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Japanese Onomatopoeia: a noisy affair

Japanese Onomatopoeia: a noisy affair

Japanese onomatopoeia is a fascinating and incredibly varied part of the language. In fact, it’s so varied that there’s at least five different types of onomatopoeia, some which we don’t even really have an equivalent for in English!

In this article, I’m going to give you an overview of what Japanese onomatopoeia is, as well as give you a ton of interesting words to try out yourself! So…

Japanese Onomatopoeia EXPLAINED
 

What is Japanese onomatopoeia?

Japanese onomatopoeia are more accurately ideophones, since they include actual sound representations (barking = wan-wan) as well as “sound-symbolic” words for things that don’t make sounds (e.g. damp = jime-jime; lazing around = goro-goro).
 

What’s this about ideophones?

So, to avoid the ire of all the linguistic pedants out there, I’ll try to clarify some nit-picky details.

Japanese “sound-symbolism” can be broken down into at least five different categories. When casually discussing the Japanese language, we usually refer to all of these types of words as “onomatopoeia” in English. However, this is technically incorrect.

Onomatopoeia are words that imitate sounds. In English, these are words like “woof,” “ah-choo,” and “tick-tock.”

Ideophones are words that that create an impression of an idea through sound. English has relatively few of these. Some of these rare examples would be “zig-zag,” “twinkle,” “helter-skelter,” and “zoom.”

Japanese, on the other hand, has tons of both onomatopoeia and ideophones. In fact, it has multiple different categories of ideophones!
 

Is there a Japanese umbrella word for onomatopoeia/ideophones?

As far as I can tell, there’s no “official” word that encompasses all the different types of sound-symbolism in Japanese, but the most commonly used one seems to be giseigo (擬声語 | ぎせいご).

Giseigo is made up of three kanji. The first is 擬 (“gi”), which means to mimic or imitate. Next is 声 (“sei”), which means voice. And the last is 語 (“go”), which means word or language. So, we get “imitate-voice-word.” Makes sense!

While, we’ll be using “giseigo” for the rest of this article, I thought I’d mention some other words used to describe the same concept:

 

擬声法
gi-sei-ho
“imitate-voice-principle”

声喩
koe-tatoe
“voice-metaphor”

声喩法
koe-tatoe-ho
“voice-metaphor-principle”

物声模倣
monokoe-moho
“true-voice-imitation”

写音法
sha-on-ho
“copy-sound-principle”

オノマトペ
onomatope
From the French “onomatopée,” which we get onomatopoeia from in English as well.
 

What are the different types of onomatopoeia/ideophones/giseigo?

There are at least five different categories, as well as two more aspects I’d like to discuss. Let’s go through them one by one.

擬声語
giseigo
While this is used as a catchall term, it is also the word used to describe a specific type of Japanese sound-symbolism. This one would be denoted by the technical term, “animate phonomime.”

That is to say, this is the term for words that mimic sounds made by living things.

This makes sense when we look at the kanji. That center character 声 means “voice,” in effect, the intentional sound made by something living.

Examples in English would be “woof,” “meow,” etc.

 

擬音語
giongo
This is what we’d call an “inanimate phonomime.” Again, this makes sense when we look at the center character 音, which just means “sound.” We use giongo to describe sounds made by inanimate things.

Examples in English would be “plop,” “pitter-patter,” “bang,” etc.

擬態語
gitaigo
This is what we’d call a “phenomime,” and it’s used for a type of sound-symbolism we don’t really have in English. Gitaigo are used to describe phenomena—concepts like “damp,” “stealthy,” “the warmth of food.”

That center character is 態, meaning condition, appearance, or appearance. See? Makes sense again!

擬情語
gijogo
This is a “psychomime,” and it’s used to describe feelings and emotions. Again, we don’t really have this in English. In Japanese, you can describe irritation, joy, and hunger, all through these gijogo.

Let’s take a look at that center kanji. 情 means, simply, feelings and emotions.

擬容語
giyogo
This one doesn’t have a fancy technical name, and I’m not 100% sure it’s even an official term. Still, it’s referenced a few times in both English and Japanese sources, so we’ll roll with it.

Giyogo is the term to describe movement. Ideas like “sluggishly,” “rattling,” “aimlessly,” etc. The center kanji in this one 容 means “form.”
 

Dividing up the giseigo

There’s a couple of things to keep in mind here. First is that a word can be used in different senses. For example, let’s take ゴロゴロ (goro-goro).

