Onomatopoeia in To Kill a Mockingbird

Instructor: Christina Boggs

Chrissy has taught secondary English and history and writes online curriculum. She has an M.S.Ed. in Social Studies Education.

What do the words 'boom,' 'crash,' and 'smack' have in common? Why, they're onomatopoeia, of course! This lesson explores the ways author Harper Lee uses onomatopoeia in her novel ''To Kill a Mockingbird''.

The Many Uses of Onomatopoeia

Take a moment to think about the last time something startled you. Did you make a noise when it happened? Maybe you SCREAMED. Or perhaps you SQUEALED. You may have even SHRIEKED. When those noises came from your mouth, they may not have seemed like anything important. After all, a scream or a squeal or a shriek is just a sound, right? On paper, however, those sounds are something much more!

In literature, 'scream', 'squeal', and 'shriek' are a special type of literary device called onomatopoeia, a term used when a word sounds like the noise it describes. Words like 'meow' and 'woof' describe the noises that cats and dogs make, but they also sound an awful lot like the noises themselves.

Authors use onomatopoeia for a number of reasons. For starters, onomatopoeia is practical. Sometimes it's important for the reader to know how something (or someone) in a story sounds. Authors also use onomatopoeia to create a certain mood or tone that will influence how the reader feels. For example, if a character whispers, 'Follow me', this has a much different effect than if the character shouts it!

Onomatopoeia in To Kill a Mockingbird

Harper Lee uses onomatopoeia throughout her novel To Kill a Mockingbird in a way that helps readers connect with the story. Like other authors, she uses onomatopoeia not only to describe the sounds the characters make and hear in the story, but also to change the mood and tone of the novel.

Onomatopoeia to Describe How Objects Sound

As mentioned before, onomatopoeia words frequently describe a sound an object makes while also sounding like that particular object at the same time.

When Jem Finch prowls around the Radley property, Scout waits with baited breath: 'I waited until it was time to worry and listened for Mr. Radley's shotgun. Then I thought I heard the back fence squeak. It was wishful thinking.' In this instance, the word 'squeak' describes the sound the fence makes and, when pronounced, sounds like the actual noise itself.

Later in the novel, Lee uses onomatopoeia to describe the sound of Jem's voice and the sound of the telephone: 'Suddenly Jem screamed, 'Atticus, the telephone's ringing!' The word 'screamed' reflects the way in which Jem is speaking, while 'ringing' sounds very similar to the noise a telephone makes when it alerts people that there's an incoming phone call.

Onomatopoeia to Mimic Character Sounds

One of the most common ways that Harper Lee uses onomatopoeia in To Kill a Mockingbird is to mimic the sounds that the characters make that are not actual words. While Scout and Jem fight with one another, Scout makes a loud noise of frustration: 'Ain't so high and mighty now, are you!' I screamed, sailing in again...'Taah!' I said at Jem. He was being sent to bed at my bedtime.' As a reader, you know that 'taah' isn't a real world, but this use of onomatopoeia helps you to imagine Scout's victory noise as Jem is punished.

Lee uses onomatopoeia in the following example to mimic the 'be quiet' noise that many people make or are at least familiar with: 'He's just gone over the evidence,' Jem whispered, 'and we're gonna win, Scout. I don't see how we can't...Sh-h. Nothing new, just the usual. Hush now.'

It's very likely that someone has said 'sh-h' to you at some point in your life to remind you to quiet down. While 'sh-h' isn't a real word, 'hush' is. This is also considered an onomatopoeia because it sounds a lot like the way people sound when they speak in hushed tones.

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