The Fascinating World of Japanese OnomatopoeiaLanguage Culture
Sounds and States
“Stop lazing about [goro goro] and look after the kids!” “Don’t chat idly [dara dara] on the phone!” “Don’t just hang around [uro uro] doing nothing!” Each time I hear my wife talk like this, I get nervous (biku biku). Japanese onomatopoeia is richly expressive for describing the nuances of many different situations.
It includes giongo, which are words used to represent sounds, such as animal noises. Gitaigo, on the other hand, are used to represent particular states, and the Japanese language is notable for its abundance of such words. For fluent Japanese speakers, it is perfectly natural to use them regularly. While all of the world’s languages feature onomatopoeia, they vary greatly in the sounds they use.
Examples of Japanese Onomatopoeia
Derives from the word ira, meaning “thorn.” Used to indicate a displeased or irritable feeling.
Shiken benkyō ga omou yō ni susumazu ira ira suru.
I’m annoyed because my exam study isn’t going as well as I thought it would.
Kutsu o pika pika ni migaite kaisha ni iku.
I polish my shoes until they’re gleaming before going to work.
Derives from the verb waku to describe water “gushing” out of the ground. Indicates excitement due to anticipation or happiness.
Kanojo ga ryūgaku o oe, kaette kuru. Waku waku shinagara kūkō ni mukae ni itta.
My girlfriend was on her way back from studying abroad. I was excited as I went to meet her at the airport.
Light and fluffy. Also used to describe this kind of object floating through the air.
Aozora ni shiroi kumo ga fuwa fuwa uiteiru.
White, fluffy clouds are floating in the blue sky.
The soft, sticky texture of some foods; soft and supple (of skin).
Akachan no mochi mochi shita hada ga urayamashii.
I’m jealous of babies’ soft and supple skin.
Nani ka ii koto ga atta no ka, kyō no jōshi wa shūshi niko niko gao da.
Something nice must have happened to my boss; she’s been beaming all day.
To be hungry; to be servile. Said to be an adapted form of the verb hekomu, “to become hollow.”
Onaka ga peko peko de shūchū dekinai.
I’m starving, so I can’t concentrate.
Shachō ni peko peko suru.
To suck up to the company president.
The rapid heartbeat caused by happiness, unease, fear, or surprise.
Shiken kekka happyō no hi, fuan de shinzō ga doki doki shita.
The day the exam results were published, my heart was beating so hard from nerves.
To speak fluently, particularly a foreign language.
Kare wa eigo ga pera pera da.
He is fluent in English.
Japanese has relatively few verbs or adjectives compared with English or Arabic. The same verb naku is commonly used for making sounds, whether talking about birds, insects, dogs, cats, sheep, or frogs. However, different giongo used as adverbs, such as chun chun for small birds, wan wan for dogs, and kā kā for crows, prevent confusion. Perhaps the possibility of using different kanji for naku—including 鳴く, 啼く, and 哭く—was one reason for the limited development of other verbs.
By contrast, in languages like English and Arabic, there are different verbs for individual animal and bird noises. In English, dogs bark, lions roar, and frogs croak. There are a few alternatives to naku in Japanese, however, such as saezuru (to chirp), hoeru (to bark), and inanaku (to neigh).
There are also many giongo and gitaigo for describing how people laugh, walk, or eat. Smiling and laughing can be expressed with the words kera kera (for cackling), gera gera (guffawing), kusu kusu (chuckling), niya niya (grinning), niko niko (beaming), and nita nita (smirking).
Onomatopoetic expressions can pose particular challenges for the language learner due to their flexibility and broad range of meanings. To take just one example, the term goro goro can mean anything from the rumbling of thunder to the lazy “rolling around” performed by an idle person at home on the weekend.
- The sound of thunder.
Kaminari ga goro goro to natteiru.
The thunder is rumbling.
- Something big and heavy rolling.
Iwa ga goro goro to korogari ochite itta.
The great rock rolled and tumbled downward.
- The unpleasant feeling of having something in one’s eye or being sick to the stomach.
Gyūnyū o nondara onaka ga goro goro shite kita.
After drinking some milk, I had an upset stomach.
- To be common or frequent.
Sonna hanashi wa seken ni goro goro shiteiru.
What you’re talking about happens all the time.
- To be idle or do nothing.
Yasumi no hi wa ie de goro goro shiteiru.
On days when I’m not working, I just laze around at home.
The Pain of Being Misunderstood
There is also a wide array of onomatopoeic words for talking about pain, whether it is kiri kiri, zuki zuki, piri piri, or jin jin. It is not always easy to distinguish these in English.
Yet, it is extremely useful to be able to describe pain when required to explain it to a medical professional. For example, when it feels like a repeated sharp, stabbing pain, it helps to describe it to a Japanese doctor as kiri kiri. As I have still not mastered onomatopoeic vocabulary, the agony of a stomachache can be aggravated by the inability to adequately express what I am feeling.
The world of Japanese onomatopoeia is a fascinating and entertaining one. I plan to continue making steady (don don) use of these words.
(Originally published in Japanese on September 18, 2017. Illustrations by Mokutan Angelo.)