Japanese/Vocabulary/Onomatopoeia

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An onomatopoeia (オノマトペ) is a word or group of words in a language which have their meaning indicated by the sounds they mimic. Examples of English onomatopoeia include "meow", "roar", "buzz", "boom", "snap", "bang", and so on. In general, the Japanese word to refer to this concept is giseigo (擬声語).

However, Japanese not only contains words for sound effects, but also what is termed "Japanese sound symbolism" - basically, onomatopoeia describing things that don't actually make sounds. Officially, the former is called giongo (擬音語) and the latter gitaigo (擬態語). (Giseigo is an umbrella term that refers to both of these)

Giongo[edit]

擬音語 giongo are words which describe a sound. Most giongo are written in katakana. Some examples are:

English Japanese Reading Notes
the sound of a dog barking ワンワン wan-wan
the sound of a cat meowing ニャニャ,
ニャンニャン
nya-nya, nyan-nyan
the sound of a chicken or rooster clucking コケコッコ koke-kokko
the sound of hands clapping, bonfire パチパチ pachi-pachi
sound of rain falling (heavy rain) ザーザー zaa-zaa
sound of water dripping or rain drops ポツポツ potsu-potsu
sound of gunshooting (bang-bang) バンバン ban-ban
the sound of a yawn フワア fuwaa
the sound of frog ribbit ケロケロ kero-kero
the sound of laughter へへへ or ハハハ hehehe or hahaha
the sound of an explosion ドカン dokan
sound of a hard blow ズガ zuga
to throb with a fast heart-beat どきどき doki-doki

Gitaigo[edit]

擬態語 gitaigo are words that describe an action, state, or emotion by an associated sound. They are typically written in hiragana. Some examples are:

English Japanese Reading Notes
{{{english}}} {{{japanese}}}
to move around with liveliness いそいそ iso-iso
the sound of two people making out いちゃいちゃ icha-icha
to be careless or absentminded うかうか uka-uka
to drift between sleep and wakefulness うつらうつら utsura-utsura
to doze off うとうと uto-uto
to feel uneasy おどおど odo-odo
the sound of someone eating or munching on something ムシャムシャ musha-musha
jumping ウハウハ uha-uha
jumping ぴょんぴょん pyon-pyon
the sound of children playing ワイワイ wai-wai
the sound of crowd, mob ガヤガヤ gaya-gaya
to shine, sparkle, glitter, the sound pikachu makes ぴかぴか pika-pika
to be fretful, irritated いらいら ira-ira
to be soaked びっしょり bisshori

.

Note on katakana vs. hiragana writings[edit]

In a typical style of Japanese writing giongo are written in katakana, while gitaigo are written in hiragana. However, this rule is not always observed. There are subtle nuances involved if you were to write one of these words in hiragana vs. katakana - katakana gives a kind of "harder" tone, while hiragana is "softer". Often, it is the author's discretion which to use.