A young pup plays happily in the road. Woof, woof!
Until: Vroooom. Honk, honk!
Bark. Ruff, ruff.
Sounds alone can tell very visual stories, but do you know how to make these sounds in Japanese?
This guide will show you exactly how to jazz up your Japanese with onomatopoeia!
What Is Onomatopoeia?
First of all, what is onomatopoeia? Besides being a really long word, onomatopoeia is a type of word that imitates the sound it describes.
Think of animal noises: Dogs say, “woof” and lions “roar”. The words “woof” and “roar” are onomatopoeia; they imitate the sound that animals make. Another example is “tick-tock” from a clock, or the “ding-dong” of a doorbell. Comic books are filled with onomatopoeia: “Whoosh!” “Bam!” “Vroom!”
In Japanese, onomatopoeia (known as “擬音語”) isn’t just an imitation of sounds. Onomatopoeia covers a much wider range of meanings to create sound-symbolic words. To put it more simply, the sound of a heavily beating heart is, “どきどき”. When your heart is beating heavily, if often means that you’re nervous or excited. To express this, you could say, “どきどきする” which often translates into “I’m nervous!” Here’s another example:
“がぶがぶ” is the sound of guzzling or gulping down a drink.
彼は水をがぶがぶのんで – He guzzled the water
ビールをがぶがぶ飲む – To swig a beer
Why You’ll Love Japanese Onomatopoeia
The great thing about Japanese onomatopoeia is that it’s easy to remember and a lot of fun to learn! Onomatopoeia is used in everyday conversation, and is a great way to mix up your vocabulary and impress your friends.
For more advanced learners, you might have noticed that Japanese verbs can sometimes be vague. The difference between words like “grin” and “smile” are often slight. Onomatopoeia can help create a clearer image of what you’re trying to say by attaching itself to a verb.
Take the verb, “笑う” (to laugh) for example. A loud, boisterous laugh is “げらげら”. To express a loud laughter, or laughing out loud, we can say “げらげら笑う”!
You can already see how expressive onomatopoeia can make your speech! Using onomatopoeia with verbs that you’ve already learned can help spice up conversation in the classroom, or with your pen pals.
Three Types of Japanese Onomatopoeia
Onomatopoeia can be broken into three different groups:
These are sounds made by living things like birds tweeting or children laughing.
These are sounds that are made by inanimate objects such as airplanes or creaky doors.
Gitaigo are words that depict emotions or bodily feelings, like the sound of someone growing angry or the sound of your stomach growling.
Usually onomatopoeia that mimics a sound is written in katakana. For example, ワンワン (woof woof), ケロケロ (ribbit ribbit), and ドカン (boom!) are all written in katakana. Onomatopoeia that mimics actions, emotions, and phycological or physical states of being is usually written in hiragana. わくわく (to get nervous or excited with anticipation), ねばねば (to be sticky), and きらきら (to shine, sparkle, and glisten) for instance are seen in hiragana.
This isn’t a strict rule though, and depending on the writer, any kind of onomatopoeia can appear in hiragana or katakana.
We’re almost ready to learn more of these awesome words, but first there are two important points to review. The first is that every onomatopoeia is broken into three basic forms:
Double Form: にこにこ (niko niko)
TO Form: にこっと (nikotto)
RI Form: にこり (nikori)
When using onomatopoeia in sentences, it’ll appear in one of these forms. Not all onomatopoeia can take every one of these forms (it may only use two forms), and the meaning of Japanese onomatopoeia can change slightly depending on what form it’s in.
The second is that there are words that look like onomatopoeia, but are not. When in doubt, always double-check! NihongoResources and Tangorin (my personal favorite) are awesome dictionaries that you can use to look up different onomatopoeia.
You can also pick up how onomatopoeia is used in Japanese by hearing it in use on FluentU videos.
FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.
That means you can hear words in use by native speakers in natural conversations. Not sure what a word means? Hover over or tap on it to see its definition in real time and even hear it used in other videos. It’s a fun way to learn Japanese and play “spot the onomatopoeia.” Enjoy!
