Word of the Day – “die Lautmalerei”

Written By: Emanuel Updated: January 2, 2024

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.


further reading: 

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