Friday, September 14, 2018

Mimetic Words

Mimetic words, or ideophones, are words which mimic or evoke an idea. One kind of ideophone are onomatopoeia, which mimic sounds. But Japanese also features hundreds of non-onomatopoeic ideophones, like sappari さっぱり, yukkuri ゆっくり, kichinto きちんと, chanto ちゃんと, wakuwaku わくわく, pikapika ぴかぴか, nikoniko にこにこ, among others.

This post will explain how such words work.

Chart: Mimetic Words in Japanese: Non-Onomatopoeic Ideophones (a.k.a. gitaigo) and Onomatopoeia (a.k.a. giongo.) The four types ideophones, "imitated... something... words:" gitaigo 擬態語, phenomimes, that imitate "state;" gijougo 擬情語, psychomimes, that imitate "emotion;" giseigo 擬声語, animate phonomimes, that imitate "voice;" and giongo 擬音語, inanimate phonomimes, that imitate "sound." Examples of gitaigo: pikapika ぴかぴか, *sparkling,* yukkuri ゆっくり, *without hurry,* hakkiri はっきり, *with certainty,* chanto ちゃんと, *properly.* Examples of gijougo: wakuwaku わくわく, *excitement,* iraira いらいら, "irritation," bikkuri びっくり, *surprise,* unzari うんざり, *annoyance.* Examples of giseigo: wanwan わんわん, *bow-wow,* konkon こんこん, *what the fox says,* nyaa にゃー, *meow,* gya'! ぎゃっ! *eek!* Examples of giongo: dokidoki ドキドキ, *thump-thump,* zaazaa ザーザー, *white noise,* pyon ぴょん, *boing,* gokun ごくん, *gulp.* Among these words, the following feature reduplication: pikapika, wakuwaku, iraira, wanwan, konkon, dokidoki, zaazaa. Some feature ri り endings, and chanto features an embedded to と.

What are Ideophones?

Ideophones are words that evoke ideas, by mimicking them somehow, hence why they're also called mimetic words. Onomatopoeia mimic the sounds of things, so they're one kind of ideophone, but there are other kinds too.

Types of Ideophones

To have an idea a better idea of what I'm talking about, let's have a look at four types of ideophones. (擬音語・擬態語」にはどんな種類がある? -

You'll see their names all follow a gi__go 擬〇語 pattern, the kanji meaning "imitated something words," as each refers to words that mimic something. Also, there are linguistic terms in English for some of them.

Giongo 擬音語, Inanimate Phonomime

Inanimate Phonomimes, or giongo 擬音語, "imitated sound words," mimic the sound of inanimate things. (phonological mimicry, phonomime). That is, the sound that anything that's not alive makes.

Examples of Giongo 擬音語

  • dokidoki ドキドキ
    Mimics the sound of a heart thumping.
  • zaazaa ざあざあ
    *white noise*
    Mimics some indiscernible, constant noise. Like that of rain, for example, or static.
  • pyon ぴょん
    Mimicsthe sound of something bouncing and jumping.
  • gachan がちゃん
    Mimics the sound of slamming something into something, like a telephone receiver for example.
  • gokun ゴクン
    Mimics the sound of swallowing.

Giongo = Onomatopoeia Sometimes

The word giongo only means "inanimate phonomimes" when it's used to contrast with "animate phonomimes." Sometimes, giongo means just "phonomimes," that is, sometimes giongo means all of the "onomatopoeia" instead of only the inanimate part of them.

Giseigo 擬声語, Animate Phonomime

An animate phonomime, giseigo 擬声語, "imitated voice words," mimic the voice of things, in particular, the voice of people, like shrieks, and the sounds animals make.

Examples of Giseigo 擬声語

  • nyaa にゃー
    It mimics a sound a cat makes.
  • wanwan わんわん
    *bow-wow* *woof-woof*
    It mimics the sound a dog makes.
  • gya'! ぎゃっ!
    Eek! Yikes!
    Mimics the sound of someone shrieking.
  • kaakaa カーカー
    *caw caw*
    Mimics the sound crows make.

Gitaigo 擬態語, Phenomime

A phenomime, gitaigo 擬態語, "imitated state words," mimic the state of things. How they are, look like, feel like, smell like, develop, etc. This is an umbrella term. Any ideophone that's not an onomatopoeia in Japanese is a gitaigo 擬態語.

Some non-onomatopoeic ideophones mimic the static appearance of things and can be used as nouns, but some of them refer to a dynamic process—how things are done, how an action develops—so they end up becoming adverbs.

Examples of Gitaigo 擬態語

  • pikapika ピカピカ
    Mimics the looks of a sparkle sparkling.
  • nikoniko ニコニコ
    Mimics the looks of somebody smiling.
  • kichinto きちんと
    *mimics something done properly and exactly.*
  • sassato さっさと
    *mimics something done finally and impatiently.*
  • gyutto ぎゅっと
    *mimics squeezing something tightly.*
  • sokkuri そっくり
    *mimics things matching.*

Gijougo 擬情語, Psychomime

A psychomime, gijougo 擬情語, "imitated emotion words," mimic how you feel, your "emotions," kanjou.

This is one of the lesser known sub-types of gitaigo, and there are rather few words of this kind, but I'm mentioning it here because the distinction is the somewhat easy to make.

