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Lesson 151: Korean onomatopoeias (의성어)

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Korean Onomatopoeias
sounds made by objects coming into contact with each other
sounds made as a result of human emotions
sounds made by machines
sounds made by animals
sounds made by water




수갑 = handcuffs
질병 = disease
비명 = a loud scream
한숨 = a breath of worry or relief
도둑 = thief
윗집 = the house above you (in an apartment)
아랫집 = the house below you (in an apartment)
문고리 = doorknob
소방관 = firefighter
이유식 = baby food

내쉬다 = to breath out
외출하다 = to leave the house, or workplace
감탄하다 = to admire
튀어나오다 = to stick out
허우적대다 = to flounder

안심하다 = to be relieved
안도하다 = to be relieved

Adverbs and Other Words:
재빨리 = swiftly, quickly

For help memorizing these words, try using our mobile app.



Welcome to the first lesson of Unit 7! It took me eight years of writing to get this far. If you are one of the people who have been reading my lessons from the start, thank you for continuing to read my content! I pride myself on trying to provide the best, original, rich explanations for Korean learners. I hope you enjoy my lesson on… Korean onomatopoeias!



의성어 – Korean Onomatopoeias

In the final two lessons of Unit 6, you learned about two adverbs – 하필 and 어쩐지. You learned that these adverbs are used in very specific situations to add extra feeling or emphasis to a sentence. There are many, many adverbs that have a specific situation to be used in Korean to add emphasis and feeling. In this lesson, I will introduce you to an entire set of these words – Korean onomatopoeias.

Onomatopoeias are words that, when pronounced, sound like the thing they refer to. For example:

The car zoomed by while it honked away

Onomatopoeias add emphasis, feeling and imagery to sentences, as they give the listener a better mental depiction of what is happening.

In Korean, an onomatopoeia is called 의성어. The Korean language is filled with them. As in English, they are particularly common in literature, when a writer tries to describe situations with more imagery. I would argue that Korean onomatopoeias are used more frequently than English onomatopoeias.

It would be too much to show you all Korean onomatopoeias. Instead, this lesson will present some common groups of onomatopoeias and give you example sentences for how they could be used. The intent of this lesson is for you to familiarize yourself with how Korean onomatopoeias are used so that when you come across one that you have never seen before, you can recognize it as such. I have grouped the onomatopoeias by the thing that creates the particular sound the word refers to:

  • sounds made by objects coming into contact with each other
  • sounds made as a result of human emotions
  • sounds made by machines
  • sounds made by animals
  • sounds made by water

Onomatopoeias don’t need to be used in a sentence. Like in English, sometimes they are used immediately after a sentence. For example, I could say:

The man driving the car all of a sudden felt like he was being thrown forward. Crash! The car behind him never saw the red light.

However, I made an attempt to actually use the onomatopoeias in sentences in Korean.

I usually use the informal high respect honorifics in my example sentences. However, you will most likely see Onomatopoeias in literature, which commonly uses the plain form honorific. Therefore, I will use the plain form honorific in the example sentences of this lesson.


Sounds made by objects coming into contact with each other

In English, when two objects hit each other, they clink; they clank; they bang; they squeak. Below are some onomatopoeias that attempt to sound like the result of objects hitting or coming into contact with each other in some way.

덜커덕 = the sound of an object hitting something
문고리를 잡고 계속 해서 움직였더니 덜커덕 소리가 나고 문이 열렸다
= I held the doorknob and kept moving it and then a “clank” sound came out and the door opened

우당탕 = the sound of something hitting the floor
윗집은 밤만 되면 아이들이 우당탕 뛰어다녀서 매우 시끄럽다
= When it’s nighttime, the kids of the floor above us run around and “slam” the floor so it is really loud

철커덩 = the sound of metal clinking or clanking
도둑을 잡은 경찰은 바로 수갑을 철커덩 채우고 경찰서로 도둑을 데려갔다
= The police that caught the thief put him in handcuffs right away and brought him to the police station

