If you’re a beginning or intermediate student of Japanese, you may feel like you have a very limited arsenal of verbs within arms reach. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been asked to write a sentence in class, and the only verbs I could come up with were things like 寝る (neru)、起きる (okiru)、食べる (taberu)、etc. Seriously, if I’d heard “田中さんは寿司を食べます (Tanaka-san wa sushi o tabemasu).” one more time, I would’ve burst out screaming like a banshee and thrown my textbook out the 12th story window.
Don’t get me wrong – I love Japanese just as much as the next weeaboo – but there were times that I got so bored with the vocabulary I was learning, especially verbs. I wanted to be able to express myself, be more animated, but I didn’t know how. I felt like a stale saltine cracker, using the same boring verbs over and over again amongst my friends. That was, until I learned how easy it was to modify the verbs I already knew by using onomatopoeia in Japanese.
The Power of Onomatopoeia
It’s probably not a question your Japanese teacher will bring up, but have you ever noticed how vague many verbs in Japanese really are? For instance, the word 笑う can refer to smiling, laughing, chuckling, or any other type of laughter. The verb 飛ぶ (tobu)、or 跳ぶ (tobu)、covers jumping, springing, and flying! As a rule, Japanese verbs have far more general meanings in comparison to English. However, this “insufficiency” is more than compensated for by the almighty onomatopoeia.
If you’re familiar with the term onomatopoeia in English, you’ll already know that it refers to words that mimic sounds like “sizzle,” “pop,” “bang,” or “cock-a-doodle-doo!” However, onomatopoeia in Japanese are a much more important part of the language, covering words that describe emotions, mental states, actions, and much more.
In fact, onomatopoeia are so prevalent in Japanese that there are three different categories of them: giseigo, giongo, and gitaigo. If you are interested in learning more on this subject, I’d recommend checking out Tofugu’s Japanese Onomatopoeia Guide. Japanese onomatopoeia also tend to follow one of the following forms: り endings、as in ゆっくり (slowly); duplication, as in ワンワン (bark-bark); and と endings, as in ちょっと (a little). The are written in either hiragana or katakana, but sometimes both are okay.
Onomatopoeia in Japanese are very in-depth, making them confusing for learners at times, but the basic function of an onomatopoeia is to describe things, whether it be actions or states of being. Onomatopoeia have the power to describe many things, but for now, let’s just stick with the verbs.
Onomatopoeia in Action
Grammatically speaking, the adverb usage (describing an action or process) is the default function of an onomatopoeia in Japanese, making it also the easiest. For the most part, you can just plop an onomatopoeia right in front of a verb and call it good.
“BUT WAIT, THERE’S NO PARTICLE!?” you may be thinking. Well, you’re not off that easy. The particle you should learn to associate with onomatopoeia is the particle “と.” In fact, the “と” in と-ending onomatopoeia is the particle と (it’s just been made easier for you)! Just as “と” is used to quote speech in Japanese, it is also used for sounds and onomatopoeia, though most times it is optional. When と is employed optionally however, it’s main effect is making one’s language more poetic.
So what verbs can you use with onomatopoeia? This is a difficult question. Onomatopoeia are often used with general verbs in order to further specify them. In addition to that, they can also be used with the verb する, to do. The use of onomatopoeia with the verb する often seems to be the result of simplification, having been paired with a more specific verb originally, just as ニコニコ笑う (nikoniko warau) has become にこにこする (nikoniko suru) over time.
However, be careful: sometimes the meaning of an onomatopoeia can vary depending on which verb they are paired with. For example, ガツガツ食べる (gatsugatsu taberu) means to gobble something down, but “ガツガツする (gatsugatsu suru)” means to do something with an obvious sense of greed (Where’s my money man? Where’s my money!?). Overall, there is not much consistency, and that’s what makes onomatopoeia tricky.