(can I just say how cool the word psychomime is? It's like, a mime, who's a psycho. Psycho mime! That's not what it means though, but it sounds cool.)

Examples of Gijougo 擬情語

  • wakuwaku わくわく
  • iraira いらいら
  • harahara はらはら
  • unzari うんざり
  • bikkuri びっくり

Lesser Known Types Basically Nobody Cares About

The term gitaigo 擬態語, "phenomime," is the one Japanese people know about, from school. Phenomimes are subdivided by linguists studying the Japanese language into gijougo 擬情語, "psychomime," and giyougo 擬容語 (no English term, refers to words like bootto ぼーっと, "absentmindedly," that are sorta like feelings, sorta like appearance.) plus some other terms I'm not sure how you'd read or what they mean, like 擬貌語 and 模様語.

Words That Fit Multiple Types of Ideophones

Some words can fit multiple types of idephones, switching depending on usage.
  • gorogoro ゴロゴロ
    Phonomime: sound of thundering, purring, huge boulders rolling, etc.
    Phenomime: idling around doing nothing.
  • neko ga gorogoro suru 猫がゴロゴロする
    The cat purrs. (you hear it.)
    The cat idles around doing nothing. (you see it.)
  • harahara はらはら
    Phenomime: fluttering down, falling but not straight downwards. (e.g. tears.)
    Psychomime: anxiety, like of something dangerous, panic.
  • ha ga harahara to ochiru 葉がハラハラと落ちる
    The leaves fall.
  • harahara shi-nagara matte-ita ハラハラしながら待っていた
    [I] anxiously waited.
(pikapika is also the sound Pikachu makes!)

Drawing the Line

These types of ideophones are just ways to classify these words. They aren't that important for learning Japanese, but it's interesting knowing they exist. Besides, the distinction between phenomime and psychomime can get pretty vague.

For example, is nikoniko ニコニコ a phenomime for the appearance of a smile, or a psychomime for the feeling of smiling? I'm guessing the former. But it's more of a matter of how the words are used than in which type they fit.

In the manga world it's common for sound effects to show up without you knowing if they're onomatopoeic or not until you get an anime adaptation. For example, gogogogo ゴゴゴゴ, from JoJo's Bizarre Adventure, is a soundless phenomime, whereas zawa... zawa... ざわ・・・ざわ・・・ from Kaiji, is somehow an onomatopoeia even though nobody knows where the sound is coming from. (is it the narrator making that sound? Why?? What is he doing???)

The funniest one, in my opinion, is the odd case of ji じ. Because in manga, jiiiii じーーー is written as sound effect when a character stares at someone. But surely staring doesn't make a ji sound, so it's not an onomatopoeia. Then, in anime, the voice actors are made voice this jiiii sound when the characters are staring, simulating the sound effect from manga.

Example of jiiii じ~~~~ stare. Source was altered for perfect loop.
Anime: Absolute Duo (Altered)

Finally, is kyun きゅん mimicking sound of skipping a heart beat, mimicking the image of a heart tightening when that happens (like the phenomime gyutto ぎゅっと), or the emotion that makes your heart skip? It's a complete mystery.

(for consistency, I'm basing which words are "psychomimes" in this article on whether they're tagged as P in a list of ideophones found in the study 日本語とカザフ語のオノマトペ語彙の対照研究 -, page 215 of the PDF.)

Differences in Spelling

Note that, generally speaking, onomatopoeia, giongo/giseigo 擬音語 (擬声語), are spelled in katakana, while the other mimetic words, the gitaigo 擬態語, gijougo 擬情語, etc. are spelled in hiragana. There are countless exceptions, however. For example, nyaa にゃー is an onomatopoeia, pikapika ピカピカ is a phenomime.

Mimetic Words Written With Kanji

Since onomatopoeia is fundamentally sound, not meaning, it doesn't have kanji and thus is pretty much always written without kanji. (I say "pretty much" always because there's pretty much always that one in a million exception lying around ready to prove me wrong. Like aa 唖唖 for example.)

Some non-onomatopoeic ideophones can be written with kanji, and are, given that they have a rather meaningful nature and can be meaningfully matched with those kanji's meanings.

For example: shikkari しっかり is a phenomime that can be spelled with kanji as shikkari 確り.

Onomatopoeic vs. Mimetic Words

One important thing to understand, is that English has some onomatopoeia, though not as many as Japanese has. And English might, or might not, have a few non-onomatopoeic ideophones, while Japanese has a whole lotta of 'em. (like, hundreds of them.)

Because it's such an alien concept to English (and other western languages) native speakers, sometimes they'll mistakenly refer to ALL of the Japanese ideophones as "onomatopoeia," including even the ones that are not onomatopoiea.

Let me be clear: pikapika and wakuwaku are not an onomatopoeia. They might sound like they are, but they aren't. The term for them is "ideophone" or "mimetic word," not "onomatopoeia." Onomatopoeia always refer to stuff that makes sound, if it doesn't make sound, not onomatopoeia

I mean, you can't really blame people for making that mistake. They really end up being similar in Japanese. To have an idea, here's a music video with lyrics made almost entirely of onomatopoeia and non-onomatopoeic ideophones:

(also, some people like to divide ideophones into onomatopoeic (giongo) and mimetic (gitaigo), that is, if an ideophone is mimetic it's not an onomatopoeia and vice-versa. My understanding is that onomatopoeia are ideophones, ideophones is synonymous with mimetic words, ergo onomatopoeia are mimetic words.)

