Sounds to See and Feel: Japanese Onomatopoeia and Beyond


Potsu potsu, the rain begins to fall. People open umbrellas as it continues to drizzle, shito shito, and quicken their pace as it drops steadily, para para, before dashing for shelter as the skies open and water pours down, zā zā, on their heads.

The Japanese language has a huge number of phrases for describing sound—with many more onomatopoeic words than English—as well as similar words that go beyond sound to represent physical or emotional states.

Written in kana, these phrases tend to be overshadowed by kanji vocabulary among both native and foreign learners. Japanese children have a set number of kanji to learn each year throughout their school life, while adults can take the popular Kanji Kentei and test their knowledge of up to 6,000 characters. Foreign students also commonly measure their linguistic progress by the number of kanji they have learned.

One reason for the lower prestige of kana phrases describing sounds (giongo) or states (gitaigo) seems to be that many are first learned in early childhood. This does not mean, however, that they are childish; unlike “pitter patter” or “plink plink,” the words given for rain above would be perfectly natural in informal conversation between Japanese adults. The same is true for a host of other apparently simple phrases, which learners can find hard to interpret without the hints to meaning provided by kanji.

The Sounds of Japan

Onomatopoeic phrases are generally known as giongo in Japanese, although they are sometimes divided into giongo for sounds made by objects and giseigo for sounds made by people and animals. In speech directed at very young children, animal noises often double up as names for the animals themselves, so that, for example, wan wan can represent both barking and a dog and nyan nyan both mewing and a cat.

Although they often vary from equivalent words in English, there are some broad rules to follow when faced with unknown phrases. Those with the vowels i and e are more likely to describe quieter or higher sounds than those with o, ā, or ō, which are typically associated with louder, lower noises. Thus shito shito stands for light rain and zā zā for heavy, while shiku shiku describes subdued sobbing and wā wā is the sound of bawling.

There are similar differences between the lighter sounds of words beginning with unvoiced consonants, such as k, s, and t, and the heavier sounds of those beginning with voiced consonants like g, z, and d. If someone knocks on the door ton ton, this is a light tapping, compared with don don, which is a heavy pounding. Kasa kasa can represent the light sound of leaves rustling underfoot, while gasa gasa is the heavy rustling of branches in a forest swaying in the wind.

Becoming attuned to these kinds of patterns makes it easier to interpret the meanings of giongo. There is at least some overlap with English in the vowel sounds as, for example, “splish” suggests a smaller sound than “splosh.”

Words to Paint Physical and Emotional Pictures

Gitaigo (mimetic words), meanwhile, are the cousins to giongo used to represent physical and emotional states rather than sound. Examples include waku waku to denote excitement, pika pika for something shiny, and kossori for a stealthy action. Although rare in English, there are some similar words, such as “wishy-washy” or “higgledy-piggledy,” which suggest sounds without representing them.

It may be difficult to draw a clear line between sounds and states, as with doki doki, which represents the nervous excitement felt before an interview or appearing on stage. Doki doki stands for the sound of the heart beating faster, but in use the phrase’s emphasis is more on the emotional state. Many other phrases could refer to either a movement or the accompanying sound. As a learner, however, there’s no need to make a fine distinction.

Some words also have different meanings as giongo and gitaigo. The sound of heavy knocking (don don) introduced above can also mean “steadily,” as in achieving a task. While gata gata represents a rattling sound, it may also mean “rickety” or “unstable” in talking about a building. One clue as to which is intended is that giongo are more likely to be written in katakana and gitaigo in hiragana, although this is by no means a consistent rule.

An Essential Vocabulary Area

When translated into English, these phrases will frequently become adjectives or adverbs. Used in conjunction with general verbs like warau (to laugh), naku (to cry), and taberu (to eat), they may also cover the same ground as English verbs. So kusu kusu warau is to chuckle or giggle quietly, while gera gera warau is to guffaw or roar with laughter. Gatsu gatsu taberu is to gobble or eat greedily and mogu mogu taberu is to munch or chew away with the mouth closed.

There are many more fine gradations in meaning of giongo and gitaigo, but they do not always match neatly one to one with English equivalents, which can make them more difficult to learn. Their common usage in everyday situations, however, means that, although they do not receive the same attention as kanji, these phrases should not be ignored by students who wish to speak fluently (pera pera) and read smoothly (sura sura).

A Sampling of Giongo and Gitaigo

Sounds made by people
Gohon A coughing sound
Wai wai Talking loudly or shouting
Animal noises
Mō mō The sound of a cow
Kā kā The sound of a crow
Natural phenomena
Hyū hyū The sound of the wind blowing
Goro goro The rumble of thunder
Other sounds
Rin rin The ringing of a bicycle bell
Saku saku A crunching sound, as of snow underfoot
Describing movements
Guru guru To spin
Yukkuri Slowly
Describing things
Bisshori Dripping wet, as with sweat
Fuwa fuwa Soft, fluffy
Physical feelings
Kuta kuta Exhausted
Muka muka Nauseous
Ira ira Irritated
Kuyo kuyo Worried
(Banner photo courtesy of Shinichi Higashi.)

Japanese language giongo gitaigo onomatopoeia