In once sense, it is a giongo, describing the sound of thunder.

In another sense, it is gitaigo, describing the state of loafing around.

Another thing to note is that giseigo come in a handful of forms.

The first, and most instantly recognizable, is the double form. Goro-goro, doki-doki, waku-waku. These are usually used as adjectives, though sometimes as verbs, or adverbs.

The next is those that end abruptly, indicated by a small-tsu (っ). These are also usually followed by と (“to”), indicating that it is a quotation of sorts.

Then we have the words ending in り (“ri”). These are typically adverbs and are usually in words that indicate softness or slowness.

Words that end in ん (“n”) typically denote a continuous, repetitious action or state.

Words that end with a loooooong vowel indicate something continuing for a long time.

And, of course, it’s worth noting that these are, as Captain Barbossa would say, “Guidelines.” Japanese, like English, is filled with exception and counter-intuitive twists.

So, let these points guide you, but don’t take them as hard and fast rules.
 

Interjections

At least one resource I delved into wrapped interjections into the overall discussion of onomatopoeia and Japanese. These are, in a sense, natural human cries that are an explosive mimesis of a psychological state.

In English, we recognize these as “Oh!”, “Ow!” Aww!” and the like.

Since this is not a main part of Japanese sound-symbolism, I won’t go into depth about it here. I just wanted to make you aware of it, and give a few examples.

 

あや
aya
“Wow! Whoa!”
Used as an exclamation of wonder.

いや
iya
“Oh! Why!”
“Quit it!”
Usually an exclamation of unpleasant surprise.

おやおや
oya-oya
“Oh my! Oh dear! Oh my goodness!”
Commonly used by women to express mild surprise.

おい
oi
“Oi! Hey!”
This one is pretty similar to “oi” in English, actually.

へえええぇぇぇぇ
heeeeeeeeee
“No way? Seriously? Wow! Cool!”
A huge catchall expression that you will hear all.the.freakin’.time. if you go to Japan or watch live Japanese television.
 

The suggestions of sounds

Another related idea is the way that sounds in Japanese suggest different ideas. As you go forward into the world of Japanese as well as sound-symbolism, you’ll be able to suss out some things just by the sound of it. Let’s go through a few of them.

The nasal “n” sound, in Japanese, suggests something subjective, or speaker-oriented. To illustrate this, we’ll use the synonyms “kara” and “node.”

Both of these mean “because,” however “node” will be used to suggest an explanation that is more personal.

Next, we have the distinction between voiced and unvoiced consonants in our giseigo. Unvoiced consonants tend to represent the small and delicate, while voiced consonants suggest big, heavy things.

For example, if you were to cut a thin piece of paper, you might use “saku-saku” to express that; on the other hand, if you were slicing up cardboard, you’d say “zaku-zaku.”

Notice how “sa” doesn’t require you to vibrate your vocal cords to pronounce properly, while “za” does. Another example of this is something small rolling, which is “koro-koro,” while something big rolling is “goro-goro.”

That distinction between what requires the vocal cords and what doesn’t is the difference between voiced and unvoiced.

Next, there’s the consonants k and g, both of which suggest things sharp, hard, or sudden (Kachi-kachi > frozen stiff).

 

“S” sounds suggest quiet things (shin > silent).

“R” sounds suggest smooth fluidity, even slipperiness (nuru-nuru > slimy).

“M” and “n” sounds suggest warmth and softness (mochi-mochi > springy, doughy).

“P” sounds suggest strength, explosiveness, and crispness (pisahri > splat).

“Y” sounds suggest softness, weakness, and slowness (yukkuri > slowly).

“U” sounds suggest human-oriented situations (utsura-utsura > drowsily).

“O” sounds suggest human-oriented things as well, but usually negative (oro-oro > flustered, bewildered).

“E” sounds suggest off-color things, or unpleasant things (hebereke > dead drunk).
 

Wait, do you actually expect me to use these words?

Absolutely. If you want to sound fluent, anyway.

To a lot of people who don’t speak Japanese natively, the copious use of these sing-songy sound-symbolisms can seem a bit childish, even somewhat like baby talk. I can assure you it is anything but.

These words are used consonantly in all forms of adult conversation and correspondence. You will see and hear these sorts of words in casual conversation as well as in full-on formal speeches and all-out academic writing.

Giseigo are a fundamental part of the Japanese language.
 

