Paf ! the Ultimate Guide to French Onomatopoeias and Animal Sounds

What sound does a hen make in France?

It depends on who you ask.

A French person would say cot cot, but an Anglophone would answer “cluck”.  Both are correct.

Onomatopoeias are words that sound like what we hear. Although the actual sounds around us don’t change from country to country or language to language, the way we express these sounds often does.

Onomatopoeias aren’t the most essential words to know in French, but they provide an excellent finishing touch if you really want to understand everyday French, not to mention an aspect of French pop culture

Studying French onomatopoeias can also familiarize you with French phonetics. Plus, using French onomatopoeia (when reasonable, of course) will make you sound more like a native speaker.

Let’s explore French onomatopoeias, and look at some of the most common examples.

Why are there French onomatopoeias?

Onomatopoeias  are a linguistic mystery. No one can really say why they’re (usually) different in each language.

Some of it might have to do with a sort of preference for certain sounds in a given language. And since there are certain sounds that exist in some languages and not in others, some onomatopoeias simply can’t be written the same way across the board.

When it comes to one kind of onomatopoeia, animal sounds, linguists point to the fact that certain animals are more important in some cultures than others. A popular way to illustrate this theory is that in English, there are quite a lot of options to show the sound a dog makes. This could be due to the fact that in Anglophone cultures, dogs are extremely popular pets.

None of these theories have been indisputably proven, though.

It’s funny that such simple, universal words are so mysterious. On the other hand, since there’s no particular logic to onomatopoeias, you’ll have to memorize them for each language you learn. Fortunately, learning and using them can be pretty fun!

How do you say “onomatopoeia” in French?

Although most onomatopoeias are easy to spell, the word “onomatopoeia” obviously isn’t. Luckily, it’s a bit simpler to say and write “onomatopoeia” in French:  onomatopée. As you might have guessed from the double “e” ending, this word is feminine.

The words “onomatopoeia” and onomatopée ultimately come from Greek: “onoma” means “name” and “poiein” means “to make”.

What are some French onomatopoeias?

Fire truck in the street.
<<Pin pon ! >>

Like just about any language, French has a lot of onomatopoeias. You can group most of them into three main categories:

  1. French animal sounds (including the equivalents of moo, meow and oink)
  2. human sounds (sounds made with our mouths or bodies, but not calculated words)
  3. sounds made by non-living things

Some lists of French onomatopoeias include interjections like Youpi ! (Yippee!). Strictly speaking, though, words aren’t considered onomatopoeia, since they’re not just sounds. That’s why you won’t find them on our list. But if you want to learn some French interjections, you can start with this list of typical ones.

Here are some common French onomatopoeias…and I’ve added some of my personal favorites, as well.

French animal sounds

miaou – meow

ronron – purr

groin – oink

coin/coin-coin – quack/quack-quack

ouaf ouaf/ouah ouah/wouf – woof 

hiii – neigh

cocorico – cock-a-doodle-doo – The sound French roosters make.

cot cot – cluck

meuh – moo

cui-cui – tweet (If you’re not talking about the animal sound, but about posting on Twitter, the French keep this in English: tweet)

couic – squeak. Rats and mice are quite common in France (in fact, Paris itself is currently experiencing an explosion in its rat population). The French equivalent of the Tooth Fairy is even La Petite Souris (the Little Mouse).But it’s hard to find the equivalent of “squeak” on lists of French animal sounds for some reason.

croâ – caw (the sound a crow makes)

roucoul/rou-cou/rou-rou – coo (the sound a pigeon makes – clearly the French version is much closer to what a pigeon actually sounds like!)

Want to know how other animals sound in French? Check out this list. And here’s another list that mainly focuses on French animal sound verbs, which we’ll discuss further on, but it does include some animal onomatopoeia as well.

Human sounds

Chut – Shhh (sound to make a person be quiet).  In English, if we want to show that this sound is drawn out, we add additional h‘s to it. In French, add u’s to the middle (chuuut).

miam – “yum”/general appreciative eating sound

Aïe! – Ow!/Ouch!

areuh – goo-goo (a typical noise a baby makes)

ouin – waah (a baby’s cry)

atchoum – achoo/atchoo (the sound of a sneeze).  A great way to remember this word (at least if you like cats) is by thinking about the fact that it’s the name of this internet-famous fuzzy French Canadian cat, who has a medical condition that causes his fur to grow very quickly.

smack – the sound of a big kiss. As you can probably guess, this comes from English.

