Boom Puff Zoom


What are these sounds called? Onomatopoeia.

Onomatopoeia is a word that phonetically resembles the sound that it describes. Basically, it is a word that is written how it sounds. I came up with a sign for it. Unofficial sign. Let me know if you have another sign you use

There is onomatopoeia in sign language too. But it is not limited to signing sounds. In sign language, we can visually link meaning with form. We can explain what a plane means at the same time as showing its form.

 Photo caption: The signer is demonstrating that a plane is a vehicle with an engine that flies in the sky, and is shaped as such.

Some might call this iconicity. But this does not mean that we can automatically understand sign language because it is a series of visual pictures and what-not. Sign language is like spoken language with arbitrary forms that we have to learn.

Sign Language can also sign sound in relation to how it feels or looks. But it can go further than that. It can show location, movement, texture, manners, emotion and time in a single sign.

To give an example, when we sign “The elephant’s ears swished” we can place a flat palm next to each ear, and swing them back and forth.

Schuit from the University of Bristol found that signing Deaf children use more onomatopoeic forms in their signing. While a hearing child would say “the pot is boiling,” a deaf child may give the sign of the pot, and then describe the actual action of boiling with a close up of the water bubbling.

I read a book to a group of deaf 10 year olds recently. We came across the word “ping.” These children would not hear the inflections in the voice which might help them work out what the word means. They could not hear the actual sound “ping.” But they understood immediately when I pinged a rubber-band in sign language. We had a big discussion about how the word ping has evolved, it could also be the sound that a mobile phone makes when it receives a text message.

These deaf children were struggling with the English language. But we were able to use sign language to talk about English and they loved it. They started making up stories about hissing slithering snakes zooming along on skateboards.

Sound is not just for the hearing you see. Sound can be made visual.


Download a copy of this MA thesis on here 


Schuit, J., (2005) ‘The sounds in silence, the representation of sound and accent in sign language,’ unpublished MSc thesis, Bristol, University of Bristol

Thompson, R, Vinson, D.P., Vigliocco, G., (2013) ‘The Link between form and meaning in American Sign Language: Lexical Processing Effects,’ Exp Psychol Learn Mem Cog, vol.35, no.2, pp 550-557 [Online] available at (last accessed 27 August 2015)

3 thoughts on “Boom Puff Zoom

  1. Nice work here Amanda! I recall the work of researchers at Deaf Way II in 2003 re: onomatopoeia in signed languages.. Deaf children seem to intuitively know what sounds are represented even if they haven’t heard the sounds.. Researchers found that the approximations made by children were spot on… The power of visual language! e.g PETROL-GOING-IN-TANK with lip-pattern ‘shhhhhhhhhhh’ Keep up the good work and dialogue!

    • Thanks for adding that James- would you happen to know the names of these researchers? In my MA Thesis I explore visual teaching tools and conversation building dialogue with deaf children and how this can impact on literacy teaching. What was really interesting was that some deaf children did not have good phonological awareness and others did but we all were able to reach meaning through dialogue, orthographic and phonological teaching and NZSL. I’m sure you know it’s so important to scaffold on what the deaf child already knows. If phonological literacy teaching doesn’t work for the child then don’t stick with it. One size doesn’t fit all. And more importantly I realised that pure phonological teaching does not suit deaf children. They need other ways. And I think that NZSL is a great tool for the teaching of onomatopoeia.

      I’m always up for sharing information and would dearly love more dialogue with teachers of the deaf. Would be lovely if RTDs and TODs could follow this blog. If you want to share anything I’m open to it. Amanda 🙂

  2. Catching up with your website. Loved this article and the idea that kids were “…making up stories about hissing slithering snakes zooming along on skateboards”! What a LOT of wonderful sounds – and signs – in that sentence alone!

    I might be a tad pedantic in respect of your last sentence and say that, actually, sound IS visual. Hearing people wouldn’t have the same responses or reactions to thunder, lightning, fireworks, car doors banging, footsteps, and more but for the sounds these things make.

    And, I could’t agree more about how sign language gives us access to English. The number of times I’ve used BSL to explain things in English… Well, it’s not surprising as only 30% of the English language is lip-readable in its own right which, by definition, means you have to know the language to know what it is you’re lip-reading – a hefty task for any Deaf child who doesn’t have this language to begin with.

    Keep banging that drum!

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