Friday, September 7, 2018

Japanese Onomatopoeia - Grammar

Onomatopoeia are words that imply the sound they sound like. That is, words like *bang*, the sound of a pistol firing. Or *meow* the sound a cat makes. In Japanese, such words are disturbingly common, so I'll dedicate this article to explaining them.

bari-bari gusha-gusha baki-baki gokun. バリバリグシャグシャバキバキゴクン。 Crunch-crunch munch-munch crack-crack gulp. Onomatopoeia found in the manga MONSTER, the full-color extra volume: Name no Nai Kaibutsu なまえのないかいぶつ
(In case you need it: なまえのないかいぶつ on Amazon.)

Japanese vs. English Onomatopoeia

The biggest difference between Japanese onomatopoeia and English onomatopoeia is that Japanese has a whole damn lot of them.

This is probably because of the phonetic and orthographic differences between the languages.

In English it's easy to misunderstand the pronunciation of words. The word "queue," for example, sounds the same as "q." The verb "read" and the noun "read" are pronounced differently. Many people mispronounce words that they've only read in English but never heard.

If you don't know how to pronounce the onomatopoeia exactly, how would you know what sound is it supposed to mean?

By contrast, the Japanese onomatopoeic process is pretty simple and literal: something makes a "gya" sound? Just write gya ぎゃ down. Done. The only way to mispronounce something in Japanese is by mispronouncing the accent, which is unwritten, but you can't mispronounce an entire vowel.

This consistency that Japanese has and that English doesn't is what I think that makes it much easier to spontaneously create new onomatopoeic words in Japanese, but not in English, which in turn results in a whole lot more onomatopoeia in Japanese than in English.

Also note that a lot of Japanese onomatopoeia are words that repeat themselves. Like dokidoki ドキドキ, "thump-thump," for example. This feature of the Japanese language usually implies the sounds continues indefinitely, it goes on, as in: the doki doesn't stop there, doki-doki-doki-doki-doki...

Onomatopoeia Without Sound

Japanese also has a whole class of onomatopoeia "without sound" that English doesn't have (or has very few of.) Those aren't actually onomatopoeia, since an onomatopoeia must be related to sound. Instead, they're called mimetic words or ideophones, for mimicking things or evoke the idea of things.

Onomatopoeia is just one kind of ideophone, but it's also the one kind this post is about, so I won't get in details about the non-onomatopoeic ideophones. I think it's enough to say that they're basically the same thing as onomatopoeia in Japanese, and everything that works for onomatopoeia works for other mimetic words.

Since English doesn't really have non-onomatopoeic ideophones, people who speak English aren't used to their concept, so when they encounter such word in Japanese, like pikapika ピカピカ, which mimics the idea of "sparkles," they may mistakenly call it an "onomatopoeia" even though sparkles don't make a pikapika sound at all.

Onomatopoeia Made Up in Manga

A lot of onomatopoeia (and ideophones) have been made in manga as sound effects.

For example, the legendary author Tezuka Osamu 手塚治虫, creator of series like Astro Boy and Black Jack, made up onomatopoeia in his manga like shiin しーん for the sound of silence, as well as the sound effect boo' ボーッ for when someone's face reddens. (手塚治虫が無音の擬音「シーン」発明はホント -

(I'm guessing this boo' ぼーっ then later became the basis of the non-onomatopoeic adverbial ideophone bootto ぼーっと, "stupefied.")

Another curious example: gogogogo ゴゴゴゴ, a mimetic word made up by the author of the manga Jojo's Bizarre Adventure for the series, which we, the readers, assume is supposed to evoke the idea of the plot getting tense.

In the anime adaptation, you never get to hear a gogogogo ゴゴゴゴ sound effect, so it turns out it's not a sound! Nothing emits a gogogogo, the characters don't get to hear it in-universe, it's not an onomatopoeia, it was a non-onomatopoeic ideophone all along!

Same Sound, Different Languages, Different Onomatopoeia

In Japanese, "meow," the sound cats make, is nyaa ニャー, while "woof," or "bow wow," the sound dogs make, is wan ワン. And basically all sounds animals make are different in Japanese. And basically all onomatopoeia are different too.

nyaa tte itte mite nyaa tte ニャーって言ってみてニャーって Try saying "meow"; "Meow." ni... nya~~...? に・・・にゃ~~・・・? Azunyan あずにゃん or Azusa Nakano 梓 中野 from the manga K-On! けいおん! meowing.

wan, wanwan わん, ワン, ワンワン as seen written in the manga Aho Girl アホガール and Gakkou-Gurashi がっこうぐらし

This has nothing to do with the differences mentioned above. Different languages just naturally end up deciding on different onomatopoeia for the exact same sounds. It's not because Japanese cats meow in Japanese or anything. In Portuguese, for example, the words would be "miau" and "au."