Sounds made by non-living things

plouf – splash

paf – bam. Note that if you see this word in all capital letters outside of a context like a comic book, it probably isn’t an onomatopoeia, but the abbreviation for le Paysage audiovisuel français, the French TV/radio industry.  

boum – boom

vlan – wham

tic-tac – tick-tock (the sound of a clock ticking)

dring – ring (the sound a phone makes)

pin pon – This is the sound ambulance and firetruck sirens make in French. It’s one of the few onomatopoeias that actually have a reason to change by country/language, since sirens in other places don’t sound the same. You can hear a recording of a siren in France here.

patatras–crash/bang/ boom baba boom(the sound of something/some things falling to the ground) . This isn’t a classic French kids’ song but it might help you remember patatras.

flic floc – drip drop (the sound of raindrops hitting window glass, an umbrella, etc.). This is my favorite French onomatopoeia because it’s fun to say and perfectly captures the sound. Enjoy it in song!

pan – bang

pan-pan  – bang bang (gunfire)

toc toc – knock knock.  Note that if you want to tell a French knock-knock joke, you have to add another “toc” (Toc, toc, toc, qui est là)?

pschit/pschitt – tssss (the sound of a soda can opening or, less commonly, gas or high-pressure contents escaping from a container)

The unclassifiable tac

Person placing cherry on cake
The instant they place this final cherry onto the cake, chances are this French baker will say <<Tac>> .

While most French onomatopoeias can be classified as animal sounds, human sounds, or sounds made by non-living things, there are some exceptions.

The most common is probably the word tac.

There’s no exact translation or explanation for tac. In French dictionaries, it’s often defined as un bruit sec – in other words, a quick sound that would be made, say, by something hard hitting a hard surface, bit like “tap”. But rather than describing a sound, exactly, it more describes a fast-paced action. A very rough equivalent would be like saying “There!” in English.

A typical example of tac, which may be one of the most commonly uttered onomatopoeias in everyday spoken French, would be someone completing an action or series of actions. Say, for instance, a cashier is ringing you up at a grocery store. They enable the credit card reader – “Tac” , push the button to accept the payment – “Tac” , and hand you your receipt – “Tac”. Of course, after all that, they would actually talk to you and thank you and wish you a good day, as well. It’s a bit like a cashier saying something like, “Alright…okay…there you go.”

Although this use of tac is perfectly normal, it’s also pretty informal. You wouldn’t use tac if you were, say, ringing up the President or doing something for the little old lady down the street. 

 Tac also has an expression related to it: du tac à tac, meaning a fast (often witty) exchange in a conversation. For example, Le journaliste pensait que la star serait une bimbo, mais elle a répondu à ses questions du tac a tac. (The journalist thought that the star would be a bimbo, but she gave as good as she got when it came to his questions.)

Want more French onomatopoeias? You can find a nearly exhaustive list here.

How to use onomatopoeias in French

<<Plouf !>>

It’s important to remember that there’s a difference between onomatopoeias, which are essentially transcriptions of sounds, and the verbs used to express someone or something making a sound.

In some cases, especially with animal sounds, these can be very similar. For example, miaou is “meow” in French, and miaouler is “to meow”. But there are many cases where the verb and the sound don’t match at all. For instance, aboyer is the verb “to bark” in French, but as we’ve seen on our list, dogs make the sound ouaf (or a similarly spelled variant).

 For verbs that express animals making noises, check out this list.

Other verbs that express a sound being made, rather than the word for the sound itself, are ones you may have already learned – for example, exploser, fermer, tomber, etc.

If you’re ever in doubt of what verb to use, but you know the onomatopoeia, an easy fix is to use faire + [the sound]”. For example, Et puis, tout d’un coup, quelque chose a fait boum ! (And then, all of a sudden, something went ‘boom’ !). 

Keep in mind that this solution works for foreign speakers, but it’s not considered intelligent or refined, so it’s always better if you can use the actual verb instead, or, to express that you’ve heard a sound, entendre. For example: Et puis, tout d’un coup, j’ai entendu quelque chose faire boum ! (And then, all of a sudden, I heard a boom!).

Are onomatopoeias important in French?