Enhancing Your Verbs
To make things easier, I’ve made a list of some common general verbs that can be made specific by adding onomatopoeia below. From an English speaker’s perspective, Japanese verbs may seem vague, but the difference between words like smile and laugh, or between jump and fly, can be communicated far more expressively through the use of onomatopoeia:
(と) = optional と usage
と = required と usage
strike-through = verb has been simplified to する
verb / する = both する and the general verb can be used
寝る する to nod off
ぐうぐう (と) 寝る fast asleep and snoring
すやすや (と) 寝る sleep peacefully
寝る する to doze off
とぼとぼ (と) 歩く trudge
ちょこちょこ (と) 歩く trot
のろのろ (と) 歩く / する inch (along)
よろよろ (と) 歩く / するstagger, stumble
ふらふら (と) 歩く / する shamble, teeter
ブラブラ (と) 歩く /する stroll, loiter
ぞろぞろ (と) 歩く swarm, cluster
ガツガツ (と) 食べる to eat greedily or with a burning desire
パクパク (と) 食べる to eat with your mouth flapping open and shut
むしゃむしゃ (と) 食べる to munch and crunch on something
ぺろぺろ (と) 食べる to lick (e.g. ice cream)
じろじろ (と) 見る to stare scrutinizingly
ジーと見る to stare someone/something down
見る する to look around restlessly
チラチラ (と) 見る to glance at here and there
まじまじ (と) 見る to look at something with astonishment
がぶがぶ (と) 飲む to gulp something down
ちびちび (と) 飲む to take a small sip, just to wet the mouth (used with sake)
ぐびぐび (と) 飲む to drink (used with sake)
ごくごく (と) 飲む normal drinking
ひらひら (と) 飛ぶ to flutter (like a butterfly)
ビュンビュン (と) 飛ぶ to soar through the air (like a fish from the water)
ポンポン (と) 跳ぶ to jump up and down (like on a trampoline）
ぴょんぴょん (と) 跳ぶ to leap (like a frog）
ふわーふわー (と) 飛ぶ to float lightly
ぶんぶん (と) 飛ぶ to fly with wings buzzing
ワーワー (と) なく to cry
メソメソ (と) 泣く to weep
ぐすんぐすん (と) 泣く to sob
おいおい (と) 泣く to blubber
しくしく (と) 泣く to whimper
わんわん (と) 泣く to howl
ヒーヒー (と) 泣く / する to pule
えんえんと泣く to mew
ニヤニヤしてる (I don’t know why he’s smiling…)
にっこり笑う する to grin
げらげら（と）笑う to laugh out loud
ニヤニヤ (と) 笑う / する to grin stupidly (to laugh/smile for no reason)
はははと笑う to laugh ”hahaha”
ニコニコ (と) 笑う / する to smile
くつくつ (と) 笑う to titter (used in classical Japanese)
ワハハ と笑う to laugh “haw-haw!”
ニタニタ (と) 笑う / する to grin broadly
おほほと笑う to laugh like a rich old woman, “ohoho!”
クスクス (と) 笑う to giggle, to laugh under one’s breath
Adding More Emotion
Besides adding extra words, the way you say something can also strongly affect the emotive quality of speech, no matter what language. Now, I know that we’ve all been taught that Japanese is a very precise language, with flat tone quality and clear vowels, and that might all be true, assuming we were talking about a country of robot zombies.
Onomatopoeia are like the rebels of the Japanese world – they like to break all the rules. Since onomatopoeia are used to express emotion and describe details, the way they are said is often different from normal speech.
For example, if someone says “ruff-ruff” in English, they would most likely do so in a way that mimics a dog, rather than saying it in their normal voice. Japanese onomatopoeia are similar in that they too are said in a more expressive fashion. More specifically, the sound qualities of onomatopoeia are directly correlated to their intended emotional effect, more so than other word classes. This phenomenon can be seen clearly in the different forms of onomatopoeia:
Although the rules of Japanese state that all sounds must end in a vowel (expect ん) because of the syllablery nature of the language, onomatopoeia ending in と are often pronounced with an abrupt stop, changing the と ending into a sharp “t” sound. For instance, the onomatopoeia ドサっと (dosatto, with a thud) would be pronounced “dosat.” This abrupt “t” sound symbolizes quickness, the stopping of action, of the single occurrence of an action.
Onomatopoeia that end in ん are pronounced with a nasal sound, producing a feeling of “prolonged resonance” or rhythm. An example of this would be どかん （dokan） which symbolizes the sound of a boom or explosion. Can you imagine hearing the sound of an explosion resonating in the distance?
Long vowel ending
The presence of a long-vowel at the end of a onomatopoeia represents the feeling of “prolongation or continuity.” Therefore, onomatopoeia like フワー (fuwaa, to float or drift) are pronounced with special attention to the elongated vowel sound to really capture a sense of airlessness.
The onomatopoeia form ending in り conveys a feeling of softness or slowness. のそり (nosori) means slow movement, and is usually pronounced with a gentle り sound.
Just as in many other languages, the reduplication of a sound symbolizes repetition in sound or action. Usually these onomatopoeia are produced more quickly, but that depends on what sound is being mimicked. An example of this would be ごろごろ (to roll). You might hear this onomatopoeia over and over again like “ごろごろごろごろごろごろ”, especially by little children when they roll down hills for fun!
Here’s a small sample of reduplication in onomatopoeia, presented in a very *ahem* interesting way:
Onomatopoeia make things fun in Japanese! They give the language pizzazz, spice, jazz – they bring words to life. Without them, all we could talk about would be the stock exchange, the weather, or types of fish – you decide.
Using onomatopoeia with the verbs you already know can give you a quick vocabulary boost. The use of onomatopoeia is also a big contributor to true fluency in Japanese, so you can totally impress your Japanese friends with these fun little words. Fun, easy, and useful words? I feel like there should be a loophole somewhere here.
Are onomatopoeia in Japanese fun for you, or are they just a pain? Let us know in the comments section below! Also, let us see what kind of sentences you can create now that you know some crazy cool new verbage!