Anyway, since onomatopoeia is a much more familiar concept to English speakers, I wrote a separate post for it: Onomatopoeia in Japanese. This article will focus on non-onomatopoeic ideophones, which are weirder, but in Japanese are basically used the same way as onomatopoeia.

What are Ideophones Called in Japanese?

In Japanese, the word onomatope オノマトペ, from the French "onomatopee," is an umbrella term for all ideophones, including the non-onomatopoeic ones. (yeah, it makes no sense, but what can I do?)

Sometimes the word giseigo 擬声語 is used to refer to all ideophones, and giongo 擬音語 to all onomatopoeia. Other times, however, giseigo 擬声語 and giongo 擬音語 refer to two distinct types of onomatopoeia: animate and inanimate phonomimes.

Usage & Grammar

Below I'm going to show some examples of how mimetic words are used in Japanese.

Note that mimetic words aren't homogeneous. The way they are used varies from word to word. Some can be used nouns, others can not. The fact they're ideophones is simply their origin, and has little to do with how they're actually used.

As Nouns

Onomatopoeia can be used to refer to the sounds they make, however, most ideophones make very little sense as nouns. This happens because ideophones refer to how things are, and not what they are. So they're mostly used as adverbs instead.

One case where an ideophone may be used as a noun is when a phenomime is used to refer to the aspect of a thing. For example:
  • nurunuru ぬるぬる
    (mimics sliminess, greasiness, gooey-ness.)
  • abura no nurunuru ga torenai 油のぬるぬるが取れない
    Can't take [off] the greasy-greasy of the oil.
    • The oil is "greasy," nurunuru ぬるぬる. That's how it is.
    • It's on somewhere, you're trying to take it off.
    • But because it's so greasy, you can't take it off.
    • The greasiness, i.e. the nurunuru, of the oil remains.

As Adjectives

Ideophones can be used as adjectives to associate something to an idea.

Phenomimetic Adjectives

Since some ideophones can evoke rather vague ideas about shape or aspect, it's common for them to imply things, and then the English translation wanders around multiple somehow related meanings. For example:
  • pittari ぴったり
    (mimics fitting exactly, with tight margins, matching precisely.)
  • kore ga pittari desu これがぴったりです
    This is fitting exactly.
  • This is just what I want! Just what I needed!
  • pittari no shokugyou ぴったりの職業
    The perfect occupation. The perfect job.
    That occupation matches [you] perfectly.
  • pikapika ピカピカ
    (mimics sparkles, sparkling.)
  • rouka ga pikapika desu 廊下がピカピカです
    The corridor is sparkling.
    The corridor [is so clean, it's] sparkling.
  • katta bakari no pikapika no kutsu 買ったばかりのぴかぴかの靴
    The sparkling shoes I just bought.
    The shoes I just bought are sparkling of new. (I didn't buy no old used shoes!)

Psychomimetic Adjectives

Psychomimes can be used to express how you feel simply by adding the copula da だ, desu です. Some examples:
  • gakkari がっかり
    (mimics disappointment.)
  • watashi wa gakkari desu 私はがっかりです
    I am feeling disappointment.
    (it's unlikely somebody will say this because it has an explicit first-person subject. Instead, you'll normally hear...)
  • gakkari da がっかりだ
    gakkari desu がっかりです
    [I] am feeling disappointment. (implicit "I.")
    I feel disappointed.
    I'm disappoint. I'm disappointed. This is disappointing.
  • unzari うんざり
    (mimics annoyance.)
  • unzari da うんざりだ
    unzari desu うんざりです
    [I'm] feeling annoyance.
    I feel annoyed.
    I am annoyed. You are annoying. This is annoying.

But, of course, sometimes you don't really need the copula.
  • bikkuri! びっくり!
    I'm surprised!
    I was surprised!
    It was surprising!

As Na な Adjectives

Like plenty of other words, ideophones can be used as na な adjectives too:
  • pittari na kutsu ぴったりな靴
    Perfectly-fitting shoes.
  • bikkuri na nyuusu びっくりなニュース
    Surprising news.
    News that make you feel surprised.
    (not really the same as "surprise news," as that implies someone was hiding those news to surprise somebody, which isn't the case here.)

Naming Things with Ideophones

Sometimes ideophones are used as adjectives for names of things. Like:
  • Nikoniko Douga ニコニコ動画
    Niconico Video.
    (Japanese video-sharing website, like Youtube.)
  • Dokidoki Bungeibu ドキドキ文芸部
    Doki Doki Literature Club.
  • peropero ペロペロ
  • peropero kyandhi ペロペロキャンディ
    *lick-lick* candy.
  • guruguru ぐるぐる
    (mimics something spiraling, going around in circles.)
  • guruguru me ぐるぐる目
    Spiraling eyes.
    (a type of anime eye, the one you get when chaos issues, a character's head spins, and their eyes are drawn as literal spirals to reflect that.)

As Adverbs

The core way to use a good number of mimetic words in Japanese are as adverbial ideophones. That is, the word refers to how something is, and it can be used to modify a verb.

