Regular sound changes can of course affect phonemes used in onomatopoeias. For example, consider a language containing /mjaw/, referring to the call of a cat. Suppose that final /w/ is sound-changed to /v/.

I see a few possibilities for what happens to /mjaw/:

  • The onomatopoeia behaves as a regular word, becoming /mjav/ (thereby losing its onomatopoietic-ness).
  • Speakers try to retain its original pronunciation [mjaw], which gets re-analyzed as a different phoneme sequence (that is permissible under the new phonotactic constraints), such as /mjao̯/.
  • The onomatopoeia gets sound-changed to /mjav/, but the resulting word falls out of use, displaced by a new onomatopoietic coinage /mjao̯/ that better approximates the sound it refers to.

Is there any empirical evidence for which of these is more common? or more simply, for whether onomatopoeias are more likely than ordinary words to resist sound change?

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    I suppose there is no such thing as original pronunciation. In Korean, meow is 야옹 [yaong]. It must have changed a lot since proto-Mandarin [miao]. Commented Jun 9, 2012 at 2:25
  • I've always pronounced it [miːˈa͜ʊ].
    – Kaninchen
    Commented Nov 21, 2013 at 1:43

2 Answers 2


Onomatopoetic words do undergo sound changes. Sometimes this results in the word no longer being onomatopoetic, in which case new onomatopoeias are often introduced.

Hock and Joseph in Language History, Language Change, and Language Relationship give the following examples:

  • In ancient Greek βη /bɛː/ was the sound that sheep make. In modern Greek, due to the sound changes /b/->/v/ and /ɛː/->/i/ this would be pronounced /vi/, so it is no longer used. The modern Greek onomatopoeia for the sheep's sound is now μπε /be/.

  • In Middle English pipen was the sound made by little birds. Due to the Great Vowel Shift, this became our modern word "pipe" /pajp/ which we don't use to imitate a bird. Instead we introduced new words peep and cheep.

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    Chinese is another example of this. Schuessler's dictionary has a number of reconstructed onomatopoeic rhyming expressions which no longer really resemble their source.
    – jogloran
    Commented Jun 6, 2012 at 3:22
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    In the Greek, bɛː and be aren't that far; pipen and peep aren't really that far apart either. Couldn't you use this as an argument for the opposite thing? The sound itself stuck around or was recreated very similarly.
    – Nate Glenn
    Commented Jun 12, 2012 at 19:21
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    In Latin, pīpiō was also the sound made by little birds. A particular little bird got associated with that sound; various sound changes on the way to French resulted in the word now being pronounced /pi.ʒɔ̃/ and spelled pigeon (and an intermediate borrowed form became the English word "pigeon"). Commented Apr 21, 2023 at 22:41

I think the best answer to this question is that onomatopoeiae can undergo sound change, but do have a relatively strong tendency to resist it. Perhaps a decent example of this could be "woe" in Indo-European languages. Whether it was an ancient borrowing or a human universal onomatopoeia, there is some ancient, probably Proto-Indo-European uttering whose precise reconstruction may escape us, but is approximately something like *wai or *wei. Note Semitic languages point to a Proto-Semitic *wai and the Old Georgian Bible contains 'wai' in the same function (possibly borrowed for translation purposes?).

In any case, even if you do not accept a PIE reconstruction, the internal history of 'woe' within branches of IE show sound change. 'vae' in Latin went from being pronounced [wai] to [vai]. Similarly many Germanic languages went through the same labial sound change, while there is considerable variation in the quality of the vowel(s): OEng. 'wa:', OSax./OHG 'we:', Old Norse 'vei'.

Otherwise, the forms of many branches show regular, or at least acceptable, sound changes from an initial syllable *w-, while others show clear renewal in order to preserve a w- or v-. In terms of apparent inheritance we have Old Irish fé (f < *w, like 'fer' man < *wiH-ro-s, cf. Lat. vir) and Welsh 'gwae', while on the other hand there is Koiné Greek 'ouai' ([wai] where initial w- was not a Greek phoneme in that time period) and Armenian 'vay'(where initial PIE *w would normally render Armenian g-).

Therefore, we see an obvious tendency towards renewal but the clear ability of this onomatopoeia to undergo regular sound changes.

I am afraid I cannot answer the main question as to the relative frequencies of these different possible evolutionary paths for onomatopoeia. I only took up the answer at all because of an error in a previous answer which states that onomatopoeias undergo sound change (which is true, or at least they can), but bases this on examples of orthographic change, which actually argues against the respondent's point and did not appear to be the intention of the authors of the cited work. The fact a Greek sheep's sound is not transcribed with mu-pi only shows resilience against sound change. The orthographic change from pip- to peep likewise preserves [pi:p].

Therefore, I think the examples involving the evolution of the pronunciation of 'woe' in Germanic and Romance languages, and maybe even in the gap of time from PIE to Celtic better demonstrate the point that onomatopoeia are vulnerable to sound change.

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    Is 'woe' an example of onomatopoeia, or is it sound symbolism? What real-world noise is woe/sai/wei/vei supposed to resemble? Commented Dec 3, 2012 at 15:05

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