Different Types of Onomatopoeia
What is onomatopoeia? It’s not only an incredibly hard word to spell, but it’s also a word that represents a sound. In English, words like “sizzle,” “hiss,” and “click” are examples of onomatopoeia.
Onomatopoeia is a much more important part of Japanese than English; it’s used in everything from casual banter between friends to formal contexts.
And onomatopoeia is a big marker of fluency too. Learning onomatopoeia is a good way to make your Japanese sound more natural and fluent.
There’s so much onomatopoeia in Japanese that it’s broken up into three different types:
Sounds that people and animals make. Simple words like a dog’s “woof!” or a baby’s cry.
Noises that don’t fall under giseigo. Sound effects like the wind blowing, an explosion, or rainfall. Out of the three types of onomatopoeia, giongo is the most inconsistent, and the one type of word you’re least likely to find in a dictionary. Think of giongo like the action words that comic books artists make up.
Words that describe actions and emotions that don’t necessarily make noises. These are kind of weird, because they’ll describe more abstract things like a facial expression or a feeling.
And, as you might remember from when you were learning katakana, onomatopoeia are usually written in katakana. Like most things though, there are a lot of exceptions.
Onomatopoeia As Other Parts Of Speech
Oddly enough, Japanese onomatopoeia can transform into lots of other parts of speech. This isn’t always something you can do in English, but in Japanese, onomatopoeia are much more flexible.
For example, ガンガン is the onomatopoeia for the ringing of a bell, and not only can it be used as a noun, but as an adjective or adverb too. A headache can be described as “a ガンガン headache” (a pounding headache), and knocking on the door can be described as “knocking on the door ガンガン” (knocking on the door hard).
Onomatopoeia can be transformed into verbs, too. Just slap the most efficient verb in the Japanese language, する, onto the end of some onomatopoeia and they become verbs. To say your head is ガンガンする basically means that it’s hurting really badly (like a bell is ringing in your head).
Giseigo is the easiest form of Japanese onomatopoeia to understand; simply put, giseigo is sounds that living things (humans and animals) make. The fact that these types of words and concepts are so easy to understand is probably why children often learn animal noises very early on.
Fortunately for all of us, the internet meme Nyan Cat has made it easy to remember what noise a cat makes in Japanese. (Hint: it’s “nyan.”)
While not every animal noise has been turned into an internet meme (yet), a lot of them sound like their English equivalents, and those that don’t are still pretty darn easy to pick up on.
And hey – if you’re still having trouble remembering what cats say, maybe this internet video can help you.
|Animal Name (English)||Noise (日本語)|
If giseigo covers the sounds of living things, giongo covers the sounds of, well, everything else.
If you’ve ever read some manga, you’ve probably seen some giongo in the background of action-packed panels. The sounds of explosions, punches, slaps and slams are all represented by giongo. Here are some giongo you might stumble upon while flipping through manga.
|Knock on the door||どんどん|
As a scene in the classic Japanese movie Tampopo taught me, eating (and cooking) can be a noisy business. It’s virtually impossible to make and eat a meal without a sizzle, chop, slurp, crunch, or chomp.
We like to think that we humans make a ton of noise, but we forget that nature makes lots of little sounds that we sometimes miss out on. Aside from the animal noises we covered before, there are lots of environmental sounds that fill up the natural soundscape.
|Heat (from a fire or the sun)||かんかん|
Unlike giseigo and giongo, gitaigo doesn’t try to imitate the sound of what it’s describing. Gitaigo are mimetic words, so they try to mimic actions or qualities without necessarily imitating a sound.
|Fuming with anger||いらいら|
|Worry; mope; brood||くよくよ|
|To be angry||プンプン|
|Clattering; rattling; raspy||ガラガラ|
|Chit-chat (especially of old ladies)||ぺちゃくちゃ|
|Tremble; get excited||ワクワク|
This is just a rough guide to onomatopoeia; there are, of course, more onomatopoeia in the Japanese language than I could possibly hope to cover here. For more, you can check out the giongo and gitaigo dictionary on NihongoResources.com, or check out ALC’s onomatopoeia dictionary (site is in Japanese).
But ultimately, onomatopoeia is yet another part of the language that’s best learned through observation rather than through a textbook or website. So next time you’re watching Japanese TV, reading Japanese, or talking with somebody in Japanese, keep an ear out for onomatopoeia and do your best to learn from them!