The problem is, because Japanese works in many ways differently from how English works, a single "adverb" can be used to say a lot more things than you'd expect.

Phenomimetic Adverbs

For example, some phenomimes are better translated as adjectives instead of adverbs.
  • tappuri たっぷり
    (mimics the abundance of something, plentifulness.).
  • jikan ga tappuri aru 時間がたっぷりある
    Time plentifully exists. (literal.)
    There's a lot of time [to do this.]
  • mizu wo tappuri ireru 水をたっぷり入れる
    Plentifully put in water.
    To put in plenty of water.

But others have more direct translations:
  • kossori こっそり
    (mimics doing something furtively.)
  • kossori nukedasu こっそり抜け出す
    To stealthy slip away.
  • hakkiri はっきり
    (mimics separating one thing from another, being clear, distinct, distinguishable.)
  • hakkiri ie はっきり言え
    Say it clearly!
    Don't mess around! Say it!
  • hakkiri kikoeta はっきり聞こえた
    I hear it clearly.
    I hear it [loud and] clear.

They really can range from easy-to-translate to English to "you wouldn't even say this in English." Anyway, it's all relatively easy to understand if you focus on what they mimic rather than what a Japanese-English dictionary says they mean.
  • kirakira キラキラ
    (mimics glittering, generally beautifully.)
    (just go watch Kuragehime, you'll get it.)
  • kirakira kagayaku houseki キラキラ輝く宝石
    Jewel that shines glittering.
    Jewel that shines beautifully.
    A marvelously gleaming gem.
  • yukkuri ゆっくり
    (mimics acting slowly, without hurry, calmly, in tranquil.)
    • Does not imply tardiness.
  • yukkuri susumu ゆっくり進む
    To progress slowly, but steadily.
    To progress calmly.
    To go on without hurry.
  • yukkuri hanasu ゆっくり話す
    To speak slowly, and calmly.
    To not talk hurriedly, fast-mouthed.
  • yukkuri kangaeru ゆっくり考える
    To think [about it] without hurry.
    To think [about it] with calm.
  • chanto ちゃんと
    (mimics something being done properly, diligently.)
  • chanto hatarake ちゃんと働け
    Work properly!
    Work right!
    Work well!
  • kotaeru mae ni chanto kangaete 答える前にちゃんと考えて
    Before answering, think [about it] properly.
  • chanto miteiru ちゃんと見ている
    Seeing properly.
    [He's] actually looking at [me]. (e.g. literally every school anime with a character that feels ignored by their parents, etc. until they finally find a teacher or coach or somebody cares about them enough to "see [them] properly.")
  • jitto じっと
    (mimics something not moving, staying still.)
  • sore wo jitto miteita それをじっと見ていた
    [He] saw that still... fully. Or however you'd say that.
    He saw that without moving, or blinking, or breathing, okay, maybe he was breathing. He could've been breathing.
    He stared at that.
    He was staring at that.
  • jitto ugokanai じっと動かない
    To not move still. (what?)
    To not move, without moving. (that still doesn't make sense in English.)
    Emphasis on staying still: to not move.
    So still & not moving.
    (lemme get a dictionary.)
    To motionlessly not move. (this is the best I can do.)

Oddly Specific Ideophonic Adverbs

Some adverbial ideophones are extremely specific, as they mimic a certain action, and thus can only be used in a handful of ways associated with the action they mimic. For example:
  • perapera ペラペラ
    (mimics a mouth moving around fluently, without stuttering.)
  • nihongo wo hanaseru 日本語を話せる
    Able to speak Japanese.
  • nihongo wo perapera hanaseru 日本語をペラペラ話せる
    Able to fluently speak the Japanese language.
  • jirojiro じろじろ
    (mimics someone staring.)
  • miru na! 見るな!
    Don't look!
  • jirojiro miru na! じろじろ見るな!
    Don't stare!
  • peropero ペロペロ
    *lick-lick* (onomatopoeia for the licking sound)
  • peropero nameru ペロペロ舐める
    To lick... making the sound of licking?
    Licking lots?
    Lick loudly?
    Anyway, double, no, triple lick right there.
  • gussuri ぐっすり
    (mimics sleeping soundly. Err, I mean sleeping soundly as in sleeping well. This doesn't mimic a sound, it's a phenomime.)
  • hisashiburi ni gussuri nemureta 久しぶりにぐっすり眠れた
    Once since long could sleep soundly.
    It's been ages since I was able to sleep this well.

Oddly Redundant Ideophonic Adverbs

Sometimes an ideophonic adverb in a phrase sounds kind of redundant for some reason. For example:
  • gyutto dakishimete ぎゅっと抱きしめて
    Hug [me] tightly.

—is a common phrase, but if we break it down we get:
  • gyutto ぎゅっと
    (mimics squeezing something tightly)
  • daku 抱く
    To hug.
  • shimeru 締める
    To tighten

With the three words above, you'd think that combining "to hug" with either side should be enough, no?
  • gyutto daite ぎゅっと抱いて
    Hug [me] tightly.
    To tightly hug. (literally.)
  • dakishimete 抱きしめて
    Hug [me] tightly.
    To hug tightening. (literally.)

And yet people say gyutto daki>shimete, both sides.