철컥 = the sound of metal clinking or clanking
바람이 세게 불자 갑자기 문이 바람에 철컥 닫혔다
= It was very windy, so the door “clanked” close in the wind

툭 = the sound of tapping or knocking
길을 가다가 모르는 사람이 어깨를 툭 치고 가서 기분이 안 좋았다
= While walking down the street, some person I don’t know tapped my shoulder, so I wasn’t happy

뚝딱뚝딱 = the sound of hitting something repeatedly, usually when fixing something
우리 아가가 장난감 망치로 물건을 뚝딱뚝딱 고치는 게 좋아요
= Our baby likes to fix objects with her toy hammer

와르르 = the sound of something falling
동전을 담은 봉지가 찢어지면서 동전이 와르르 바닥에 쏟아졌다
= As the bag that the coins were in ripped, the coins all fell to the ground

뽀드득 = the sound of something being squeaky clean
외출 후 손을 비누를 이용해 뽀드득 씻어야 질병을 예방할 수 있다
= After going outside, if you wash your hands with soap squeaky clean, you can prevent diseases

치카치카 = the sound of tooth brushing
아이들이 제일 싫어하는 것 중 하나는 식사 후 치카치카 양치질을 하는 것이다
= One of the things that kids hate the most is brushing their teeth after a meal

As I write a lesson on a particular topic, I always try to find examples in real-life as I go about my day in Seoul. I try to see if there are any examples of a particular grammatical concept that is being presented on signs, posters or advertisements. While writing this lesson, I noticed a poster on the subway in Seoul that warned against taking pictures of people without their consent. If caught, it said the following would happen:

찰각이 철컥이 될 수 있습니다

The thing is, I didn’t even know the specific meaning of the onomatopoeias 찰각 and 철컥 when I saw the poster. However, in the background there was a cartoon image of a camera flashing, and a cartoon image of handcuffs. Essentially, the poster was trying to describe that taking a picture could get you arrested. It would be difficult to translate what was on the poster using English onomatopoeias, just because their usage and nuance is different between the two languages. It would be something like:

A chiching can turn into a clank

I would have loved to have snapped a picture of the poster, but there was somebody standing right in-front of it. I would have had to ironically take a picture of the person as well, right in-front of the poster telling me not to take pictures of people.


Sounds made as a result of human emotions

In English, humans make a bunch of sounds that we try to replicate with language. When we sneeze, we achoo! When we laugh we ha-ha. When we narrowly escape something, we phew.  We burp, we sniff, and we chomp. Below are some onomatopoeias that attempt to sound like the sounds humans make.

하하 = the sound of laughing
나는 남편이 큰 소리로 하하 웃는 모습을 보면 행복하다
= When I see my husband laugh with a big “ha-ha” it makes me happy

킥킥 = the sound of laughing, snickering
뒤에서 자꾸 누군가가 킥킥 웃어서 시험 보는 내내 신경 쓰였다
= Somebody kept snickering behind me during the whole exam so my mind was elsewhere

헉 = the sound of being scared and surprised
그 친구가 살을 얼마나 뺀 지 알면 모두 헉 하고 놀랄 것이다
= When they hear/know how much weight he lost, every one will be shocked

으악 = the sound of suddenly being shocked or surprised
어디선가 으악 비명소리가 나길래 재빨리 경찰에 신고했다
= All of a sudden there was a surprised scream coming from somewhere, so I quickly reported it to the police

우와 = the sound of being surprised, “wow”
새로 이사 갈 집에 들어가자마자 우와 하고 감탄했다
= As soon as we entered the new house (that we’re moving into), we let out a “wow” in astonishment

휴 = the sound of letting breath out
나는 엄마가 나가자마자 휴 하고 안심의 한숨을 내쉬었다
= As soon as my mom went out, I let out a sigh of relief

냠냠 = the sound of chewing
내가 만든 이유식을 냠냠 맛있게 먹는 아이를 보니 기분이 좋아졌다
= When I see the baby chomping down on the baby food that I made, it makes me happy



Sounds made by machines

Machines make a lot of different sounds. They beep, they ring, they ka-ching. Below are some onomatopoeias that attempt to sound like the sounds certain machines make.