Japanese onomatopoeia can be used in a number of ways with the help of auxiliary verbs and particles.

As Nouns

Grammatically, by default, an onomatopoeia is a noun.
  • dokidoki ドキドキ
  • shinzou no dokidoki ga tomaranai 心臓のドキドキが止まらない
    The *thump-thump* of [my] heart doesn't stop.

That's not very interesting, but hang in there.

Onomatopoeia can be used in some rather peculiar ways, like the sound of silence, which appears in manga as a sound effect, like *crickets* would be in English:
  • shiin しーん
    (I like to think this is the sound of wind blowing which you'd be able to hear if everybody stopped talking and no noise was happening at a certain place for a while, you know, like in those Far West movies, the scenes with a tumble weed rolling around across the desert powered by sheer force of the unhindered wind? Yeah, like that.)
  • shiiiiiin しーーーーーん

As Adjectives

Since onomatopoeia can be used as nouns, they can become adjectives by being placed before other nouns in Japanese. For examples:
  • peropero ペロペロ
  • peropero kyandhi ペロペロキャンディ
    perokyan ペロキャン
    *lick-lick* candy.
  • dokidoki bungeibu ドキドキ文芸部
    Doki Doki Literature Club.

As Verbs with Suru する

Now for something more interesting, for who's learning Japanese, is that when the onomatopoeia precedes the auxiliary verb suru する, "to do," it means that something is making some sound, "doing" some sound, if you will. For example:
  • pakapaka パカパカ
  • pakakaka suru パカパカする
    To do *clip-clop*.
    To *clip-clop*.
    To make a *clip-clop* sound.
  • kutsu ga ookikute pakapaka suru 靴が大きくてパカパカする
    [My] shoes are big [and thus] *clip-clop* (when I walk.)

As Adverbs with To と Particle

The other interesting thing is that they can be used together with the to と particle to create adverbs. These adverbial onomatopoeia imply that a sound is made when an action is made, or that an action emits a sound.
  • bururun to enjin ga me wo samasu ブルルンとエンジンが目を覚ます
    With a va-vroom, the engine opens [its] eyes. (literally.)
    With a va-vroom, the engine [of the car] wakes up.
    (this says that opening its eyes/waking up emits a sound, which indeed it does, when an engine starts up.)

The to と particle is also used to quote things, so it can be confusing which part of speech exactly we're talking about. Not that it matters, though, because in effect the outcome is the same:
  • neko ga nyaa to naita 猫がにゃあと鳴いた
    The cat cried "meow." (quote)
    Emitting a meow sound, the cat cried. (adverb.)

To と vs. Shite して

Sometimes an action doesn't emit a sound, it just accompanies it. In this case it's not the to と particle that's used, but the suru auxiliary in the te-form: shite して.
  • fuufuu フーフー
    (blowing, with your mouth, makes a fuu sound.)
  • fuufuu suru フーフーする
    To do *blow-blow.*
    To *blow-blow.*
    To blow on [something.] (e.g. hot food, to cool it down.)
  • fuufuu shite taberu フーフーして食べる
    To do *blow-blow* and eat.
    To blow on [something, and then] eat [it].

In the example above, the onomatopoeia for the sound of blowing air from your mouth, fuufuu フーフー, gets used to say you're blowing on food to cool it down before eating it. That is, first the sound, fuufuu, is emitted, and THEN you eat.

If we used to と the meaning would be different, see:
  • fuufuu to taberu フーフーと食べる
    To eat whilst *blow-blow.*
    To *blow-blow* as [you] eat.

This could mean two things:

First, the act of eating itself emits that sound. Which is honestly pretty weird, because normally it would be *munch-munch* or *nom-nom* or whatever. If you make a fuufuu sound while you eat, please go see your doctor.

Or second: you're eating something so hot you blow, then eat, then blow some more, eat again, and repeat intermittently. So you eat it while blowing on it. It's describing how the eating is or should be done for a given food, for example.

To summarize: shite して refers to doing a sequence of one thing (sound) then another (action), while to と refers to how things are being done (what sound is emitted while something is done.)

Problems with Translating

The differences in how onomatopoeia are used in English vs. Japanese are great to illustrate why you shouldn't attempt something silly like translating Japanese to English in order to "study" it.

