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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):

goro goro A person shivers with cold
zaa zaa Thunder rumbles across the sky
buru buru Stars glitter brightly
kira kira A person mutters to himself
butsu butsu Rain falls in a heavy downpour

Noisy Words
Onomatopoetic words play a huge role in Japanese. There are two categories of the terms, giseigo (words imitating voices or sounds) and gitaigo (words expressing more abstract concepts, such as emotional conditions and the ways things are done). Giseigo are used much as their equivalents are in English: to express sounds in conversation or writing. Thus Japanese dictionaries have entries for words like ton ton, which you might hear when someone knocks on your door, and biri biri, the noise made by cloth or paper when it is torn.

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:

(Animal) (Japanese) (English)
Cat nyaa meow
Dog wan wan bow wow
Pig buu buu oink oink
Sheep mee baa
Canary piyo piyo cheep cheep
Rooster koke kokko cock-a-doodle-doo

You can see more examples of animal sounds in Japanese here.

Valuable Vocabulary
Gitaigo, on the other hand, perform a somewhat more complex role. These words are not used to express simple sounds. They can express anything from how an action is done (a factory worker can do her job kibi kibi, or "energetically") to how a person is feeling (if she did not work hard enough last week, she may feel kuyo kuyo, or "worried," about her Monday meeting with the boss). Many gitaigo are constructed like these two examples, with a single short word repeated twice.

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.

goro goro: Thunder rumbles across the sky. This word is used for things that move or roll with a deep noise.
zaa zaa: Rain falls in a heavy downpour. You can almost hear the rain splashing noisily on the street.
buu buu: A person shivers with cold. This one sounds much like "brrr" in English.
kira kira: Stars glitter brightly. This word has a sharp, shiny feel to it. It's also used for the glint in someone's eye.
butsu butsu: A person mutters to himself. Make this noise with your lips close together and you'll get the idea.

Trends in JapanEdited 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.