삐오삐오 = the sound of a siren
삐오삐오 소리를 내며 구급차가 빠르게 지나갔다
= As the siren rang, the emergency vehicle quickly went past

따르릉 = the sound of a phone ringing
따르릉 따르릉 전화기가 울려서 나는 애기가 깨기 전에 전화를 받았다
= The phone rang with a ring-ring, so I answered it before the baby got woken up

투다다다 = the sound of a helicopter flying
하늘 위로 투다다다 헬리콥터가 큰 소리를 내며 환자를 싣고 병원으로 향했다
= The helicopter picked up the patient and went towards the hospital as it let out a big sound as it flew into the sky

끼익 = the sound of braking
앞에 갑자기 한 아이가 튀어나와서 끼익 하고 바로 브레이크를 밟았다
= A baby suddenly popped out in-front (of me) so I hit the brakes



Sounds made by animals

In English, we think that when a rooster makes the sound “cock-a-doodle-doo!” You might be surprised to hear that, in fact, roosters don’t say “cock-a-doodle-doo!” That’s just the way we pronounce it in English. Koreans think that when a rooster makes a sound, he says “꼬끼오!”

One of the funnier conversations I’ve had in my life is the conversation with my friends back in Canada about the sounds animals make in Korean. They would tell me how it is ridiculous that a pig makes a 꿀꿀 sound. Clearly, they say, pigs say “oink oink.”

I find it weird to use these types of words in sentences. It can be done, but animal sounds are usually something you would see in a children’s book. Instead, here is a list of animals and the sounds they make in Korean:

dog = 멍멍
cat = 야옹
mouse = 찍찍
cow = 음매
sheep = 매매
frog = 개굴개굴
tiger = 어흥
rooster = 꼬끼오
chick = 삐약삐약
pig = 꿀꿀



Sounds made by water

Water flows; it sprays; it drips; it drops; it splashes. Below are some onomatopoeias that attempt to sound like water and the way it moves.

쏴쏴 = the sound of spraying water
소방관이 호스로 불이 난 차에 쏴쏴 물을 뿌렸다
= The firefighter sprayed water on the car that was on fire

주르륵 = the sound of water dripping
밖에 비가 주르륵 내리자 나는 재빨리 우산을 준비했다
= I heard the rain dripping outside so I quickly got the umbrella (ready)

어푸어푸 = the sound of spitting water out of one’s mouth
누군가 물에 빠져 어푸어푸 허우적대서 구하러 달려 갔다
= Somebody fell in the water and was floundering around, so I ran in to save him

풍덩 = the sound of jumping into water and making a splash
나는 수영장에 들어가자마자 풍덩 하고 물속으로 다이빙을 했다
= As soon as I went into the swimming pool (the room with the swimming pool in it), I jumped in with a big splash

철썩 = the sound of water or waves splashing back and forth
파도가 철썩 바위에 부딪치는 소리를 들으며 잠에 들었다
= I fell asleep as I listened to the waves splash against the rocks

A lot of Korean onomatopoeias try to mimic the sound they are referring to, but also try to give a feeling for the motion of the thing as well. For example, waves make a “splash” sound, but you could also imagine the waves swaying back and forth. For example, the word 첨벙 could be trying mimic the sound of waves splashing or the motion/feeling of them swaying back and forth.

첨벙 = the sound or feeling of water or waves splashing back and forth
계곡에 도착하자마자 아이들은 첨벙첨벙 물놀이를 했다
= As soon as they arrived at the valley/stream, the kids splashed around and played in the water

There are many adverbs in Korean that try to mimic the motion or feeling of something. I will introduce these to you in the next lesson!

For now, that’s it for this lesson.

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