Welcome to the World of Japanese Onomatopoeia
My friends and I joked about Japanese onomatopoeia when we were learning the language, and who can blame us? The repeated simple pairs of syllables make it catchy and fun to say out loud. But it was when I went to Japan that I realised how valuable and exciting the Japanese onomatopoeia system truly is.
The Japanese language uses onomatopoeia everywhere, from animal noises to emotions. They’re not only fun but memorable and handy. There are so many of them that the English word onomatopoeia cannot cover all the different types. Our understanding of onomatopoeia is defined as words that sound like what they describe (for example, the bark of a dog, wan-wan (わん-わん), or explosive bangs, as seen in the title). However, these are only two of the five types in Japanese.
Not only do they have object and animal sounds, but they have feelings, ways of moving and even words for conditions such as warmth and dryness. While these may not seem like onomatopoeia from an English perspective, to the Japanese, the sound of the expression reflects the meaning even when not describing a noise. For example, fuwa-fuwa (フワ-フワ), brings to mind the idea of fluffiness by its sound despite fluff not making any. These onomatopoeic terms are recognisable as they generally come in two identical pairs of syllables, although there are some exceptions.
Is this a New Phenomenon?
The Japanese language has had these paired onomatopoeic sounds since around the 8th century. In the Kojiki, a collection of Japanese myths compiled in 712 CE, we are told the Japanese creation myths. In one, the deities Izanagi and Izanami stir the sea with a spear until it curdled, becoming solid, to create the islands of Japan. In the tale, the story is enriched when the spear made the sound koworo-koworo (こをろ-こをろ) as it stirred this viscous mixture. As a fan of mythology, I find it amazing that onomatopoeia is included in even the creation myths to add details.
That doesn’t mean that there aren’t modern onomatopoeia. In fact, new words are being created every day. This includes people describing sounds they hear or feelings they have, as well as written media. The writers of manga, Japanese comics, are constantly coming up with new ways to add depth to their work. These new phrases quickly become part of everyday speech and work both as sound effects and descriptors for emotions. One of the strangest is shiiiin (しーーーーん), a term invented by Tezuka Osamu to describe an absence of sound. As weird as it seems, it was quickly picked up by other manga writers and is now used as the standard. When reading manga myself, I find having clear captions helps to make the scene more natural.
How Common They Are
Onomatopoeia is everywhere in the Japanese language and they use it three times as much as we do in English. If you want to sound fluent, it would be good to learn some of these words because they’re used in many conversations. Thankfully, they are relatively easy to remember, and you won’t have to learn all 5000 or so words. After all, some of them are pretty specific such as mera-mera (めら-めら), the sound of suddenly bursting into flames.
The most common place I’ve found onomatopoeia is in manga. Words like ara-ara (あら-あら) for annoyed and pika-pika (ぴか-ぴか), to sparkle, are all over the place. But although the manga industry drives the creation of new onomatopoeia, it’s their usage in casual conversation that has cemented their place in the language.
Why There are so Many
It may seem strange to us to have so many onomatopoeic words. Consider how many words in English we have that have overlapping meanings. Thesauruses wouldn’t even exist if there weren’t words like stare, glare, see and watch to help detail our sentences. In Japanese, there are far fewer words like that unless you count onomatopoeia. It is the tool used in Japanese to accurately say what you mean, and that’s why so many of them are so specific.
This isn’t the only reason for how common they are. The other explanation is that the words are simple, easy-to-use and relatable. Japan’s phonetic system means fewer syllables are on offer, so the words are more recognisable. In particular, children find it simple to use onomatopoeia to describe their surroundings and feelings. This early practice ingrains the use of onomatopoeia in Japanese speakers, and it remains there all their lives.
How they are Useful
This is all great, but what really makes this unique compared to just using multiple verbs? Well, onomatopoeia is relatable. For example, explaining your feelings to a medical professional is challenging in English and can often feel subjective. Conversely, there’s a word for every situation in Japan. From kiri-kiri (きり-きり) meaning a sharp stabbing pain to zuki-zuki (ずき-ずき) for a deep throbbing one. These onomatopoeic phrases can help identify injuries and illnesses in emergency situations.
You can also see it in advertising such as the Japanese chocolate Pocky (ポッキー). In that case, you can probably understand why it’s named after the onomatopoeia for a snapping sound, pokkin-pokkin (ポッキン-ポッキン). Therefore, the name hints at the sound and feel of the product without you ever having eaten it before. These words are relatable and are often far more helpful for describing something than the equivalent English adjective.
Hopefully, you’ve learnt a little about how impressive Japanese onomatopoeia can be and maybe you have a little more appreciation for it in general. After all, although we use it far less in English, it still represents a unique method of communication that is difficult to replicate with other words. Perhaps if we used them more often, they could become as valuable as they are to the Japanese.