Science by and large holds that language is arbitrary. There’s nothing inherent about the word cat that actually represents a cat — otherwise, why would “cat” be “neko” in Japanese, “mao” in Chinese, “billee” in Hindi and “kissa” in Finnish? The sounds of most words, in general, are unrelated to what they mean. The symbolized bears no relation to the sign.
But this stands in contrast to the fact that the “sign” has a significant effect on how we experience the “symbolized.” For example, “aurora” sounds and looks beautiful, and would be a much less enticing word to use if it sounded like “sasquatch.” Long words sound complicated, short words sound simple. Words with guttural consonants sound harsh, words with soft consonants sound gentle. I previously discussed in this column how 大和言葉 (Yamato kotoba, native Japanese words) such as 始める (hajimeru, to start) sound more casual and simple than 漢語 (kango,Chinese loan-words) like 開始 (kaishi, start). Is this all due to cultural context, or is there something innate about how the sounds of words influence their meaning?
Researchers around the world have been investigating the assumption that language is arbitrary by looking at sound words called “ideophones.” Ideophones are sound-symbolic words, and fascinatingly, experiments have shown that people who don’t speak the language of an ideophone can still accurately guess its meaning.
In Japanese, onomatopoeia are ideophones, and they fall into two categories: 擬音語 (giongo), words that represent sounds, and 擬態語 (gitaigo), words that represent an action, motion or state. For the purpose of this article, I’ll be referring to both as generic onomatopoeia, or オノマトペ (onomatope) in Japanese. オノマトペ are where the power of sound to communicate meaning comes to fruition, and in a way that will help improve your own Japanese by leaps and bounds.
While a non-Japanese speaker won’t necessarily be able to figure out what バタバタ (bata-bata) means just by hearing the word, they won’t be surprised to learn that it represents the sound of clatter, or something done with a lot of commotion. Of course, while onomatopoeia follow the same principle in other languages besides Japanese — think “squawk” and “crash” in English — onomatopoeia are used far more frequently in Japanese. As a result, Japanese is flooded with words that actually sound like what they mean. A lot of Japanese language sites say that you’ll sound fluent if you use lots of onomatopoeia, but never explain the fundamental reason why.
Words that sound like what they mean are powerful and beautiful. Think about the word “crash” in comparison to “collision.” One is visceral — you can sense, feel the meaning — and the other is academic. Onomatopoeia are a powerful tool for fluency and poetry.
To make full use of Japanese onomatopoeia in your vocabulary, it’s important to understand the “inner lexicon” of the Japanese soundscape. In other words, an English-language speaker can instinctually sense that a word like じゅくじゅく (juku-juku, oozily/seeping) sounds kind of sticky and gross, but will be better off in their effort to master onomatopoeia by understanding why.
Some features of onomatopoeia make instant sense. For example, many use the same syllable, repeated twice. Take こんこん (kon-kon, tap tap/knock knock, cough cough), or はらはら (hara-hara, fluttering/trickling, feeling nervous/anxious). The repetition of the same sound twice indicates that the sound effect or state described is continuous, like the 〜ている form in Japanese or the “-ing” form in English. The power of this intrinsic “shape” can explain why a native speaker might say お腹すいた (onaka suita, I’m hungry) at first, but ペコペコ (peko-peko, hungry/starving) a few hours later.
A second way in which Japanese onomatopoeia sound like what they mean is the long vowel. For example, look at チューチュー (chū-chū, sipping/slurping liquid) and ぐーぐー (gū-gū, snoring). A long vowel represents just that — longness or continuation. Another example is the addition of 濁点 (dakuten) in onomatopoeia. 濁点 are the little marks that turn か (ka) into が (ga). Onomatopoeia with 濁点 are often more forceful versions of the original. こそこそ (koso-koso, sneakily/whispering) becomes ごそごそ (goso-goso, rustling/rummaging around). サクサク (saku-saku), the sound of walking on frost or sand, becomes ザクザク (zaku-zaku), the sound of crunching on gravel.
The different sounds of the Japanese alphabet also tend to have certain innate connotations. On the intuitive side, take the vowel お (o) verses い (i). お tends to representative longer, slower states while い represents smaller, quicker ones. おどおど (odo-odo) is to be hesitating or faltering, whereas いそいそ (iso-iso) is to be exhilarated or enthusiastic. びくっ (biku) is a flinch; こてっ (kote) is to nod off to sleep. On the less intuitive side, え (e) is often used in negative states, like へべれけ (hebereke, getting super drunk), せかせか (seka-seka, feeling impatient) and げっそり(gessori, completely exhausted).
As seen above, not all onomatopoeia are repetitions, with many ending in り(ri), っ (a glottal stop) or ん (n). Onomatopoeia that end with a glottal stop gives the impression of abruptness or suddenness, like in ごくっ (goku, gulp) or かりっ (kari, biting into something). Ending with り is the opposite, indicating softness and slowness, like with けろり (kerori, the sky becoming bright and clear) and しょんぼり (shonbori, feeling depressed/lonely). Lastly, ん often indicates a resonance, vibration or ringing, such as with かたん (katan, sound of something falling) or るんるん (run-run, feeling exhilarated).
It’s a complex landscape of sound and meaning, but it’s also surprisingly intuitive. These are words that, in some way or another, sound like what they mean. Words like うとうと寝る (uto-uto neru, half-asleep/nodding off) or ちらちら見る (chira-chira miru, glancing out of the corner of your eye) just feel so right.
There’s a whole additional layer to written onomatopoeia, as well: They can be written in either hiragana or katakana. Hiragana, which is soft and gentle in appearance, is used more frequently for soft sounds, whereas the sharp and pointy katakana is used more often for hard sounds and emphasis.
This difference emerges partially out of Japanese cultural context. Hiragana are used for native and grammatical words, while katakana are used primarily for foreign loan words. But the differences emerge partially out of the shape of words: the curving, swooping あ (a) and わ (wa) versus the pointy ア (a) and ワ (wa). This process holds true with onomatopoeia as a whole. While some of the meaning comes from specific cultural context, much of it emerges from the inherent sounds of the words. This makes onomatopoeia uniquely powerful Japanese words to learn to use, and learn to use well.
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