If you’ve been exposed to Japanese for even the shortest period of time, you will have no doubt heard some sort of onomatopoeia being used. Japanese is incredibly rich in vocabulary when it comes to onomatopoeia, which means Japanese students need to dedicate some time studying this fascinating part of the language.
Using onomatopoeia helps to more vividly describe an action or state. Take the verb 笑(わら)う warau for example; this can mean to smile or laugh depending on the context. By adding different onomatopoeia we can change the nuance of this verb:
ニヤニヤ笑う niyaniya warau to grin, smirk
クスクス笑うkusukusu warau to giggle, chuckle
ゲラゲラ笑う geragera warau to burst into laughter, crack up
Whilst we Japanese learners can often guess the meaning of some words in context, it is worth noting that onomatopoeia is used in a much broader sense than in English.
Types of onomatopoeia
There are three Japanese terms that fall under the umbrella of onomatopoeia (オノマトペ):
擬音語/ぎおんご Giongo mimics a sound – think of ‘bang’ or ‘crash’ in English
ざあざあ (zaazaa) = sound of pouring rain/ rushing water
雨がざあざあ降っている ame ga zaazaa futteiru
The rain is pouring down
がちゃん (gachan) = slamming or clanging sound
花瓶が床に落ちてがちゃんと割った kabin ga yuka ni ochite gachan to watta
The vase crashed to the floor
擬声語/ぎせいご Giseigo mimics a voice (usually of an animal) – think of ‘woof’ or ‘meow’ in English
わんわん (wanwan) = a dog’s bark
犬がわんわん吠えている inu ga wanwan hoeteiru
The dog is barking
おぎゃー(ogya) = a baby’s cry
赤ちゃんがおぎゃーおぎゃーと泣く akachan ga ogyaa ogyaa to naku
The baby is crying
擬態語/ぎたいご Gitaigo is used to mimic a state – this is pretty uncommon in English; there are terms like higgledy-piggledy (meaning ‘in a messy state’) which have a similar feel.
We can break gitaigo into three categories:
- those that indicate a state or condition, e.g.
きらきら (kirakira) = sparkling, glittering
星が空にきらきらと輝いている hoshi ga sora ni kirakira to kagayaiteiru
The stars are sparkling in the sky
つるつる (tsurutsuru) = smooth
ラーメンをつるつるとすする raamen wo tsurutsuru to susuru
I slurp the noodles
- those that describe how an action is being performed, e.g.
ぺらぺら (perapera) = fluently; thin/ flimsy (paper/ cloth)
My older sister is fluent in Spanish because she lived in Spain for 5 years
のろのろ (noronoro) = slow, sluggish
彼は亀のようにのろのろ歩いた kare wa kame no you ni noronoro aruita
He walked as slow as a snail
- those that indicate feelings or emotions, e.g.
イライラする (iraira suru) = to be irritated
私は食事をしないとイライラする人だ watashi wa shokuji wo shinai to iraira suru hito da
I’m a person who gets annoyed when I haven’t eaten
びっくりする (bikkuri suru) = to be surprised
そのニュースを聞いてびっくりした sono nyuusu wo kiite bikkuri shita
I was shocked to hear the news
Slightly changing the sound of the onomatopoeia can also add further nuance, for example:
ドアをトントン叩(たた)く doa wo tonton tataku to knock/ tap on the door
ドアをドンドン叩(たた)く doa wo dondon tataku to bang on the door
How I study onomatopoeia
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 or in the context of a sentence rather than the word on its own.
Having example sentences or phrases to remember what kinds of situations these type of words are used in is essential. Studying them in context will be helpful for not only able to memorising onomatopoeia but also using them naturally in conversation. This is especially true for gitaigo which is less intuitive to English speakers.
Onomatopoeia is very frequently used with certain verbs so it is best to memorise them together with this 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 –> わんわん吠(ほ)える wanwan hoeru = to bark
にこにこ –> にこにこ笑( わら)う nikoniko warau = to smile
You’ll notice in some of the examples in this post that some onomatopoeia can take the particle と, often when being used with a verb. There isn’t a specific rule on when the particle is used, so it is best to make a note of which words use it in your example sentences or phrases.
Resources for learning Japanese onomatopoeia
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’ve listed a few sites below that might help your studies:
There is a great website called the Onomato Project which lets you practice onomatopoeia in the form of online quizzes. Each word is accompanied by illustrations and example sentences. If you use Anki, you might find the shared Onomatoproject Anki deck a better choice for studying on the go.
However, if you are an intermediate learner, then I fully recommend going straight to a Japanese resource called Sura Sura, which is an online Japanese onomatopoeia dictionary. It may not have every word you are looking for, but for the onomatopoeia that is on the site, you will find 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 similar meaning. Best of all, each page has a link to Twitter showing tweets from native speakers using the word you are looking up.
National Institute for Japanese Language and Linguistics website
I also recommend the マンガを読もう section of the NINJAL website above which has some extremely helpful comic illustrations giving you an idea of what situations each word is used in.
The above 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) alongside new onomatopoeia in my notebook.
PS. Think you’re pretty good with onomatopoeia in Japanese? Check out the video and see if you can spot them all!
Do you have any special tricks for learning onomatopoeia? Let me know in the comments!