A door slams: kwang(쾅)! A person slips and falls: koong(쿵)! A doorbell rings: dding dong~ (띵동~)! A child laughs delightedly: kkarurururu(까르르르르)! An ajumma laughs politely: hohohohoho(호호호호호)! An ajeossi bursts out in mirth: puhahahaha(푸하하하하)! School girls giggle: kkeelkkeelkkeel(낄낄낄). For Koreans, this is exactly how those situations sound.
Expressions for sounds – onomatopoeia – are interesting. I don’t think doors slam that differently by country, but every single country has their own way of expressing that sound, and some are really very different.
For some reason, one of the first onomatopoeia when learning a foreign language is animal sounds. I never quite understood this. When, in everyday conversation, do you have occasion to discuss animals and the sounds they make? I mean, even in your native language the chances are pretty slim. Maybe it’s because I’m a city person and maybe it’s because I’m an adult, but I doubt that even kids these days would talk about animal sounds.
Korean is a very expressive language. We have words for things that are untranslatable in other languages, whether it concerns emotions, colors, tastes, smells, or visuals. Korean onomatopoeia is very detailed, and particularly interesting in the sense that some describe both the sound and image of the subject at the same time. Onomatopoeia is usually composed of repeated syllables for effect and there are also variations of vowel sounds according to the volume of the depicted situation. For example, a “splash” would be “pongdang” (퐁당), but a bigger, heavier, louder splash would be “poongdeong” (풍덩) like above. Both would be expressed as pongdang pongdang or poongdeong poongdeong most of the time.
Falling down creates a lot of interesting sounds. “Koong” (쿵) is a loud thud, whereas “cheolpuhduck” (철퍼덕) is like a splat. “Oodangtang” (우당탕) is the loud racket made when things go tumbling down, or when you fall flat on your face while furniture falls down and your belongings go flying everywhere. Ooreureu kwang kwang (우르르 쾅쾅) is the booming sounds of thunder and lightning.
Doorbells go “ding dong” or “dding dong” (딩동, 띵동), clock hands go “jjaekkak jjaekkak” (째깍째깍), and the banging clatter of a subway train is “deolkeong deolkeong” (덜컹덜컹).
Although bells, unlike doorbells, bicycle bells and alarm clock bells go “ttareureung ttareureung” (따르릉 따르릉), whereas small handbells or cowbells would go “ttalang ttalang” (딸랑딸랑) and large traditional bronze bells would go “doong” (둥), much like large drums.
The sound of a running bus or automobile is “burueng burueng” (부릉부릉), the sound of a train on the tracks is “chik chik pok pok” (칙칙폭폭), and although modern technology has changed the sounds of these vehicles, we still use these words.
A whirring noise of a fan or a hairdryer or a noisy vacuum cleaner is usually “weeeeeng” (위잉). It can also be the frantic fluttering of wings of a fly or another insect, like a mosquito.
Babies and adults do not make the same sleeping sounds. “Kool kool” (쿨쿨) is a standard sleeping sound, the deep breathing. “Deureurung deureurung” (드르렁 드르렁) is the sound of snoring, while a baby’s sleep breathing would be “saegeun saegeun” (새근새근).
Sneezing sounds are quite similar worldwide, I think. “Ehchwi” (에취)! We don’t say anything back to the person who sneezed such as “Bless you” but the person who sneezed usually apologizes.
Sniffing comes with different characteristics. When you sniff food, it is “keung keung” (킁킁); when you’re sniffing from a runny nose from the flu or cold, it’s “hooljjeok” (훌쩍).
Cooking and food make a lot of noise, too. A simmering pot on the stove would go “bogeul bogeul” (보글보글) with bubbles, pajeon (파전, spring onion pancake) sizzling on the frying pan goes “tadak tadak” (타닥타닥) and so do fire embers in a campfire, a deep frying pork cutlet goes “jeegeul jeegeul” (지글지글) like the red hot asphalt on a hot sunny summer day. That crispy fried pork goes “basak basak” (바삭 바삭) when you chew it, like ice cold lettuce in salad going “asak asak” (아삭아삭).
Eating also brings about various sounds: “hururuk” (후루룩) is the slurping of noodles, “nyam nyam” (냠냠) is smacking of the lips and “jjeop jjeop” (쩝쩝) is smacking noisier. “Oojeok oojeok” (우적우적) is munching with a mouthful and “kkulkkeok” (꿀꺽) is the gulping sound when you swallow.
“Ttok ttok” (똑똑) can be the sound of knocking but also can be the sound of dripping water, both used a lot in scary movies. Other sounds to be found in scary movies? The sound of footsteps. From the click-clack of high heels “ttogak ttogak” (또각또각) to the soft padded sounds of dress shoes “ttoobuck toobuck” (뚜벅뚜벅), and the almost silent tread of sneakers “jeobuck jeobuck” (저벅저벅).
And of course, a very familiar sound: the scream. Whether out of fear or out of excitement, the Korean scream is basically variations of “kyaaaa” (꺄아아) – adding extra “aaa”s is totally up to you – either the short bursts “kkyak kkyak” (꺅꺅) or the lengthy “kkyaaaaaack” (꺄아아악) can be used. Screams of surprise and exclamations when startled are mostly “euack” (으악)!
We can’t leave out the heartbeat. “Kongdak kongdak” (콩닥콩닥) is the pit pat of the heart, soft and mellow, while “dugeun dugeun” (두근두근) is a bit deeper, a low thump. Your heart thumping madly would be none other than “koong kwang” (쿵쾅), which is used for all “booming” situations.
Other than all the words listed above, there are many other Korean words that describe sounds, and if you read comics and cartoons, you would discover that the artists have many creations of their own, too.
Since it’s summer, I’m going to leave you with the sounds of the ocean waves breaking on the rocky beach of Jeju Island: “cheolseok cheolseok swaaaaah” (철썩 철썩 쏴아아아아).
Have a happy summer.