French Lessons


Onomatopoeia and Interjections

Imitating the sound of an object or an animal is not easy to convey in writing, but it can be done! In fact, there is a special word derived from Greek for just that purpose, onomatopée (onomatopoeia), which is a close cousin to an interjection. (The distinction is open for debate as grammarians have conflicting views.)


Every language has its own version of onomatopoeia. For example, the sound of a rooster crowing will be rendered differently in various languages: 


• In French: cocorico

• In English: cock-a-doodle-doo

• In German: kikeriki

• In Italian: chicchirichì


Animal sounds are a great source of onomatopée:


Le coq fait cocorico tous les matins.

The rooster goes cock-a-doodle-doo every morning.


However, you might be surprised to know that in French, some onomatopoeias can double as interjections, a type of exclamation where the emphasis is not on the sound so much as the sentiment behind it. Indeed, in the video below, cocorico is more of an interjection, a cry for victory, and an expression of national pride, as the Gallic rooster is the symbol of France: 


Cocorico, bleu, blanc, rouge, pour nous les Nubians, pour la France

Cock-a-doodle-doo, blue, white, red, for us the Nubians, for France

Caption 33, Les Nubians Présentation

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Here is a more clear-cut example of onomatopoeia from the animal kingdom. A “French-speaking” dog goes ouaf! while its “English-speaking” counterpart goes "woof!" In the video below, "Ouaf!" is the name of a production involving dancing—and perhaps barking—dogs:


Des chiens dansants dans "Ouaf!"

Dancing dogs in "Woof!"

Caption 49, Extr@ Ep. 3 - Sam a un rendez-vous - Part 7

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Onomatopoeic words are not limited to representing animal noises. They can also mimic sounds of nature, such as plouf (splash), describing something falling into the water. Plouf is used as a noun in this video:


On fait un petit plouf et on se retrouve demain même heure

We're making a little splash and we're meeting again same time tomorrow

Caption 57, Le Mans TV Mon Village - Malicorne - Part 3

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Onomatopeoic words can also convey manmade sounds, such as loud explosions:


Et ça fait quoi le nucléaire pour les gens? -Ça fait boum!

And what does nuclear energy do to people? -It goes boom!

Caption 49, Manif du Mois Fukushima plus jamais ça

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The sound of gunfire, pan (bang), certainly qualifies as onomatopoeia:


Le fusil fait pan, pan, pan.

The gun goes bang, bang, bang.


However, in the example below, the focus is not so much on sound but instantaneity, making pan an interjection. The subject of this video is famous French photographer Cartier-Bresson, who knew when to click the shutter at just the right time:


Il y a une méditation. Dans la photo, il n'y en a pas. Pan!

It involves meditation. With photography, there is none. Snap!

Caption 21, Le Journal Le photographe Cartier-Bresson

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Like pan, the word paf will translate differently depending on whether we are talking about an onomatopoeia or an interjection. In the first instance, paf conveys the sound of something heavy hitting a hard surface:


Paf! Le livre est tombé par terre.

Thwack! The book fell on the floor.


In the second, paf is an interjection that conveys swift action. In this video, Sophie talks about quickly snipping cuttings in a public garden… without permission:


Paf! Tu coupes.

Bam! You cut.

Caption 44, Sophie et Patrice La maison verte

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Still with scissors in hand, Sophie uses tac instead of paf to imitate the snipping sound:


Tac! Je coupe et...

Snip! I cut and...

Caption 47, Sophie et Patrice La maison verte

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In another video, Sophie again uses tac to convey the sound of her homemade lamp turning on: Tac! (Click!)


Regarde, est-ce que ça marche? Tac!

Look, is it working? Click!

Caption 43, Sophie et Patrice Les lampes de Sophie - Part 2

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In yet another situation, Sophie says tac tac tac (tap tap tap) while making madeleines to imitate the sound of breaking eggs:


Tu prends tes trois œufs, tac tac tac.

You take your three eggs, tap tap tap.

Caption 40, Sophie et Patrice Les madeleines

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Fortunately, Sophie kept her fingers intact during all her ventures. If she hadn't, she might have used the interjections ouille! (ouch!) or aïe! (ow!)


Ouille là, c'est chaud, là!

Ouch, that's hot, there!

Caption 2, Il était une fois: Les Amériques 1. Les premiers Américains - Part 5

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Aïe! Mais pourquoi tu as fait ça?

Ow! Why did you do that?

Caption 11, Extr@ Ep. 10 - Annie proteste - Part 8

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Had she cut herself, she might have had to call on emergency services, with their distinctive sirens:


Pin-pon! Pin-pon!

Woo-woo! Woo-woo!  [sound made by a two-tone siren]

Caption 2, Les zooriginaux Repos corsé - Part 2

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As this lesson draws to a close, it’s time to breathe a sigh of relief—ouf! (phew!)—like the princess in the video below:


La princesse était très soulagée. -Ouf! Celle-là, je ne la reverrai pas de si tôt.

The princess was very relieved. -Phew! I won't be seeing that one again any time soon.

Captions 11-12, Contes de fées Le roi grenouille - Part 2

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For more examples of onomatopoeia, you may want to explore Yabla's animated series or simply browse through our video library. Ouf! La leçon est terminée! 


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