Onomatopoeia Plays a Major Role in Japanese
November 29, 1999
Every language on earth has words that express sounds. The crow that cries "caw, caw" in English sounds much the same in Japanese: kaa kaa. But few human languages have as many onomatopoetic words as Japanese--some dictionaries list well over 1,000 such entries--and onomatopoetic terms are used to describe an enormous range of concepts. Try to match these examples of Japanese onomatopoeia with situations they describe (answers are at the end of the article):
In Japan as well as elsewhere, onomatopoetic animal sounds are some of the first words toddlers learn as they pick up their first language. Some of the animal voices listed here are quite different from the English versions, but to the Japanese ear they are perfectly natural:
You can see more examples of animal sounds in Japanese here.
Japanese is not, of course, the only language with gitaigo. In English, too, what are known as mimetic or echoic words express a range of meanings through their sound: A duck waddles, stars twinkle, and nowadays e-mail messages zip around the world in the blink of an eye. But foreign students of Japanese learn early on that working giseigo and gitaigo into their vocabularies is a good way to improve their conversational skills. Onomatopoetic words play a key role in communicating in Japanese, and they show up everywhere. Indeed, Japan's most famous export of recent years got its name from a gitaigo: Pikachu, the star of the "Pocket Monsters" video game who also made it to television and movie screens, was named for its pika pika brilliant flashes and its chu chu squeaks, just like those of a mouse.(Answers)
Edited by Japan Echo Inc. based on domestic Japanese news sources. Articles presented here are offered for reference purposes and do not necessarily represent the policy or views of the Japanese Government.