Language | BILINGUAL

To differentiate a 'piri-piri' throat from a 'muzu-muzu' one, you'll have to know your onomatopoeia

by Paul Dargan

Contributing Writer

There’s nothing quite like hay fever season in Japan to remind me how much I take normal breathing for granted during the rest of the year.

As I get well acquainted with my fourth box of Kleenex between cups of what I assume to be ginger tea (olfactory senses not helping much), I numbly entertain a daydream of what it would sound like if I actually got off the couch and visited my local clinic.

“Doc,” I’d say, “this pollen is just killing me. My lips are all gasa-gasa (dry), I’ve got a kind of piri-piri (stinging), muzu-muzu (scratchy) feeling in my throat, and don’t even get me started on how zuki-zuki (throbbing) my eyes feel. This whole ordeal has got my head all moya-moya (foggy) … is there anything you can give me that’ll clear things up — without the fura-fura (dizzy) side effects?”

Yes, I’m still speaking Japanese. Welcome to the wonderfully confusing world of 擬音語 (giongo, onomatopoeia) and 擬態語 (gitaigo, mimetic words). Prevalent enough to fill a dictionary — several, actually — these quirky little phrases greatly contribute to casual communication in Japan, most notably in advertising, public education and family-friendly environments.

As far as my experience goes, my fellow expats and I certainly love peppering our Japanglish conversations with ぎりぎり (giri-giri, “close call”) at every possible opportunity, and I never hesitate to tell my coworkers 今日はジメジメですね (“Kyō wa jime-jime desu ne,” “Sure is muggy today”) during the sultry hell that is Japan’s rainy season.

Yet while most non-native learners of Japanese can memorize the few 擬音語 and 擬態語 that get tossed into their textbook vocab lists — ゆっくり (yukkuri, slowly) and びっくり (bikkuri, surprising) come to mind — a majority of them are completely lost on us.

And, I mean, why wouldn’t they be? Added to the fact that nearly all of them are written exclusively in kana, understanding these words at their core pretty much comes down to being raised in a linguistically Japanese environment where you would logically come to the conclusion that, “Ah yes, もぐもぐ (mogu-mogu) is the sound people make when they chew with their mouth closed.”

But that doesn’t mean we can’t try to learn them, gosh darn it! It’s time for a crash course on onomatopoeic grammar, and we’re going to use some playful seasonal examples that will add a little きらきら (kira-kira, sparkle) to your everyday word choices.

By and large, 擬音語 and 擬態語 are conjugated situationally; they can be treated as verbs, adverbs or even adjectives if the phrasing calls for it. The easiest ones act as simple direct-object verbs, such as すっきりする (sukkiri suru, to feel refreshed) and ピカピカする (pika-pika suru, to flash or shine brightly — yep, that’s where Pikachu’s name comes from).

More common, though, are the ones that hook up to verbs using the と particle. With Japan’s favorite little pink flower headlining every news outlet in the country, you might want to break out ひらひらと散る (hira-hira to chiru, to flutter quietly while falling) during your next 花見 (hanami, cherry blossom-viewing) party.

Another useful one for appreciating the springtime greenery is さらさらと鳴らす (sara-sara to narasu, to cause a gentle rustling like wind through the leaves). When the early summer squalls hit, try using ザーザーと降る (zā-zā to furu, to rain loudly and aggressively) and get a sympathetic nod from your coworkers.

Also, don’t forget ミンミンと鳴く (min-min to naku, to chirp with, well, a min-min sound) so you can more accurately express how the incessant crying of the summer cicadas is driving you up the wall (no, your ears are not ringing — that’s just nature screaming).

Lastly come the adjective forms that conjugate with した or とした, although many can be used with no added kana at all. Now that graduation season is over, you might spy some new hires sporting genuine しっとりとした (shittori to shita, smooth or silky) leather briefcases. Heck, I might have to get one myself considering how ぼろぼろ (boro-boro, tattered or falling apart) my current bag is.

You may wonder how one goes about finding all these 擬音語 and 擬態語. Just like Pokemon, your best bet is to spend some time wandering around the tall grass of Japanese entertainment — variety shows, literature (especially manga) and Japanese YouTube channels. These and other similar environments will expose you to natural Japanese that hasn’t been specifically tailored for educational comprehension exercises.

It’s a steep learning curve, but しょんぼりしないで (shonbori shinai de, don’t lose heart). The more you encounter, the easier they’ll be to visualize and remember. ちゃんと練習して (chanto renshū shite, practice diligently), and you’ll be truly ぺらぺら (pera-pera, fluent) when it comes to juggling onomatopoeia.

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