Word of the Day – “die Lautmalerei”

lautmalereiHello everyone,

and welcome to our German Word of the Day… And today it is going to be … a quicky. Yes, a quicky and speaking of quicky, I’d like to wholeheartedly welcome all the adolescent boys and men who just now found their way to this page. I am sure this is gonna be EXACTLY what you were looking for.

Alright, so enough foreplay… let’s get it on… with our German Word of the Day. and todays word is:

die Lautmalerei

Lautmalerei is a truly great word. First of all because it is beautifully sounding… “laod ma laruy”. It is really hard to say this word in a harsh way… and if you say it softly, I find it even a bit soothing. I would actually go as far as to say that it is one of the coolest sounding words in German right up there with weinen or Auge.
But sound is not the only reason why I like it.  Lautmalerei is also extremely illustrative and descriptive, it is nice and easy to visualize and … it’s just has a lot of soul.
What does it mean? The English word for it is onomatopoeia … yeah… obviously something Latin or Greek and I’d say it is NO shame if you don’t know this word, no matter whether you’re English native or not. I mean, you and onomatopoeia might have crossed paths in school once or twice, but you’ve  never even made friends on Facebook for instance. So… let’s just take a close look at the German Lautmalerei. Once we know the parts it will be obvious.

The first part is the German word laut, which is related to the English loud.

  • Die Musik ist zu laut.
  • The music is too loud.

But in German we also have a noun … der Laut and ein Laut is pretty much a sound as in a noise or a bit more technical one auditory event…. so it is not the sound as the general quality. For that you can either say Sound or Klang in German.

  • Meine Gitarre hat einen guten Sound/Klang.
  • My guitar has a good sound.

Ein Laut is usually not very long and not very… loud so calling an explosion a Laut is not really appropriate. But all the sounds we use to speak like for examples … let me think … uhm … eh…  hmmm uhm… uh… shit… oh well I give up, examples just never come when they are needed the most. Anyways, laut is also part of many compounds with it like Lautstärke (lit. loud-strength – volume), Lautspreacher (speaker – the technical device), kleinlaut (meek, shyly), vorlaut (cheeky) or … Lautmalerei…. btw… if you want to read more about laut, here is the WOTD on lauter  … there is more to that word than you might think :).

Now, the second part … die Malerei… comes from the verb malen which means  to paint. Adding the ending -rei to a verb changes it to a noun, or a noun into a different noun… I think it is somehow related to the English -y… like bakery which is Bäckerei or library which is Bücherei in German. But anyway what this -rei-noun means depends on the word itself and I don’t want to get into that now, so I’ll just tell you that Malerei is actually the word for the art of painting.

  • Ich interessiere mich für Poesie und Malerei.
  • I am interested in poetry and painting.

So… now we have the 2 parts sound and painting and we just put them together to get… soundpainting. Lautmalerei is literally  painting with sound and what it really means is something you can probably find in every language… at least it would make sense as it is a very natural way to come up with new words. Whenever a language kind of just imitates a sound of something and calls that imitation a word … those words are lautmalerisch (the adjective of Lautmalerei)

And both, German and English are full of that. Here are some in English:

  • to crack, to splash, to sizzle, to click, to squeak, to clap

And here are some common German ones, with their translation and the main context :)

  • klingeln (to ring), door bells and phones

  • klatschen (to clap), hands

  • platschen (to splash), stuff smashing into water  (stones, boots)

  • quietschen (to squeak) , old doors that need oil, car brakes

  • brummen (to buzz, to hum), fridges, bears

  • summen (to hum), bees, certain lamps, fridges

  • wispern (to whisper), people

  • plätschern (to purl), water over stones in a creek

  • rascheln (to rustle), dry leaves, newspapers

  • zirpen (to chirr) , certain insects

  • philosophieren (to philosophize)…

… ok, that last one maybe not so much, but anyway… to me, German seems packed with these and it is not only restricted to verbs… the German word for mud  is der Matsch (pron.: much) and that just sounds kind of like me when I step into it.

So yeah… this is Lautmalerei… or as an adjective lautmalerisch. I really like the word. It sounds cool, it stands for something nice and it is fun to take it literally and imagine painting a picture by singing at the canvas.
On a side note, German has also a version of the Greek (it’s Greek and not Latin, I looked it up by now)  word which is Onomatopoesie or Onomatopöie. Well, I like Lautmalerei a little better :).

So… this was our German Word of the Day. How did you like the examples for German Lautmalerei? Do they sound their part?
And do you have some nice  Lautmalereien in your langauge? Let me know in the comments below.
I hope you liked it and see you next time.

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1 year ago

Love this post Emanuel – so many neat words and mind-pictures. I came across schwupp in a poem recently – how would you translate that?

