Jona van der Schelde

Words that ring, resemble, reverberate

When it comes to onomatopoeia, nothing sounds more like the thing it describes than uncorking a bottle and pouring from it - in Hebrew
(Kasper Nymann, Dreamstime)
(Kasper Nymann, Dreamstime)

Hebrew is full of onomatopoeias. Funny, expressive words that sound the same as the thing they describe or the sound associated with that thing. Bottle, for example, is bakbuk, due to the gulping sound you hear when pouring out its contents, and there is no need to even explain why a cork is a pkak.

Onomatopoeias seem like relics from a time in which people gave meaning to the world around them through linking sounds to forms, making them a universal feature of  language. Some favorites of mine are Dutch geroezemoes (for the buzzing, cozy background noise that you hear in a filled restaurant) and English tintinnabulation (bells jingling, I imagine, softly). Hebrew is a language that forms onomatopoeias especially masterfully, as they often fit into the verb patterns (like le-xxx-xxx, as you’ll see below), like a cork in a bottle.

There’s all kinds of onomatopoe-ish words that Hebrew more or less shares with English: lemalmel for mumbling, lehamhem or lezamzem for humming, lekakhkeakh for coughing, letaktek for the ticking of a clock, lehit’atesh for sneezing (think of “atchoo”).

Others are less obvious and reveal themselves as connected through onomatopoetic origin only after some reflection, like shtika (silence) and shtok (shut up), both evoking the “sssshhht” sound of shushing somebody. And like esh for fire, similar to English “ashes,” which calls to mind the sound of smoldering fire. 

Other Hebrew onomatopoeias bear less resemblance to English ones. While English has chirp, Hebrew has tsiuts, a drop of water is a tipa (think of tap), walking/trudging through mud is ledashdesh, a cricket a tsartsar, and an explosion a pitsuts

Far from all onomatopoeias are relics, by the way. Several of the above already appeared in Biblical Hebrew, but in Modern Hebrew, too, sound and meaning are united in creative ways, like rishrush, which means rustling, thought up by nationally treasured poet Hayim Nahman Bialik in 1904.

The cutest one I’ve come across is also probably a new one, if I had to guess. It’s letsaktsek, which conveys the clicking of one’s tongue (tsk) to express annoyance, anger or disbelief. As in: “When they tried to tell me Hebrew wasn’t a rich, evocative language, ani tsiktsakti.”

About the Author
Jona van der Schelde loves language and cycling. He lives in the Netherlands and teaches Hebrew.
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