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 PrésentationPlay Caption
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 7Play Caption
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 3Play Caption
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 çaPlay Caption
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-BressonPlay Caption
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 vertePlay Caption
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 vertePlay Caption
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 2Play Caption
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 madeleinesPlay Caption
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!Play Caption
Aïe! Mais pourquoi tu as fait ça?
Ow! Why did you do that?
Caption 11, Extr@ Ep. 10 - Annie proteste - Part 8Play Caption
Had she cut herself, she might have had to call on emergency services, with their distinctive sirens:
Woo-woo! Woo-woo! [sound made by a two-tone siren]
Caption 2, Les zooriginaux Repos corsé - Part 2Play Caption
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 2Play Caption
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!