What’s your Japanese missing?
Of course, communicating in Japanese—or in any other language—requires a variety of tools. Sometimes you need to be polite, sometimes you need to write, sometimes you need to work, sometimes you need to take it slow and celebrate small victories.
擬態語, also known as onomatopoeic expressions, belong to this “take it slow” category. Those onomatopoeic expressions may be completely unique to Japanese, but they actually define some things that we can all relate to, namely actions, states and human emotions.
First pitfall, they’re different from strict onomatopoeia which express voice and sounds (such as those we have in most languages to reproduce animal sounds).
Japanese has a very broad inventory of such phrases and pretty much any conversation can fit one (or many).
So, How Do You Use Gitaigo?
Well, first of all, you can take it for granted that every time you express a feeling or describe an action, chances are there’s a 擬態語 corresponding to the message you’re
struggling trying to convey.
Japanese native speakers have a highly intuitive relationship with onomatopoeic expressions and they usually won’t be able to explain one to you… except by using another similar phrase which is likely to remain as obscure to you as the first one.
Here’s an illustration of my point taken from my own personal experience:
「スベスベ」ってどういう意味？(「すべすべ」って どういう いみ？) — What does “sube sube” mean?
「スベスベ」はね．．．「ツルツル」と一緒だよ。(「すべすべ」はね．．．「つるつる」と いっしょ だよ。) — “Sube sube”…? Same as “tsuru tsuru.”
Thank you! I still had no idea of what the first one meant, and on top of that, I had learned another one I didn’t understand either.
On a side note, both of those expressions are used to describe a smooth and soft surface (fabric, skin, etc.).
I also remember having a hard time at the dentist’s office when he asked me to choose from a list of ten onomatopoeic expressions to describe pain.
You could actually stuff lots of them in one sentence, combine them with verbs, place them as adverbs and tell entire stories with an extensive 擬態語 glossary, but you’d just have to be careful to use them with proper grammatical forms. Besides, since those expressions are meant to put very precise emotions or determined actions into words, you’ll need to make sure you’ve chosen the right ones for what you mean.
Is there any foolproof method to do all this?
Sure! Learn them in context. Identify them in sentences, but pay attention to everything surrounding them and repeat those structures like a parrot until you know for sure that you can handle them on your own and be creative.
You mean I can sound Japanese if I drop 擬態語 everywhere?
Maybe not everywhere, but when properly utilized, those expressions allow you to get straight to the point where otherwise you would need to make a long sentence revolving around the concept. Do you really prefer to bother drafting a long sentence when you could use a four-syllable phrase? Nay, right?
Obviously, like all idiomatic tools, you need to use them wisely, since just guessing at which one will work may ruin your intended meaning. Also contrary to onomatopoeia in other languages that tend to be used only by kids or by adults talking to kids, in Japanese they spread way beyond toddler chit-chatting.
Taking it slow does not mean postponing nor waiting months before harvesting results. Here’s a short list of onomatopoeic expressions you can easily integrate right away. Be ready to amaze your audience!
10 Gitaigo You Need to Add to Your Japanese Vocabulary, Stat
1. Doki Doki ドキドキ (どきどき)
Form to use: ドキドキする (どきどきする)
Meet ドキドキ, AKA my all-time favorite.
This sound refers to your heart pulsing, beating, pounding or throbbing.
Use this to describe anything you’re feeling in your heart, from the slightest excitement to the heaviest palpitations, should it be out of love, fear, joy, surprise—anything that makes your heart jump.
Butterflies in your stomach after you finally managed to arrange a date by texting in Japanese? ドキドキしてるね。How exciting, right?
First Japanese job interview (and half an hour of honorifics) coming your way? もちろん、ドキドキしています。Of course, you’re stressed out.
Going back home for the holidays after a year abroad (and can’t wait for your Mom’s cooking)? それはみんなドキドキしてるんじゃない？Wouldn’t anybody be excited?
Heard somebody walking behind you at night in a dark street? ドキドキしたでしょう。It must have been scary.
2. Giri Giri ギリギリ (ぎりぎり)
Forms to use:
ギリギリだ (ぎりぎり だ)
This one belongs to a different category and is used to refer to something that happens within the shortest limit possible.
You met the deadline with only 5 minutes left? ギリギリだったよね。That was close!
He parked the car and you can’t open the door without bumping into the car next to yours? それはギリギリでした。He made it by a hair.
You can barely afford this trip with your friends? 頑張ったら、ギリギリで行けるかな。(がんばったら、ぎりぎりで いけるかな。) If you work hard, maybe you can make just enough so you can go.
