If you’ve been exposed to Japanese for even the shortest period of time, you’ll have noticed that onomatopoeia (known as オノマトペ or 擬態語/ぎたいご or 擬声語/ぎせいご in Japanese) is very frequently used. Japanese in incredibly rich in vocabulary when it comes to onomatopoeia, and is used in a much broader sense than in English, and so it can pose a bit of a challenge for learners. Fortunately onotmatopoeia is the easiest type of vocabulary to remember if you bear the following in mind:
Types of onomatopoeia
Onomatopoeia can be broadly split into 5 categories:
1. those that imitate a voice of some kind, e.g.
わんわん = a dog’s bark
おぎゃ= a baby’s cry
2. those that imitate a sound, e.g.
どんどん = drumming or pounding sound
がちゃん = slamming or clanging sound
3. those that indicate a state or condition, e.g.
- those that describe how an action is being performed
うろうろ = aimless, wandering
のろのろ = slow, sluggish
- those that indicate feelings or emotions
イライラする = to be irritated
びっくりする = to be surprised
Context is key to memorising them
Having example sentences, or remembering what kinds of situations these type of words are used in are essential for being able to memorise onomatopoeia and use them naturally in conversation. When I come across a new onomatopoeia I look it up in a dictionary or ask a friend to confirm the meaning, and then make a note of it in my vocabulary notebook. When I write it down in my notebook, I normally write it down as a phrase rather than the word on its own depending on what type of onomatopoeia it is.
This is because are very frequently used with certain verbs so it is best to memorise them together with the said verb. Others are formed into verbs by adding する, so remembering the onomatopoeia as a verb means you will know the meaning of it even when it appears without する.
わんわん吠(ほ)える = to bark
にこにこ笑( わら)う = to smile
Referring to a decent Japanese-English dictionary is fine for giving an idea of a rough meaning, although you may find that there is not a direct English translation. I also recommend the onomatopoeia dictionary on the Nihongo Resources website for getting the general meaning of onomatopoeia in English.
However if you are an intermediate learner, then I fully recommend going straight to a Japanese resource Sura Sura, which is a online Japanese onomatopoeia dictionary. It may not have every word you are looking for, but for the onomatopoeia it does have on the site there is a simple explanation in Japanese, accompanied by a photo which helps illuminate the meaning. Each onomatopoeia also has example sentences and notes on things like the etymology of the word and how it differs to others with a simiar meaning. Best of all, each page has a link to Twitter showing tweets from native speakers using the word you are looking up.
I also recommend the National Institute for Japanese Language and Lingustics website, in particular the マンガを読もう section which has some extremely helpful comic illustrations giving you an idea of what situations each word is used in.
The above two websites show just how useful it is to have visual context for learning how onomatopoeia is actually used. Pictures, manga and TV therefore are especially good places to these words in context, so sometimes I will either draw a picture (despite being terrible at drawing) or write down in my notebook where I have taken my example sentences from.
Have you got a handy way of remembering onomatopoeia? Let me know in the comments.
PS. Think you’ve got onomatopoeia down? Check out this video and see if you can spot them all!