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Japanese's best expressions : Onomatopoeia

Japanese has a very large number of terms to describe sounds, and in particular a much larger amount of onomatopoeia than many languages, including English. "Onomatopoeia" comes from the Greek onomatopoiia which literally means "word created to imitate sounds produced by animate beings or objects". In Japan, the use of onomatopoeia goes well beyond the reproduction of sounds (giongo, 擬音語), since some of them refer to a physical or emotional state (gitaigo, 擬態語). The Japanese onomatopoeia are in the form of kana drawn from one of two syllabaries each composed of forty-six phonetic signs which are used in addition to the Kanji to transcribe the Japanese language. Some onomatopoeia are improvised spontaneously, others are conventional. In many languages onomatopoeia are not very common or very used but in Japanese they can be found everywhere. Anyone who has studied a little knowledge of the Japanese language came in contact with them whether it is to express a feeling, an emotion or to reproduce the sound of an animal. Unlike other languages, Japanese onomatopoeia are very subtle and are even used as a single word to express something. Let us see one of the most common and interesting ones. 

ピカピカ/Pika Pika

This onomatopoeia is already very family to many Pokemon fans as the main Pokemon in this game is called Pikachu. Pika Pika refers to something that shines and sparkles. This is why Pikachu has an affinity with thunder as it is hinted in his name !

ペラペラ/Pera Pera

Pera Pera is a synonym of the English adjective "well" and it refers to someone speaking a foreign language extremely fluently and almost perfectly. So when talking about foreign languages, Japanese people usually use whether ペラペラ or 上手 (Jôzu = Skillful).

ごろごろ/ Goro Goro 

"Gorogoro" is the sound of something rolling around. "Gorogoro" is the sound of purring or roaring or gurgling. It can be used for a gurgling of belly, rumble of thunder etc.

イライラ/ Ira Ira

This onomatopoeia is derived from the word "Ira" meaning "thorn". It means that someone or annoyed is irritated or that something is irritating someone. 

トキドキ/ Toki Doki

The sound of a small throbbing "Tokidoki" is most often used to identify a beating heart, typically one that is beating unusually fast or hard. "Dokidoki suru" can be used to infer being excited, nervous, anticipatory, or embarrassed. 

ぺこぺこ/ Peko Peko

The sound of a grumbling stomach, pekopeko, is more often used by children, but it can be a cute way to say you’re feeling famished! A groaning pekopeko-suru should get you headed toward food in no time.

もぐもぐ/ Mogu Mogu

Chew chew chew… and not just in the literal sense. You can use "Mogumogu" for munching on your lettuce leaves, but also to indicate mumbling.

キラキラ/ Kira Kira

“Twinkle, twinkle, little star…” Most of us know that nursery rhyme. "Kirakira" is the sparkle of something shining. It’s the sound of sparkling, whether it’s water, gemstones, or stars.

パチパチ/ Pachi Pachi

One of the easiest onomatopoeia, "Pachipachi" means "applause" so if you want to say "to applaud" then it becomes パチパチする( Pachi Pachi Suru).

ギリギリ/ Giri Giri 

"Girigiri" is one of the most used onomatopoeia in Japanese language and means "barely", "just" or "at the limit". It can also means that something had been done in extremis.

Not easy right ? But if you master all these subtleties of the Japanese language you will be entitled to a "nihongo perapera" meaning "You speak Japanese fluently! " so go forth and seek the others onomatopoeia. Now that you know more about onomatopoeia in Japanese, you can enrich your conversations by making them more playful, dynamic and alive. The Japanese use them a lot, if you encounter onomatopoeia that you have never heard, you can always ask for their meanings. And believe me Japanese people will be happy to teach you the meaning of their onomatopoeia.

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Fabien Mizart

Author & Translator

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