Psychomimetic Adverbs

Psychomimes can be used as adverbs too:
  • ukkari うっかり
    (mimics blunders, thoughtlessness, lack of attention.)
  • ukkari himitsu wo morasu うっかり秘密を漏らす
    To thoughtlessly leak a secret.
    To leak a secret by mistake.
    With a blunder, to leak a secret.
    To—oops!—leak a secret.

Sukkari すっかり vs. Kanzen-ni 完全に

In particular, some psychomimes look like they're synonyms with non-ideophononic words, when, in fact, the psychomime has a nuance of how you feel about something, while the non-ideophonic word does not. For example:
  • sukkari すっかり
    (mimics suddenly realizing something changing completely, after not noticing it for a while. (オノマトペ(擬態語・擬音語) -
    • The term kanzen-ni 完全に, would be a "completely" adverb that's not a psychomime nuanced in feeling.
  • sukkari wasureta すっかり忘れた
    Completely forgot.
    (you know when you forget about something, but you don't realize it, because it didn't really bother you, or something like that? You know? Like being blissfully ignorant, but more like blissfully forgetful? Yeah, nevermind.)
  • sukkari osoku natta すっかり遅くなった
    It completely got late.
    Before I noticed, time flew, and now we're completely late. Oops. Sorry.
  • sukkari otona ni natta すっかり大人になった
    Completely became an adult.
    Look at ya! You've completely become an adult now! Grew up so fast I didn't notice it!
  • sukkari genki ni natta すっかり元気になった
    Completely became well. (like, in health.)
    I was sick in bed with cold, but before I knew it I had completely recovered and gotten well, ready to go back to school and start fighting evil organizations or something!

Another way to think about psychomimes, is that a non-psychomime (like kanzen-ni 完全に) expresses more objectivity. You're just describing facts, not stating how you feel about them. Whereas a psychomime (like sukkari すっかり) is more subjective, and expresses the feeling of the speaker regarding something. (The Relational Structure Analysis of Onomatopoeia with Sensory Modality for the Transfer Communication of Visual Image)

Because of this, in some contexts (e.g. formal, scientific) the usage of psychomimes may be forbidden. After all, they're rather subjective, and lack the objective tone that said contexts require.

Sappari さっぱり

A rather odd adverbial ideophone is sappari さっぱり, which frequently shows up like this:
  • sappari さっぱり
    (mimics relief, refreshment, clearness.)
  • sappari da さっぱりだ
    sappari desu さっぱりです
    I have no idea.
    (I mean, that's what it means, "I have no idea.")

The above happens because the phenomime sappari means "completely" when used in negative sentences. For example:
  • sappari wakarimasen さっぱり分かりません
    I completely don't know. I don't know anything.
  • sappari mienai さっぱり見えない
    I completely can't seen. I can't see anything.

Another use of sappari is as a psychomime similar to sukkiri すっきり, used when you were feeling somehow unpleasant, and after doing something you feel better.
  • ofuro ni haitte sappari shita お風呂に入ってさっぱりした
    ofuro ni haitte sukkiri shita お風呂に入ってすっきりした
    [I was feeling pretty tired before, but then] I took a bath and now I feel refreshed.

(for details just go watch Mahoujin Guru Guru, it's tremendously underrated.)

Adverbs With To と Particle

Some ideophones can be paired with the to と particle to create an adverb.

Optional To

Since some ideophones can be an adverb by itself, so the to と particle becomes optional. (副詞(2)種類 -
  • gungun ぐんぐん
    (mimics something growing up, developing, usually fast or healthily.)
  • ookiku naru 大きくなる
    To become big.
  • gungun ookiku naru ぐんぐん大きくなる
    gungun to ookiku naru ぐんぐんと大きくなる
    [They're] growing up well. (e.g. the veggies in my home farm.)

Quoting To と vs. Adverbializer To と, or Modifying Actions by Sound vs. Aspect

You can think of the to と particle used with ideophones as similar, but different, to its quoting function. If we say, for example:
  • aka to itta 赤と言った
    "Red" - said.
    The word "red" was said.
    [He] said "red."

The verb there is iu 言う, "to say," and what precedes the to と particle is the quote. But we can also imagine that, instead of a quote, it describes how the action, "to say," was done. Just like an adverb would. So: someone "said," but said how exactly? The "red" word was how it said.

Likewise, when we have an non-onomatopoeic ideophone, we can imagine we're quoting an idea, or concept, that's performed while an action is done. For example:
  • aka to itta 赤と言った
    It's doing this "aka" thing while saying.
    It's saying "aka."
    It said "red."
  • gungun to ookiku naru ぐんぐんと大きくなる
    It's doing this "gungun" thing while becoming big.
    It's becoming big gungun'ng.
    It's—gungun!—growing up.

Embedded To

A number of non-onomatopoeic mimetic adverbs follow a pattern in which they end in to と. Such ideophones seem to have the to と embedded into them. It can neither be taken off, nor another one shall be added.
  • chan ちゃん
    (this means a bunch of things, but an adverb is not one of them.)
  • chanto ちゃんと
    (this is the ideophonic adverb.)
  • chanto to ちゃんとと
    (no D:< you don't do this!)
  • kichin きちん
  • kichinto きちんと
  • kichinto to きちんとと

Adverbs Created by Embedding To

A number of mimetic words seem to have been transformed into such adverbs by embedding the to と into them. (I say "seem" because I have no proof on the etymology, although the relationship certainly "seems" to be there.)

