Sound Symbolism in Japanese

sound symbolism in JapaneseAnyone that has studied Japanese for any length of time, knows that it is a unique language to say the least.  Not only does it use three alphabets, one of which it borrowed from a language that has nothing to do with it grammatically.  It also has some unique features that surprised me when I first started studying the language.

One of those features is onomatopoeia words or Japanese sound symbolism.  These are words that represent sounds of things.  That is a normal enough feature of any language.  I mean we have words in English for how a dog sounds, ruff ruff, and the sound we make when we snore, zzz (yes, that word is actually in the dictionary).  But, Japanese takes this to a whole  other level.

They have sounds for emotions, feelings, and other senses, called 擬態語 or gitaigo; they also have usual sounds for living things, called 擬声語 or giseigo, and sounds made by inanimate objects like sound of a train, called 擬音語 or giongo.  These words may seem a little strange to you at first, but they are actually a useful part of the language.

Giongo or 擬音語

Some prime examples of giongo are the sounds for opening a can of pop (ぷしゅっ) or guzzling it down afterwords (ごっくんごっくん) .  These words are pretty common in other languages as well of course, but Japanese definitely has its fair share of words that use this language.

Giseigo or 擬声語

These words are commonly grouped together with 擬音語 words, but giseigo refers to sounds made by living things like ちゅんちゅん for the chirping of birds and ぺちゃくちゃ for the chatting noise of two people talking.  As a side not, Pecha kucha is now a type of high-speed presentation where presenters show 20 slides, each for 20 seconds while talking as fast as they can about each one.

Gitaigo or 擬態語

A lot of languages contain onomatopoeia words for sounds that we can hear, but not a lot of languages have ‘sounds’ for emotional states and feelings.  This is where the uniqueness of Japan really shines through.  They have several different sounds, so you can be more descriptive about your current state.

Some of my favorites are ギリギリ as in ギリギリセーフ, which means ‘just made it’.  Another one that is popular is ぴかぴか to mean something that glitters or sparkles.  But, there are a ton more than that.  Just about any emotional state has a 擬態語 associated with it.

These Words are Fun and All, but Will they be on the JLPT?

Yes, actually these words are on the test.  There tends to be at least one question in the vocabulary section that covers these words.  They will often times come as a surprise because they aren’t on very many of the vocabulary lists you can find floating around on the net.  So learning a few of the more popular ones could help you out on the test.

Okay, so Where can Learn about these Fun Words?

Well, there are actually a variety of resources out there you can pick up.  One of my personal favorites is ミッチーのことばあそび ひらひらきらり.  It is unfortunately only available in Japan at the moment.  Although if you are buying a couple of other books at the same time, you can always get it shipped to your country through  Some of the pages from the book are also available on Google Books.

Another more international friendly version is a book called Nihongo Tango Drills (Giongo & Gitaigo) which is more like a textbook than ミッチー.  It does include some pictures and drills to help you visualize the different vocabulary.

If you are more of an audio person, JapanesePod101 actually has a complete series on giongo and gitaigo.  You have to sign up a for a free account to get access to it, but it is pretty useful for teaching you the main ones you need to know for the test and general conversation.

How does that sound to you?

Do you ever use giongo or gitaigo in your Japanese?  Do you see it a lot when you reading?  Let me know in the comments below.

{ 2 comments… add one }
  • Tim May 12, 2012, 6:06 am

    I both like and hate how Japanese uses so much onomatopoeia. I like it in that it is very unique, but I hate it in that it is overused and there are just so many such adverbs and sound-words it’s impossible to try and remember them all.

    However, it can be convenient. If you don’t know how to express something, try to come up with a reasonable representation of it with sound, do a few actions, and you’ll have a better chance of being understood.


    • Mac May 14, 2012, 3:00 pm

      Yeah, I’ll have to try to make up sounds in the future.

      My biggest problem is there seems to be a lot of onomatopoeia that mean ‘clearly’ or ‘perfectly’ that I get jumbled up in my head. I guess I just need to use it more. The funny thing is you see it in all places from essays to manga.

Leave a Comment

JLPT Boot Camp - The Ultimate Study Guide to passing the Japanese Language Proficiency Test