Kana: the key to giseigo

Giseigo are almost exclusively written in kana. Yeah, sure, the dictionary may list some kanji that can technically be used to write them, but, well, let’s put it this way: If your Japanese is at the level that you’re still reading this article, you don’t need to worry about that.

If you want to be able to read anything in Japanese, but especially giseigo, then you need to learn your kana.

If you tend to read some {ahem} “early release” translated manga, you may notice that the “action sounds” in the background of the comic panels are usually untranslated.

If you want to get the full feel of the manga you’re reading, even if you’re reading them in English you should learn your kana just to be able to get a feel for the sound effects the creators wanted you to experience.

What are the kana? Well, they’re sort of like the alphabet for Japanese.

The kana consists of two mirror-image characters (kind of like how we have upper and lower case letters… kind of), the hiragana and katakana.

Each one has 46 characters, but several are either exactly the same (へ/ヘ), or very similar (せ/セ). You can learn all 92 in a week of concentrated studying.
 

Some extra notation to help you along

Many giseigo end with the small-tsu character っ. This indicates a short stop at the end of the word. It’s very clipped. Think about closing your throat off at the end of the word to create the clipped sound.

ー is a long dash that just extends a vowel sound.

~ is like the dash, but wavy. It is what it looks like—a sort of up and down inflection in the word.

Finally, you’ll see smaller versions of the kana. For example, あああぁァァ! is something you might read in manga.

Each of those characters represents the same sound, but it gives the sense of the exclamation trailing off, and perhaps (with the switch to katakana for the last two characters) becoming strained at the end.
 

Giseigo: Sounds from living things

ふわあ

fuwaa

Yawning

はははは

hahahaha

Laughter

ぱちぱち

pachipachi

Clapping

ごほん

gohon

Cough

わんわん

wanwan

Dog’s bark

にゃん

nyan

Cat’s meow

ぶーぶー

buubuu

Pig’s oink

もーもー

moomoo

Cow’s moo

こけこっこ

kokekokko

Chicken’s cluck

ひひいん

hihiin

Horse’s neigh

かーかー

kaakaa

Crow’s kaw

ブーン

puun

bee’s buzz

がーがー

gaagaa

Duck’s quack

ちゅんちゅん

chunchun

Bird’s chirp

めーめー

meemee

Sheep’s baa

うきうき

ukiuki

Monkey’s howl

ちゅーちゅー

chuuchuu

Mouse’s squeak

げろげろ

gerogero

Frog’s croak

ほーほー

hoohoo

Owl’s hoot

がおー

kaoo

bear’s roar

And, good news, the Japanese have revealed the answer to a long-standing mystery! Indeed, they know what the fox says! And it’s コンコン (kon-kon).
 

Giongo: Real sounds made by inanimate things

バンバン

Ban-ban

sound of gunshooting

ばしゃっ

basha-

Water scattering, splashing forcefully

ポツポツ

Botsu-botsu

sound of water dripping or rain drops

ドカン

dokan

the sound of an explosion

ぎしぎし

Gishi-gishi

Grinding & squeaking (like teeth)

ごろごろ

Goro-goro

A boulder or rocks tumbling down a hill

こぽこぽ

kopokopo

Water bubbling gently

めらめら

Mera-mera

Suddenly bursting into flames

ぱたぱた

Pata-pata

Cloth lightly flapping in the wind

ポキっ

poki-

something small snapping

ぴゅーぴゅー

Pyuu-pyuu

Strong, continuous, and cold wintry winds

さくさく

Saku-saku

Stepping on soft dirt or sand

たん

tan

feet stomping; something put down hard

たたたた

tatatata

Running at full speed

ざーざー

Zaa-zaa

Lots of heavy rain pouring down

ズガ

zuga

sound of a hard blow

 

Gitaigo: Sound of phenomena

バタバタ

Bata-bata

clattering, rattling

べとべと

Beto-beto

Sticky with sweat or blood

びしょびしょ

Bisho-bisho

Horribly soaked by a large amount of water

びっしょり

bisshor

to be soaked

ボロボロ

Boro-boro

Worn-out, ragged, tattered

ちくちく

Chiku-chiku

prickly, like a porcupine or cactus

でこぼこ

Deko-boko

Uneven ground

どきどき

Doki-doki

to throb with a fast heart-beat

フワフワ

Fuwa-fuwa

bouyant, fluffy

がたがた

Gata-gata

A road that isn’t paved

ガヤガヤ

gaya-gaya

the sound of crowd, mob

ぎらぎら

Gira-gira

A glint in your eyes

ぎりぎり

Giri-giri

at the last moment

ぐるぐる

Guru-guru

going around in circles (literally and figuratively)