For example, the author of Astro Boy and Black Jack, Tezuka Osamu 手塚治虫, had the habit of writing a boo' ポーッ non-onomatopoeic sound effect when a characters face reddened (blushed.) (手塚治虫が無音の擬音「シーン」発明はホント -

Nowadays, bootto ぼーっと is a mimetic adverb for "stupefied." I guess this may be connected to the manga sound effect. Maybe it's not. But maybe it is.

Similarly, the mimetic adverb boyatto ぼやっと, "absentmindedly," could have come from another mimetic, boyaboya ぼやぼや, "inattentive."

And the ji じ that is sound effect for staring may be related to the jitto じっと adverb that is for staying still.

As Verbs with Suru する

In Japanese, mimetic words can be turned into verbs by attaching to them the auxiliary verb suru する, "to do."

Since ideophones work as adverbs, some dictionaries say we're talking about an adverb modifying the normal suru する verb, while others say we're talking about a verb taking the suru auxiliary. Not that it matters, though.

Feeling Suru する

With psychomimes, that mimic emotion, it's particularly easy to understand how it works: if a psychomime means a feeling, the psychomime-suru means "to feel that feeling." For example:
  • iraira いらいら
    (mimics irritation.)
  • iraira suru いらいらする
    To feel irritated.
    I feel irritated.
    It irritates me.
  • wakuwaku わくわく
    (mimics excitement.)
  • wakuwaku suru わくわくする
    To feel excited. To feel pumped up! (WAKU WAKUuu!!!!1)

Phenomimes can also say how you feel if they're verbs for body-part subjects. For example:
  • fuwafuwa ふわふわ
    (mimics soft, drifting lightness, like clouds, pillows, etc.)
  • atama ga fuwafuwa suru 頭がふわふわする
    Head feels light. (literally.)
    I'm light-headed. Can't think straight. (i.e. you're drunk.)

Seeming Suru する

With phenomimes, that mimic how things are, adding the suru verb implies something features that way of being. That is, it looks that way, or is that way, or is being that way. For example:
  • jitto じっと
    (mimics motionlessness.)
  • jitto suru じっとする
    To feature motionlessness.
    To be motionless.
    To be still.
  • hakkiri shinai hito はっきりしない人
    Not distinct-do person.
    Person that doesn't make things clear.
  • ho' ほっ
  • hotto ほっと
    *with a sigh of relief*
  • hotto shita kao ほっとした顔
    Relieved face.

Be Like This, Shite して, or Don't, Shinaide しないで

But more importantly, phenomimes can be combined with imperative conjugations to tell people to be or not be in a certain way. Examples:
  • jitto shite じっとして
    Stay still.
    (for a photo, for example, or maybe if somebody is trying to fix your necktie, certainly not the language the police would use before putting the cuffs on someone.)
  • hakkiri shiro! はっきりしろ!
    Make it clear!
  • shikkari しっかり
    (mimics having a tight grip, grasp on things, control.)
  • shikkari shinasai yo しっかりしなさいよ
    Pull yourself together! Get a hold of yourself! Get a grip, man!
  • te wo shikkari nigitte hanasanai you-ni 手をしっかりと握って離さないように
    Hold [my] hand tightly in a way [you're] not separated.
    Hold [your mom's] hand tightly so you're not left behind. (e.g. talking to a child.)
  • shikkari tsukmattoke しっかりつかまっとけ
    Grab firmly. (you know those anime with some romantic couple in them, and they have to go somewhere do something, so one of them gets on their bicycle, or motorbike, or griffon, pegasus, dragon, witch broom, giant robot, flying carpet, reflection board, or whatever other unstable vehicle they got that can make people think "geez, man, you're totally going to fall off from that thang and smash your face all over the floor" and they tell their on-foot romantic interest to "get in" on the passenger spot and "hold on tightly" to their probably badass jacket or mundane bland MC shirt? Well, this is it.)

Ideophonic Portmanteaus

Sometimes, Japanese ideophones are used in portmanteaus, that is, sometimes new words are created from by mixing the ideophones with something else.
  • pakupaku ぱくぱく
    (mimics opening and closing your mouth.)
  • kuchi-paku 口パク
    Lip-syncing. (i.e. opening your mouth in a way to match a recorded song so you look like you know to sing it without actually singing anything.)

Some examples related to manga and anime are:
  • tsuntsun つんつん
    *acting unfriendly.* Cold.
  • deredere でれでれ
    *flirting.* *fawning.*
  • tsundere つんでれ
    Anime girl archetype that acts unfriendly, then fawning, rinse and repeat.
    (the other dere types follow the same pattern.)
  • kabe
  • don! ドン!
  • kabedon 壁ドン
    A romantic move where you put a hand on the wall, closing in on your romantic interest.
    (and yes, there are sub-types of this, you can find them in the post about kabedon.)
  • aheahe あへあへ
    (you know what, I think we've seen enough examples already.)

It gets a bit weird in Japanese since, as we saw, a bunch of ideophones feature a reduplication pattern: one thing said twice. Above we are mixing half of one thing said twice... half of two... so, one thing... exactly? Does this count as clipping? I don't know.