That's because phrases that include onomatopoeia can be very, very easy to understand in Japanese, but a tremendous pain in the ass to translate to English.

For example, take the following phrase:
  • ame ga zaazaa futte kita 雨がザーザー降ってきた

Above, we're saying that the "rain," ame, making a zaazaa sound, "came", kita, to us, i.e. started, falling, furu, or, in other words, raining. We can connect these words like this:
  • [From the skies, I guess] the rain came [down] falling, making a zaazaa sound.

But that doesn't sound like English. So we look up the words in the dictionary and it spews vomits this out:
  • The rain came raining *making a white noise*. (literally.)

But that's alright, we can always fix this stuff, right? Smooth out those literal wrinkles. Like:
  • The rain came raining making a white noise.
  • The rain started raining making a white noise.
  • It started raining making a white noise.
  • It started raining... (uh...) making a rainy noise?
    • a water noise?
    • watery noise?
    • gushing noise?
    • zaazaa noise?
      (is this how you'd spell it in English?)
    • "zahzah" noise?
    • (how am I supposed to translate this lol.)
  • [You could hear] the rain starting [to pour outside.]
    • (perfect.)

As you can see above, it's not impossible to translate, but you'd waste some good time trying to arrange the words and ending up having to make some nasty assumptions.

If you are not translating something for someone else, if you are not, literally, a translator, I advise you to not waste time trying to translate and just content yourself with understanding the Japanese content in Japanese.


Japanese onomatopoeia generally do not have kanji, and are written with katakana. This follows the pattern that katakana, unlike hiragana, is often used write the sounds of things literally, as you hear them. You can see this same pattern in katakanized loan-words, gairaigo 外来語.

Sometimes onomatopoeia do get written with hiragana, like nyaa にゃー, "meow." In this case, it probably happens because it's an extremely common word, and a little child (like, 3 years old, idk, カタカナが読めるようになるのって何歳くらいからですか? - may even encounter it in a children's book before they learn the katakana. Another case would be for aesthetic reasons, but that's not your usual situation.

Word for Onomatopoeia in Japanese?

The word for "onomatopoeia" in Japanese would be giongo 擬音語, but there are some other related words with similar meaning that should be understood too. Let's go through this step by step.

First off, onomatopoeia, as in the onomatopoeic process of creating words from sounds, is called gion 擬音, meaning "imitated sound." And so giongo 擬音語, "imitated sound words" refers to the onomatopoeic words created by such process.

The "sound effects," the sfx onomatopoeia you can find written around in the backgrounds of manga or actually playing in anime or games, are called kouka-on 効果音, literally "effect sound."

Onomatopoeia is one kind of mimetic word, the kind that mimics sound. Mimetic words that do not mimic sound in Japanese are instead called gitaigo 擬態語, "imitated condition word," a.k.a. "phenomime."

Confusingly, the term onomatope オノマトペ, loaned from the french word "onomatopee," refers, in Japanese, to all mimetic words, including both the onomatopoeia (giongo) and the non-onomatopoeia (gitaigo).(オノマトペ -

But the confusion doesn't stop there!

Giseigo 擬声語 vs. Giongo 擬音語

The term giseigo 擬声語, "imitated voice words," is where most of the confusion is. That's because sometimes it's used in one way, other times it's used in a completely different way!

Among the Japanese onomatopoeia, there are some words that mimic the "voice" of things, what's said out of mouths. Such as screams, shrieks (gyaa! ぎゃー!), etc. of people and cries of animals (like "meow," nyaa にゃー).

Sometimes, such words are classified as giseigo 擬声語, or "animate phonomime," and then all onomatopoeia that's not giseigo gets called giongo, or "inanimate phonomime."

Then to refer to all of the onomatopoeia, both giseigo and giongo, both animate and inanimate phonomimes, both terms are written at once. Like this for example:
  • 擬態語(擬声語 )
  • 擬態(声 )語

Other times, giseigo is synonymous with onomatope オノマトペ, and then giongo refers to all of the onomatopoeia, not only the inanimate phonomimes.

This means that giseigo, "imitated voice words," somehow ends up being an umbrella term for all of the onomatopoeia (giongo) and non-onomatopoeia (gitaigo). Yeah, this... this doesn't make any frigging sense. But that's how it is.


For reference, a list of onomatopoeia, or rather, a list of places where you can find a list of onomatopoeia. All of the below include non-onomatopoeic mimetic words too.

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