Open comic book

Onomatopoeias are used by just about anyone, regardless of the language they speak. This said, I personally think that in everyday speech, the French do tend to use onomatopoeias a bit more than many English speakers I know. It’s common to hear things like “tac”, “et vlan !”, or “patatras” injected into everyday speech, as well as to see these words in print in newspapers.

This isn’t to say that every French person just goes around inserting onomatopoeias into what they’re saying, but in my opinion, it does seem to come up fairly often.

That said, the great thing about onomatopoeias is that in most cases, you’ll understand what the sounds are, even if you’ve never studied them. I’ve learned more French onomatopoeias by living in France and hearing people talk, or by coming upon them in French books, movies, TV, etc., than I ever did when we covered them in my French classes.

Most onomatopoeias in French came about organically, as in any language. Someone wanted to set down a sound and pan ! – they found a way to literally spell it out.  But other onomatopoeias probably came into the language thanks to the popularity of comic books.

In France, comic books, or BD (short for bandes-dessinées), are highly respected and considered an art form, whether you’re talking about funny ones like Astérix comics, or award-winning graphic novels.  Lots of French people grew up reading comic books featuring French pop culture icons like Astérix, TinTin, Spirou, and Lucky Luke, not to mention Mickey Mouse and Scrooge McDuck (called “Picsou” in French). Comics for kids have the nostalgic power that Saturday morning cartoons do for people in the US.

Comic books have been popular in France for more than a hundred years. Arguably the first major French comic book hero was Bécassine, who sprang onto the scene in 1905. Bécassine is still an easily recognizable figure in French pop culture today. According to this source, the first known onomatopoeia in a French comic is sploing (also sometimes written splouing or sploug), which was used to show the sound of an umbrella (including Bécassine’s iconic red one) opening.

As time went on and more BD’s continued to be published and enter the French cultural landscape, their creators continued to experiment with onomatopoeias, sometimes taking inspiration from American action comic strips and books, as well.

Today, open any French BD and paf ! – all sorts of bold-printed onomatopoeias will leap out at you. 

Even if you’re not a fan of comics, spend a day in France and see if you notice any onomatopoeias when people talk to you or with each other. You’ll probably come across at least a few.

Beyond comics: Other famous French onomatopoeia appearances

happy dog walking

In addition to comic books, French onomatopoeias can be famously found in other spots on the pop culture landscape.

The first is the French version of “Old MacDonald had a Farm”. The version of the song we know today comes from the US, but it’s been adapted into many languages, including French. 

Called “Dans la ferme de Mathurin”, isn’t the most popular French children’s song, but more and more kids are being exposed to it via YouTube and other sites that feature children’s nursery rhymes and songs. You can listen to it (and read along with the lyrics) here.

Probably more famous among French people (well, at least adults) is Serge Gainsbourg’s 1967 song “Comic Strip”, featuring Brigitte Bardot, who expressively punctuates the punchy tune with numerous French and English onomatopoeias typically found in comics.

Bardot mixes the two languages because many Francophone comics do the same. After all, there aren’t really hard and fast rules – if something sounds a certain way and you think it’s better captured in another language, why not use it in your comic book? If I wrote an English-language comic book about pigeons, I’d definitely use roucoul instead of “coo” for the sound they make!  

Another place you’ll find (and even get to try your hand at) French onomatopoeias is in classic French jokes, especially the one known as Paf! Le chien. In this joke, a person asks : « Tu as entendu l’histoire de Paf le chien ? C’est l’histoire d’un chien qui traversait la rue. Une voiture est passée et paf ! le chien ! » (“Have you heard the one about Splat the dog? A dog was crossing the street. A car passed and splat! the dog!”)

Like many iconic French jokes, this one is silly and also a chance to show off your verbal creativity, since you can create variants using that basic formula and any animal, scenario, and onomatopoeia you’d like.

Although they may not always be what you were expecting, French onomatopoeias are fun. Try to use a few as you go about your day! Or, if you like drawing, why not create a few comic strip panels featuring French onomatopoeias?

Do you have a favorite French onomatopoeia or animal sound? Share it in the comments!

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Alysa Salzberg

Alysa Salzberg is an American writer, worrier, teacher, and cookie enthusiast who has lived in Paris, France, for more than a decade. She has taught English and French for more than ten years, most notably as an assistante de langue vivante for L'Education Nationale. She recently published her first novel, Hearts at Dawn, a "Beauty and the Beast" retelling that takes place during the 1870 Siege of Paris. You can read about her adventures here, or feel free to stop by her website.