Space, time, emotion, everything can be ギリギリ。
3. Bata Bata バタバタ (ばたばた)
Form to use: バタバタする (ばたばたする)
バタバタ can be used as a regular onomatopoeia, for example, to describe the sound of a flag flapping in the wind or to represent heavy footsteps. Not the easiest way to recycle it in a conversation, is it?
バタバタ also refers to a certain state of inner agitation.
In a rush to finish something and multitasking like crazy? 間違いなく、バタバタしているね。(まちがいなく、ばたばた しているね。) No doubt you’re running around.
Feeling impatient and overwhelmed by all that’s left to accomplish to make your wedding day perfect? 確かに、バタバタしそうだぞ。(たしかに、ばたばた しそうだぞ。You must be so busy and bothered.
4. Niko Niko ニコニコ (にこにこ)
Form to use: ニコニコする (にこにこする)
ニコニコ refers to a genuine, innocent and truly happy smile or laugh. Beware, ニコニコ doesn’t include grinning, sneering or anything negative.
Smiling? 彼女はニコニコしている。She is smiling.
5. Kira Kira キラキラ (きらきら)
Forms to use:
キラキラと＋Verb (きらきら と＋Verb)
In the kingdom of かわいい (cute) and girly, you ought to remember キラキラ。
Twinkling, glistening, glittering? Sparkly colors, shiny beads, bright sequins, metallic anything?
彼女のパーティーワンピースがすごくキラキラしているよね。(かのじょの ぱーてぃーわんぴーすが すごく きらきら しているよね。) Isn’t her dress incredibly sparkly?
夜中の星はキラキラ輝いています。(よなかの ほしは きらきら かがやいています。) The stars are twinkling in the midnight sky.
クリスマスの飾りはキラキラ光っている。(くりすますの かざりは きらきら ひかっている。) Christmas decorations are glistening.
6. Fuwa Fuwa フワフワ (ふわふわ)
Forms to use:
Full disclosure here, I’m gonna cheat a little and add another expression I love which is somewhat close to フワフワ: モコモコ (もこもこ)。 フワフワ means either fluffy and furry or floating.
フワフワした雲 (ふわふわした くも) Fleecy clouds.
この猫、フワフワだね。 (このねこ、ふわふわ だね。) This cat is so furry.
In both cases, it implies a smooth sensation, even if you can’t actually touch the clouds.
風船はフワフワと飛んでいった。(ふうせんは ふわふわと とんでいった。) The balloon went away floating.
It could also be used to express being light-hearted and incapable of focusing, then it’s your mind which is floating.
次の休みを考えたら、心がフワフワして、仕事に集中できなくなってきた。(つぎの やすみをかんがえたら、こころが ふわふわ して、しごとに しゅうちゅうできなくなってきた。) I was so lighthearted when thinking of my next holidays that I couldn’t concentrate on my work.
As for モコモコ, it means furry, but furrier than フワフワ。Fleece could be フワフワ, but not モコモコ。
7. Boro Boro ボロボロ (ぼろぼろ)
Forms to use:
ボロボロ is for anything broken, tattered, crumbled, ragged or otherwise heavily damaged.
8. Beto Beto ベトベト(べとべと)
Forms to use:
ベトベトする (べとべと する)
ベトベト means sticky. Could it be easier than that?
9. Piri Piri ピリピリ (ぴりぴり)
Stinging or tingling sensations, mostly used for spicy food and burning mouth.
It has to be a diffused sensation though. If something prickles (say, needles or pins), then it’s チクチク (ちくちく).
10. Koro Koro コロコロ (ころころ)
Form to use: コロコロと (ころころと)
コロコロ is mostly used as an adverb to describe a rolling motion. By extension, it’s what those extremely useful sticky lint rollers are called in Japanese. Anything rolling on a surface can be qualified as コロコロ, up until it reaches a certain size. Cars don’t go コロコロ in an accident.
Dropped an apple that rolled all across your kitchen floor? コロコロと転がっていった。(ころころと ころがっていった。) It rolled away.
Snow rolling down and shaping into a snowball? コロコロと丸くなって転がってきたよ。(ころころと まるくなって ころがってきたよ。) It came down rolling into a ball.
Ready, steady, go!
Now that you have a bunch of fundamental expressions, be brave and use them. You’ll be stunned to realize that when you’re paying attention, those 擬態語 seem to be coming up all the time, so you’ll quickly increase your munitions.
Of course, there are plenty of other 擬態語, including other categories with different structures and uses, but let’s save that for next time.
For now, you’ve got all you need to get started using 擬態語 like a native!
And One More Thing…
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