はたはた

Hata-hata

fluttering in the wind

ひんやり

hinyari

Feeling cool

ほかほか

Hoka-hoka

A warm body or food

いちゃいちゃ

icha-icha

the sound of two people making out

いらいら

ira-ira

to be fretful, irritated

いそいそ

iso-iso

to move around with liveliness

じんわり

jinwari

Soaking slowly with sweat or tears

かっか

kakka

burning hot and red

コロコロ

Koro-koro

lightly rolling

ムキムキ

muki-muki

bulge ripple, muscular physique

ムシャムシャ

musha-musha

the sound of someone eating or munching on something

むしむし

Mushi-mushi

Too much warmth, unpleasantly hot

ニコニコ

Niko-niko

smiling

ニョロニョロ

Nyoro-nyoro

long/thing; wriggling motion

おどおど

odo-odo

to feel uneasy

ぴかぴか

pika-pika

to shine, sparkle, glitter

ピリピリ

Piri-piri

stinging from spicy food

ぴょんぴょん

pyon-pyon

jumping

さんさん

San-san

Lots of shining sunlight

さらさら

Sara-sara

smooth and soft

さわさわ

Sawa-sawa

rustling of leaves int eh wind

しゃきしゃき

Shaki-shaki

watery/crunchy texture of fresh food like lettuce or a bell pepper

しっかり

shikkari

solid foundation; trustworthy

しとしと

Shito-shito

drizzling

つやつや

Tsuya-tsuya

beautifully glistening

ウハウハ

uha-uha

jumping

うかうか

uka-uka

to be careless or absentminded

うとうと

uto-uto

to doze off

うつらうつら

utsura-utsura

to drift between sleep and wakefulness

ワイワイ

wai-wai

the sound of children playing

ざーざー

Zaa-zaa

raining heavily

 

Gijogo: Sound of feeling

あたふた

Ata-futa

Running about in a rush

あわあわ

Awa-awa

Losing a grasp on your senses

がんがん

Gan-gan

pounding headache

いらいら

Ira-ira

annoyed, irritated

くよくよ

Kuyo-kuyo

Worrying about past trivial stuff

もじもじ

Moji-moji

Unable decidedue to shyness

もやもや

Moya-moya

wondering what to do

さっぱり

sappari

feeling refreshed/relieved

しんみり

shinmiri

Lonely, solemn

しょんぼり

shonbori

despondent

うきうき

Uki-uki

Happy, lighthearted, hope-filled

うっとり

uttori

fascinated by something beautiful

わくわく

Waku-waku

Excited from anticipation, or pleasure

ずきずき

Zuki-zuki

Throbbing, deep pain

 

Giyogo: Sound of motion

ぼーっと

bootto

absentmindedly

ぶるぶる

Buru-buru

Trembling from cold, fear, or anger

がくがく

Gaku-gaku

Joints, like knees, shaking

ゴシゴシ

Goshi-goshi

scrubbing

ぐんぐん

Gun-gun

vigorously (used with plants and animals)

ぐっすり

gussuri

Completely and totally asleep

ぐーたら

guutara

Not having the willpower to do anything

きょろきょろ

Kyoro-kyoro

Turning around looking around restlessly

モミモミ

Momi-momi

massage

のろのろ

Noro-noro

Proceeding at a snail’s pace, slow and sluggish

ぷくぷく

Puku-puku

foam/bubble action

すたこら

sutakora

Fast paced, eager walking

うろうろ

Uro-uro

Wandering aimlessly

うとうと

Uto-uto

Half asleep, nodding off

わいわい

Wai-wai

Clamorously

 

Some written examples of giseigo

 

あの犬、一日中ワンワンワンワン吠えてるんだから。
ano inu, ichi-nichi-jyu wan-wan-wan-wan hoeterundakara.
That dog has been barking ‘Ruff-ruff-ruff-ruff!’ all day long.

ダイナマイトがドカンと爆発した。
Dainamaito ga dokan to bakuhatsu-shita.
The dynamite exploded with a bang.

うとうとしているうちに駅を通りすぎてしまったらしい。
Uto-uto-shiteiru uchi-ni-eki wo torisugiteshimattarashii.
I must’ve passed my station while dozing off.