1 year ago
Reply to  Emanuel

Thanks for that. Maybe ‘whoosh’ or ‘zoom’ sounds right. What is XD?

2 years ago

but how do you say ‘plop” like a rock in a pound

7 years ago

Ich konnte dieses schöne Wort heute im Park verwenden als eine deutsche Frau merkte, dass mein Sohn mit “quack” auf die Frage, “What does a duck say?” geantwortet hat. (Wir waren an einem Teich mit vielen Enten drin [an einem reich beenteten Teich? :)].) Das führte zu einem kurzen Gespräch über Tiergeräuschen. Deutsche Enten sagen “nack nack” oder sowas, wahr?

Gibt es einen Unterschied zwischen “wispern” und “flüstern”?

8 years ago

Beautiful explanation! I really enjoy the history and break-down you always give along with the definitions of the words! If someone asked me to explain onomatopoeia, I’d just say “when a word sounds like the sound it describes”. It’s cool that German has a rich description of their version of the word.
Now I’m just so jealous of this word! It makes so much more sense too, because to paint a picture is to illustrate something, and with this word, you’re illustrating the sounds by painting a verbal masterpiece for the listener! I’m curious though, how would you distinguish between an onomatopoeia and the act of painting loudly? (I’m picturing someone just hitting the brush really hard against the canvas or something :)
Vielen Dank!

Paul Speirs
Paul Speirs
8 years ago

A few Lautmalereien for you that im thinking off the top of my head. Crunch – you can crunch your bones when you break them,cereal when you eat it,biscuits into powder, fresh snow when you walk in it Scrunch – almost the same as above but more used for objects being scrunched into a smaller size, you can scrunch your face up as well in disgust Squelch – is done by wearing wellies (wellington boots), and walking on a soggy/boggy/marshy ground Bleesh – This is a scottish special, When you bleesh something its like the german ver prefix, ie schliessen is to close – verschliessen is to slam shut ( to me it is anyway), so in scotland, you can hit something with a hammer (normal), whack (another one :D) it (a bit harder) or you can bleesh it, by this time you have really laid waste to all and sundry. In scotland you can also yourself be bleeshed, we would say, “a went oot at the weekend tae the pub, n a got BLEESHED. Ah wis staundin at the bar wee a cuple o pints n it wis closin time, a BLEESHED them doon n went up the road. When a got ther, ah coudnae get ma key in the lock, so a BLEESHED the door until the missus cum oot n gied is a row. That was “This weekend past i visited the local brewery owned establishment and decided to whet my whistle with a few carefully selected beveridges, as it turned out, i had too many, and was DRUNK. I had taken up a position at the bar, with the remaining of my previously purchased drinks before me, when the barkeep decided to impose closing time on us, i QUICKLY DRANK them and then proceded to make my way home. Once i had arrived at my personal dwelling, i discovered my inebriated state was hampering my attempt to insert the key into the lock, in order to rectify this, i BANGED HARD on the door, so that my wife would wake up and open it, when she did she was not best pleased. oh dear im in scottish mode now here is another one doof – this is the sound made by a drink when you have just bleeshed it down sklery – is the noise you make when you are eating something – to sklery something awa – make quick work of the act of eating it scoff – is very similar, there is an english verb that is spelled and sounds the same – to scoff – to look down ones nose at (or something like that) but the scottish use of this used to describe the act of sklerying, you can scoff your food i.e eat it quickly, or you can as earlier said, sklery it awa Hoick – this is like hoist, think of it like the noise a scottish man makes when he is quickly lifting something heavy up, “ah hoickd it… Read more »

8 years ago
Reply to  Emanuel

Sorry just noticed this comment now, Sometimes they get lost in my inbox, which unfortunately gets “bleeshed” with spam every day. So to your usage
And then i’ll bleesh the word bleesh at them. Its almost correct and definitely understandable, for me personally i would say And then i’ll bleesh them with the word bleesh. When being used as a verb it needs a direct object without a preposition (at least to my ears). Thanks for the correction of the ver- prefix, Ive since read your ver prefix article so i know it couldnt have been ver at the end of that sentence (because it doesnt work on lots of levels) but anyway. I have not seen game of thrones, but i might look it up for some entertainment/material.

Just out of interest what is the verb for to slam something shut then? I know, 2 months later, get with the game, fsake!

10 years ago

great job as usual Emanuel.
May I suggest that you cover the all important word “einfach” at some point? ;)
keep up the good work, dude!

10 years ago
Reply to  Emanuel

i was watching the olympics on TV the other day (im in switzerland btw) and realized i didnt understand what einfach means out of the context of it being”easy”. came to your blog hoping to find one of your in depth, ridiculously entertaining explanation on einfach only to find that there was no coverage on that! will definitely be looking forward to that~