Mukatsuku! ムカつく!

The verb tsuku つく, that means "to attach (onto something, someone, etc." is sometimes combined with the psychomimes iraira イライラ, *irritation,* and mukamuka ムカムカ, *anger,* to create:
  • mukatsuku! ムカつく!
    It makes me mad!
  • iratsuku! イラつく!
    It makes me irritated!
(感情と言語 -

Personally, I think I've heard iraira suru いらいらする and mukatsuku むかつく more than mukamuka suru むかむかする and iratsuku いらつく.

How are Ideophones Made?

I'm no expert in linguistics, but here's my understanding of how the making-up of mimetic words works.

With an onomatopoeia, the pronunciation of the word attempts to be more or less the sound it represents.

For example, if you hit your hand against a wall to flirt with someone, what sound does it make? According to Japanese, it's don ドン. In English, it could be "thud." Or "thump." These are all onomatopoeia. Pretty simple.

With non-onomatopoeic mimetic words, you aren't mimicking the sound you hear. You're trying to evoke the idea of something with the pronunciation of a word. Now there's a couple of things we need to clarify.

Words vs. Ideophones

First off, if you look up on a dictionary, you might see pikapika ぴかぴか means "sparkling" or some other noun or adverb. Sparkling is a word. Duh. It names a thing. Just like "car," kuruma 車, are both words that name things.

So, what's the difference between pikapika and car? This might sound like an odd question but think for a moment: you hear the word "car," you think of car. Is that not "evoking" the idea of cars? Was car an ideophone all along?!?! Are we making a major breakthrough discovery about linguistics here?!?!?!?!

Well, no.

It isn't that the word makes you think of an idea. It's that the phonetics of the word makes you think of an idea. Not simply how it's pronounced, but the sound itself.

Ideasthesia & Sound Symbolism

For example, pikapika ぴかぴか being "sparkle-sparkle," something that's about emitting light, not sound, isn't heard, it's seen. So is your brain going crazy by associating one thing with the other? Do you look at sparkles and start getting auditory hallucinations of pikapikapikapika?

It's the opposite.

A sparkle is like a beep. And a beep is a sound. You can hear a beep.

You know what a beep sounds like?

It's a short, small, weak burst, "bee-," that ends in an abrupt stop, "-p". Beep.

You know what has a similar phonological structure to the English "beep"? The Japanese pika.

A sparkle is a short, small, weak burst, pi, that ends in an abrupt stop, ka. Pika.

The sound of a beep and the idea of a sparkle develop similarly, thus, the ideophone of a sparkle should be similar to the ideophone of a beep.

So ideophones are not baseless words made up of randomly selected syllables. They're based on sounds your brain already knows, from similar things that DO emit sound. With this pre-loaded knowledge, you make up ideophones for stuff that does not emit sound.

Another example: kasakasa かさかさ and kasukasu かすかす both have meanings related to dryness. Could that be because when you pronounce those words, what you do with mouth resembles the feeling of being thirsty, with a parched throat, because of all those s's? Maybe. Maybe not. I'm just guessing here. But if someone asked me what I think when I say those words, this is what I think. This is the idea I get.

This process of associating ideas and senses (what you hear, see, smell, etc.) is called ideasthesia, by the way, so I suppose the creation of ideophones, mimetic words, would then be one kind of ideasthesia. Here's a video that explains what that is in further detail in case you're curious.

Ideophonic Patterns

In Japanese, ideophonic words generally fall into three patterns, though you've probably realize this already given we're already at the end of the article. They are:
  1. Reduplication: words that repeat themselves.
    • wakuwaku わくわく
    • zaazaa ざあざあ
    • pikapika ピカピカ
  2. ri り ending.
    • hakkiri はっきり
    • tappuri たっぷり
    • yukkuri ゆっくり
  3. to と ending.
    • sassato さっさと
    • chanto ちゃんと
    • jitto じっと

Besides the above, they've also got some weird features related to spelling and pronunciation that's not found in other, non-ideophonic words.


The first pattern, reduplication, is featured by plenty of Japanese onomatopoeia, as well as psychomimes and phenomimes. Generally speaking, the reduplication implies it's some ongoing thing, that repeats indefinitely.

For example, wakuwaku, excitement, zaazaa, white noise, pikapika, sparkling, can simply go on. You stay excited? Wakuwakuwakuwakuwakuwaku. It keeps raining? Zaazaazaazaazaa. Sparkles be sparkling? Pikapikapikapikapikapikapika. Etc.

レロレロレロレロレロレロレロレロレロレロレロレロレロレロレロレロレロ レロレロレロレロレロレロレロレロレロレロレロレロレロレロレロレロレロレロ
Manga: JoJo no Kimyou na Bouken ジョジョの奇妙な冒険 - Part 3: Stardust Crusaders
  • Context: Kakyouin Noriaki 花京院典明 enjoys a cherry.
  • rerorerorerorerorerorerorerorerorerorerorerorerorerorerorerorerorero
    *lick lick lick lick lick lick lick lick lick lick lick lick lick lick lick lick lick*
  • rerorerorerorerorerorerorerorerorerorerorerorerorerorerorerorerorerorero
    *lick lick lick lick lick lick lick lick lick lick lick lick lick lick lick lick lick lick*

Note that reduplication is by no means a Japanese-only thing. English has it too. Words like tick-tock, ding-dong, zig-zag are examples of ablaut reduplication. (The language rules we know – but don't know we know -


Plenty of mimetic words are reduplicated in their prescriptive forms, which implies an ongoing action. Sometimes, they're dereduplicated to express an action that isn't ongoing.

