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:

Japanese English Reading Notes
ワンワンthe sound of a dog barkingwan-wan
ニャニャ,
ニャンニャン
the sound of a cat meowingnya-nya, nyan-nyan
コケコッコthe sound of a chicken or rooster cluckingkoke-kokko
パチパチthe sound of hands clapping, bonfirepachi-pachi
ザーザーsound of rain falling (heavy rain)zaa-zaa
ポツポツsound of water dripping or rain dropspotsu-potsu
バンバンsound of gunshooting (bang-bang)ban-ban
フワアthe sound of a yawnfuwaa
ケロケロthe sound of frog croakingkero-kero
へへへ or ハハハthe sound of laughterhehehe or hahaha
ドカンthe sound of an explosiondokan
ズガsound of a hard blowzuga
どきどきto throb with a fast heart-beatdoki-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:

Japanese English Reading Notes
ムキムキbulge ripple, muscular physiquemuki-muki
いそいそto move around with livelinessiso-iso
いちゃいちゃthe sound of two people making outicha-icha
うかうかto be careless or absentmindeduka-uka
うつらうつらto drift between sleep and wakefulnessutsura-utsura
うとうとto doze offuto-uto
おどおどto feel uneasyodo-odo
ムシャムシャthe sound of someone eating or munching on somethingmusha-musha
ウハウハjumpinguha-uha
ぴょんぴょんjumpingpyon-pyon
ワイワイthe sound of children playingwai-wai
ガヤガヤthe sound of crowd, mobgaya-gaya
ぴかぴかto shine, sparkle, glitterpika-pika
いらいらto be fretful, irritatedira-ira
びっしょりto be soakedbisshori

.

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.