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Biff! Bang! Pow! – Japanese onomatopoeia

Onomatopoeia—what a great word. Onomatopoeia means words that imitate the sounds they describe. Examples include splash, grunt, clap, screech, flutter, squirt, whoosh, murmur, blurt, thud, thump, warble, smack and belch (for more examples, please refer to Dr. Seuss’s onomatopoeia masterpiece Mr. Brown Can Moo! Can You?).

Japanese Onomatopoeia
Photo by Kyoww

Did you know that Russian chickens say ko-ko-ko and that French pigs say groin-groin? In Batak, babies cry nguek-nguek and in Chinese an explosion goes hong! A belch in Indonesian sounds like erk but in Italian it’s rutt. Is it because the food’s different? No; it’s because onomatopoeia differs from language to language.

In Japan, there are several types of onomatopoeia—giseigo (擬声語, sounds people and animals make), giongo (擬音語, inanimate sounds like waves and wind), and gitaigo (擬態語, feelings and other non-auditory phenomenon). As you learn Japanese, you’ll be utterly confused by these sounds but they’re often useful in conversation.

Pet sounds

Especially if you spend any time with kids, it’s essential to understand animal sounds. Dogs go wan-wan, cats go nya-nya or nyan-nyan, and mice go chuu-chuu. Pigs go buu-buu and anything that roars like a lion, tiger or bear goes gaou. I’m not sure if English has a sound for what elephants say (feel free to correct me in the comments if there is one), but in Japanese they say paou.

The sounds of eating

In Japanese, the sound of biting can be agi-agi or agu-agu. Chewing is kucha-kucha or musha-musha, and swallowing is a big hearty goku. When you slurp your noodles, it makes a sound like zuu-zuu, and eating quickly sounds like paku-paku (which is where Pac-Man gets his name).

How’s the weather?

Onomatopoeia is useful for describing the weather. Para-para is the sound of light falling rain and zaa-zaa is a downpour. Gara-gara is the sound of thunder. Dripping water goes pota-pota and a splash can be either zabun or bashan. Bisho-bisho means dripping wet.

More than a feeling

Everybody says it’s so hard to express your feelings in Japanese. Gitaigo to the rescue! Peko-peko means you’re hungry and goro-goro is the sound of a tummy rumbling. Waku-waku and doki-doki describe an excited feeling (doki-doki is the sound of a fast beating heart), but if you’re nervous and edgy, you’re piri-piri. If you’re uki-uki, you’re cheerful and nuku-nuku is the sound of feeling warm and snuggly. Anger, annoyance and impatience sound like ira-ira and jiri-jiri.

Pounding headaches and explosions

The sound zuga describes a furious blow and an explosion can be don or dokan. Another bombastic word is gan-gan, which can mean a headache, a pounding on the door, or doing something with all of your might.

And finally, there’s a sound of silence—shi-n (you can stretch it out as long as you want to).

This is just the tiniest tip of the iceberg. The list is endless. A good way to learn these sound words is through manga. Just like the crazy comical sound effects in superhero comics, nearly every action in a Japanese comic has its accompanying sound. Learn these words and your Japanese will be pera-pera (ペラペラ, fluent).

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