Your First Japanese Onomatopoeia
ぺらぺら — Speaking fluently
日本語がぺらぺらになりたい — I want to become fluent in Japanese
彼女はフランス語がぺらぺらです — She is fluent in French
ぺこぺこ — Be hungry; starving; famished
お腹がぺこぺこです — I’m starved
朝ご飯から何も食べてなくて、お腹がぺこぺこだよ — I haven’t eaten since breakfast, so I’m really hungry
わくわく — Excited; thrilled; to get nervous/anxious from excitement
彼女は彼をみてわくわくした — She was excited to see him
新しい仕事にわくわくしている — I’m thrilled with my new job
ラブラブ— Lovey dovey; head-over-heels in love
彼らはラブラブのカップルだ — They’re a lovey-dovey couple
今、二人はラブラブだ — Now they’re deeply in love
How to Use Onomatopoeia in Japanese
Some onomatopoeia must be used with the participle “と” (a particle that quotes a thought a sound or speech). For example:
彼女は「好きです」と言った — She said, “I like it.”
彼は「ダメだ」と言った — He said, “No.”
今はすやすやと静かな寝息を立てている — Now they are sleeping soundly.
Some onomatopoeias will come with “と” attached to them (like the ones in the TO-form), while some words will always omit “と”.
Remember, the meaning of an onomatopoeia can change slightly depending on what form it’s in, or the word it’s attached to. For example:
うとうと眠る — to have a nap
うとうとする — to fall into a sleep
うとうとと眠る — to doze off to sleep
Onomatopoeia Quick Guide
がみがみ — nagging (loudly); scolding
ぶつぶつ — grumble; muttered complaint
もぐもぐ — mumble
はきはき — unhesitating; talk clearly and briskly
すやすや — sleeping peacefully
ぐっすり— soundly sleeping
うとうと— drowsy; nodding off
くたくた — weak with exhaustion; worn out; beat tired
がつがつ — eating ravenously; devour
ぱくぱく— heartily eating; quivering lips
むしゃむしゃ — to munch or to chomp on something
ちびちび — to nibble on food; to sip a drink
ちびちび — to sip a drink; to nibble on food
ガブガブ — gulp vigorously; swig;
ごくごく — gulp down a drink; drink in long gulps
ズルズル — slurp
ぐちゃぐちゃ — pulpy; soppy; soggy
パリパリ — crunchy; crisp
ねばねば — sticky; gooey
ぼそぼそ — tasteless, bland, and dry; muttering under your breath
ちくちく — prickly pain; need-like pain
くらくら — feel dizzy; light-headed
ずきずき — throbbing pain
しくしく — dull pain; gripping pain
うずうず — to itch with desire; struggling to resist an urge
でれでれ — moonstruck; behave as if moonstruck
おたおた — shocked speechless
おろおろ — too flustered, nervous, shocked to think or move
そわそわ — fidgety; restless; have butterflies from excitement or nerves
びっくり — thrilled; surprised; frightened; shocked
いらいら — edgy; testy; ticked off (especially when being made to wait)
つんつん — to be cross; cranky; aloof
のろのろ — sluggishly, lazily, dragginly
ごろごろ — stay idle; laying around; loaf around
ワンワン — woof (dog)
ウォーッ — howl (dog)
ニャーニャー — meow (cat)
ゴロゴロ — pur (car)
モーモー — moo (cow)
ヒヒーン — neigh (horse)
ケロケロ — ribbit (frog)
ホーホー — hoot (owl)
チチチ — tweet (birds)
チュンチュン — chirp (bird)
リンリン — chirping (cricket)
チュウチュウ — squeak (mouse)
ぶーん — buzz (bee)
ブーブー — oink (pig)
Great! Now that we’ve seen onomatopoeia, it’s just begging to be used in conversation. Onomatopoeia is used everyday, so keep your eyes and ears peeled for it in your favorite manga, Japanese dramas and classic Japanese films. Or better yet, try to slip some into a conversation!