the same in both German and English.
Again, these are used in the exact same contexts for both languages.
The sound a rooster makes changes from language to language, but many European countries have similar ways of expressing it.
Our English “cock-a-doodle-doo” is actually one of the weirder ones, which actually isn’t that surprising when you really examine it.
I actually think the German onomatopoeia sounds a lot closer to an actual sheep noise than ours.
Be wary of the umlaut on the “a”, which changes the sound to a more open noise that sounds like “air”.
German onomatopoeia verbs
There are a few more onomatopoeias to cover, all of which involve actions that humans perform.
Many can be turned into simple onomatopoeias by removing the inflection (i.e., the “-en” bit), but in this article we’ll discuss them as verbs.
Meaning: to crunch
Another eating sound, you must remember to pronounce the hard “k” at the start of this verb.
The “crunch” sound can also refer to snow or pebbles underfoot, as well as the grating sound made by teeth.
Meaning: to yawn
The elongated “ä” sound makes this verb mimic a yawning sound.
For non-native speakers, this makes the verb easier to memorize.
Meaning: to slurp
This verb is very similar to the English, with both mimicking the sounds of noisy drinking.
However, this verb is used more frequently in German, and not always in a negative sense.
For instance, you can “sip your coffee” (seinen Kaffee schlürfen) or “savor your drink” (sein Getränk mit Genuss schlürfen).
Meaning: to snore
Another verb that accurately reflects its meaning, schnarchen is the sound of snoring.
Table of other German animal onomatopoeias
Here’s a full list of German animal onomatopoeias that cover most animals:
Using onomatopoeias in German
The word “onomatopoeia” can be translated into German in several different ways.
The most common and more literal translation is die Onomatopoesie, but other ways of saying it include die Lautmalerei (literally: “loud painting”) and die Wortmalerei (“word painting”).
These literal translations serve as beautiful explanations of what an onomatopoeia is: formulating words from sounds using whatever alphabet is available to you.
Onomatopoeias are about as common in German as they are in English, making most appearances in comics and children’s books.
As such, it’s perhaps more important to simply know and understand them, rather than to use them religiously.
Sound like a native with German onomatopoeias
We hope this article has provided you with a good overview of German onomatopoeias and how to use them.
As you can see, many German sounds are similar to our English ones. And if they’re not, they still somehow sound more like what they’re referring to than our words.
I mean, schnarchen definitely captures the aggressiveness of snoring more than the word “snore” does.
By simply learning a few common onomatopoeias in German, such as animal noises, you’ll improve your overall language skills and take one step closer to full fluency.
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