今日一日当ても無くうろうろした。
Kyo-ichi-nichi totemonaku urouro-shita.
I wandered about aimlessly all day.

彼女は馬鹿らしい質問をされていらいらした
Kanojo wa baka-rashii shitsumon wo sarete ira-ira-shita.
She was annoyed by the stupid question.
 

Real life examples!

Here’s a timely example:

Across numbers 3-9, we see four different examples of giseigo.

 

あわ立てプクプク
awatate puku-puku
Bring soap to a foam

手のこうモミモミ
te-no-kou momi-momi
Massage the back of your hand

ゆびのあいだモミモミ
yubi-no-aida momi-momi
Massage between your fingers

おやゆびくるくる
oya-yubi kuru-kuru
Wash all around your thumb

てのひら・ゆびのさきごしごし
te-no-hira/yubi-no-saki goshi-goshi
Scrub your palms and fingertips.

手くびくるくる
te-kubi kuru-kuru
Wash all around your wrists.

しっかりながして
shikkari nagashite
Rinse completely

 

しあわせ、とろり。
Shiawase, torori.
Happiness, thick.

道産の素材で作ったとろとろの濃厚カスタードを表面をキャラメリゼ。
Dosan-no-sazai de tsukutta toro-toro no noko kasutaado wo hyomen wo kyaramerize.
Made from native Hokkaido ingredients, the surface of the sticky, rich custard is caramelized.

「とろ・ふわ・カリ」三つの食感をお楽しみください。
“Toro, fuwa, kari,” mittsu no shokkan wo o-tanoshimi-kudasai.
“Rich, fluffy, caramel,” enjoy all three textures.

 

 

ガチャポン
gacha-pon
This word is the name of those capsule toy machines. The “gacha” part is the sound of turning the knob, and the “pon” sound is the capsule popping down.

 

 

チーズたっぷり
chiizu tappuri
Lot’s of cheese

 

 

照明をぐっと落としたムーディーな店内は、テーブル席のどこからでも、ライトアップされた青函連絡船記念館摩周丸や幻想的な函館港の夜景が見渡せる。
Shomei wo gutto otoshita muudeii-na tennai wa, teeburu-seki no dokokara demo, raitoappu-sareta seikan-renrakusen-kinenkan-mashumaru ya gensoteki-na Hakodate-ko no yakei ga miwatariseru.
Illuminating the perfectly atmospheric restaurant, anywhere you sit you can look out over the lit up Seikan Ferry Memorial Ship “Mashu Maru,” and the fantastic Hakodata harbor night view.

 

キャンキャンキャンキャン
kyan-kyan-kyan-kyan
Yap yap yap yap

 

For these next two, trying to have a direct translation isn’t practical. Instead, look at the pictures, read the transliteration (if you can’t read kana yet), and try to <i>feel</i> the way the sound-symbolism works here.

Some Japanese text and conversation involves made-up sound-symbolism (just like in American comic books), but the feeling of how certain sounds express our world is so deeply ingrained in the language, that it makes perfect sense to native speakers.

 

じー
jii

ぼん
bon

 

 

ジャッ
JA-

ララッ
RARA-

ガリガリガリガリガリガリ
GARIGARIGARIGARIGARIGARI

 

 

身体をビリビリと震わせる轟音。
Shintai wo biri-biri to furuwaseru go-on.
My body trembled with the rumbling roar.

にょきにょきと雲のように噴出する白煙。
Nyoki-nyoki to kumo-no-yoni funshutsu-suru hakuen.
White smoke spewing out like clouds, on and on.

小惑星探査機「はやぶさ」やさまざまな月・惑星探査機、科学衛星による観測で、宇宙の謎がどんどん解明されつつある。
Shouwakusei-tansaki “Hayabusa” ya sama-zama-na tsuki/wakusei-tansaki, kagaku-eisei-niyoru kansoku de, uchu-no-nazo ga don-don kaimei-sare-tsutsu-aru.
The asteroid probe “Hayabusa,” various moon and planetary probes, and scientific observation satellites, are all continuously unravelling the mysteries of the universe.
 

ばったん! (Battan!)

There you go folks. Everything you need to get started on your Japanese onomatopoeia/giseigo journey! Make sure to drop a comment with any interesting, cool, confusing, or strange Japanese onomatopoeia you’ve found!
 

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