In other words, you'll find in dictionaries the mimetic word dokidoki ドキドキ as thumping in its continuous form, but sometimes a single doki is used when you have just one thump.

Manga: Karakai Jouzu no Takagi-san からかい上手の高木さん (Chapter 1, 消しゴム)
  • doki'

Likewise, nikoniko ニコニコ is smiling in its continuous form, whereas the dereduplicated single niko represents a lone instance of non-continuous smiling, i.e.: a single smile.

Manga: Komi-san wa, Comyushou desu. 古見さんは、コミュ症です。 (Chapter 15, 登校です)
  • niko'

Lack of Rendaku 連濁

Strangely, rendaku 連濁, the process of accenting the pronunciation of the first syllable of a latter morpheme with a dakuten, doesn't happen ideophones featuring reduplication. (日本語オノマトペ語彙の語源について -

Reduplicating kami 神, "god," gets you the plural, "gods," kamigami. Note the ka か turned into a ga が with dakuten. This is rendaku.

That wasn't an ideophone. Because this effect isn't seen in ideophones. Like, you have—
  • katsukatsu かつかつ
  • kachikachi かちかち
  • kasakasa かさかさ
  • karikari かりかり
  • kankan かんかん
  • katakata かたかた
  • karakara からから
  • kasukasu かすかす
  • kayakaya かやかや
  • kaakaa かあかあ

—and none of them add the accent.

Ending with Ri

The second pattern, ri り endings, implies kinda how something feels. You'll see that their usage as phenomimes are all about how you experience an aspect of something.

It feels slow and calm for you? It's yukkuri. It feels discernible? It's hakkiri. It feels plenty? It's tappuri.

All these things are not your own emotions (psychomime) just your opinion about things look. Although some psychomimes can end in ri り, like unzari うんざり, annoyance.

Since onomatopoeia mimic attempts to sounds, when they end with ri or to it's simply a coincidence. They don't "follow" these semantic patterns.

Ending with To

Finally, ideophones that end with to と. Now, I don't have any proof. But it very well looks like that's supposed to be the to と particle there, it simply got embedded into the word.

After all, saying boo' ぼーっ and kichin きちん don't mean much. It's only when you say bootto ぼーっと and kichinto きちんと that you have a recognizable word.

For this reason, ideophones that end with to と are practically the same thing as other to と adverbs. You can't remove the to と, else it doesn't make sense. And you can't add a to と particle to them (kichinto to), as effectively there's already one there and two of them doesn't make sense.

Small Tsu っ Ending

This is mostly seen in onomatopoeia: a number of mimetic words end in a small tsu. This effect is purely phonetic, and usually represents a sharper stop.

Example: gya'! ぎゃっ!, "eek!" (what does this "k" at the end of "eek" do?)


Besides the above, sometimes mimetic words are prolonged to give the impression of continuity. This is usually done by adding a bunch of this symbol: ー, the prolonged sound mark, that makes vowels longer in Japanese.

Hiragana ー

Mimetic words are an exception to a certain rule of the ー symbol: normally, you don't write it in hiragana, only in katakana.

For example, if you wrote tokei 時計, "clock", in hiragana, it'd be tokei とけい. This kei contains a long vowel ei. So if it were written in katakana instead, it'd become tokee トケー. Similarly, keeki ケーキ, "cake," would probably become keiki けいき if written in hiragana.

However, mimetic words usually feature the ー symbol in their hiragana forms. For example: bootto ぼーっと, nyaa にゃー, zaazaa ざーざー, and so on.

Degrees & Levels

Some ideophones seem to be like greater and lesser versions of other ideophones, meaning one ideophone represents a stronger effect than the other. This is particularly true for onomatopoeia and phenomimes.

For example: hata はた, bata ばた, and pata ぱた are three slightly different ideophones that can mean *flap.* You can imagine hata as being for laundry flapping because of the wind, while pata being for some large bird's flapping wing.

(note: there's a bunch of similar ideophones that are totally unrelated also. Don't go around thinking just because they sound similar they mean similar things every time.)

N ん Endings

Mimetic words that contain n ん seem to have a stronger effect, because they're pronounced longer.

For example, gorogoro ゴロゴロ is a thundering sound, synonymous with, but weaker than, the longer gorongoron ゴロンゴロン.

Another example: patan patan ぱたんぱたん is an accented, reduplicated, and buffed up version of our original level-1 hata はた, and would be much closer to slamming something repeatedly than our initial light flapping.

Lists of Ideophones

For reference, places where you can find lists of mimetic words, ononatopoeia, ideophones, etc.

Resources in English-Japanese:

Resources in Japanese-English:

Resources in Japanese-Japanese:


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  1. "some phenomimes are better translated as adjectives instead of adverbs."
    Then you list "There is a lot of water" as example. But where is the adjective here? "A lot" is just a noun.

    1. "A lot of" is a quantifier, just like "few," "many," "dozens of," and so on. Quantifiers are adjectives that specify the quantity of a noun.