Student Advice “Japanese Onomatopoeia” from Terry

Student Advice “Japanese Onomatopoeia” from Terry

In English, sounds of actions turned into words are called onomatopoeia.

In the Japanese language, this linguistic tool is utilised much more than perhaps any other language. The words might not make a lot of sense to us, especially English speakers, as many of them sound almost like a cartoon version of the action or thing they are depicting.

However, if you are a fan of Japanese pop culture, particularly anime and manga, you will already be familiar with some of these words. For example, the word for the opening and closing of the mouth when chomping on food is called paku-paku. This is the origin of the name Pac-Man. And pika-pika is used to describe shiny or sparkly things, which is the sound Pika-chu makes!

Let`s take an illustration:

Potsu potsu, it starts to rain. As it continues to drizzle, shito shito, people open their umbrellas and start walking faster as the rain comes down steadily, para para. When it starts to get really heavy and the water pours down, za za, people run for shelter.

As you can see, various onomatopoeic words are used to describe the various stages of rain coming down. While many of these words are first learned in early childhood, they are not considered childish; unlike in English where such words like “pitter patter” or “plink plink,”are considered words only children would use. The words given for rain in the example would be perfectly natural in informal conversation between Japanese adults.

Aside from being subtle, Japanese language can also be animated and lively. There are more than 1,000 onomatopoeia with syllabic and repetitive words, which is three times more than in English! In Japan, the popularity of manga helped grow this list as manga comics include written sound effects to better illustrate each scene.

There are two main types of Japanese onomatopoeic expressions: gion-go and gitai-go. However, the categories can be flexible and subjective. Below is a list of commonly used, double-form onomatopoeia and their English meanings to help learners speak Japanese more naturally and further understand this fascinating language and its culture.

Gion-go 擬音語        Subgroup  Giseigo 擬声語
These words describe the real, natural sounds and noises made by both humans/animals and inanimate objects. Gisei-go refer to animal and human sounds. In manga, they are used to describe sound effects.

〔Japanese〕          〔English〕             〔Description〕

がぶがぶ                 Gabu gabu             Gulping down a drink
くしゃくしゃ           Kusha kusha         Crumpling sound of paper
ざあざあ                   Zaa zaa                    Sound of the rain
ごろごろ                Goro goro               Purring or growling
かりかり                    Kari kari                Crispy or crunchy like rice crackers
けろけろ               Kero kero                   Croaking frog
ブーブー               Bu bu                        Oinking pig
リンリン                     Rin rin                     Chirping cricket
ニャーニャー           Nya nya                     Meowing cat

Gitai-go 擬態語
These words describe physical things, such as textures, as well as types of action. In the world of manga, these words give readers the internal feelings of characters.

〔Japanese〕    〔English〕                  〔Meaning〕

ペコペコ     Peko peko               Hungry; grumbling stomach
どきどき     Doki doki               Feeling when nervous or excited
うろうろ      Uro uro                       To wander aimlessly
ぐずぐず       Guzu guzu               To procrastinate; act slowly
きらきら               Kira kira                To sparkle like jewelry or bling
ざらざら               Zara zara                   Rough, coarse surface
ぐしゃぐしゃ       Gusha gusha            Messy hair or clothes
ぱさぱさ             Pasa pasa                    Dry; lacks moisture
ねばねば             Neba neba               Sticky like okra or raw egg
ぬるぬる             Nuru nuru               Slimy like a fish out of the water
ぞくぞく               Zoku zoku             Excited; to have an adrenaline rush
いらいら              Ira ira                           Impatient; irritated
いそいそ              Iso iso                          Cheerfully
きびきび              Kibi kibi                      Energetically
こそこそ              Koso koso                 Sneakingly; secretly

While they may seem childish or nonsensical, they are part of the Japanese language and add a subtlety and uniqueness that sets it apart from other languages. And it`s fun. Best way to learn Gion-go and Gitai-go? Read manga!

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