Japanese Onomatopoeia: Giseigo, Giongo, and Gitaigo

japanese onomatopoeiaAs anyone who speaks a Latin-based language, such as English, Spanish, or Italian, can attest, Asian languages are impossible to understand if you’re unfamiliar with them to begin with. Even Westerners with little to no knowledge of other Western languages can pick up a word here or there when listening to someone speak Spanish, or even German, which isn’t Latin based, because certain words were borrowed from your own language, or you’re somewhat familiar with the Latin roots. However, Western ears are not at all attuned to Asian languages, and no matter how convenient a word may seem to a Japanese person, even if it makes the sound of the thing it’s describing, it still probably won’t register to us.

When a language turns the sound of an action into a word, such as “buzz”, “pop”, and “sizzle”, it is called onomatopoeia. Today, we are discussing some of the onomatopoeias found in the Japanese language, which utilize this linguistic tool much more than you might suspect at first. Even though the words might not make a lot of sense to the English speakers out there, many of them do sound almost like a cartoon version of the action or thing they are depicting, and in fact, are often found in Japanese comics (manga) and animation (anime). If you’re new to the Japanese language, and would like to learn, this course on casual Japanese conversation will provide a good place for you to start.

Three Types of Onomatopoeia

In English, the word onomatopoeia is the umbrella term that describes all of the words that fall under its definition. However, in Japanese, they prefer to break it down into three different types, each with its own distinct vocabulary: giseigo, giongo, and gitaigo. We’ll explain each of these types of onomatopoeia, as well as some examples of words found in each. The words will be in English, but if you’re interested in recognizing the written form of the language, this course on reading Japanese will have you reading on day one.

The use onomatopoeia in Japanese can be a bit more versatile in Japanese than in other languages, and can be transformed into other parts of speech. In English, it’s only used as a noun, but in Japanese, it can be used as an verb, adjective or adverb. Depending on where the word is placed, or if a special Japanese verb ending is used, the word can take whatever form the speaker needs it to.

Giongo and Giseigo

This is the type of onomatopoeia that English speakers are most familiar with, and is the type that actually mimics the sound of the word being described. A subgroup of these words is referred to as giseigo, which refers to animal and human sounds (chirping, laughing, etc.), which will be mixed in with the others.

  • nyaa nyaa – cat meowing
  • goro goro – cat purring
  • wan wan – dog barking
  • moo moo – cow mooing
  • mee mee – sheep bleating
  • hihiin – horse neighing
  • chuu chuu – bird chirping
  • kushu – someone sneezing
  • kin kon – door bell ringing
  • tsuu – buzz of insects
  • kero kero – frogs croaking
  • buu buu – pigs oinking
  • koke-kokkoo – rooster crowing
  • wai-wai – children playing
  • baki/biki – cracking sound
  • basha – splashing water
  • boso – whispering
  • bukubuku – bubbling
  • gachi-gachi – teeth clattering
  • zuzuzu – walking
  • zawa – wind in the trees
  • zapan – cutting
  • za – step or movement
  • shuu – sizzle
  • shiku – weeping or sobbing
  • sasasa – scurry
  • pushu – spraying
  • pota – drops falling
  • poro – teardrops falling
  • pita – movement stops
  • piku – startled twitching
  • pero – licking
  • para – small stones hitting the ground
  • paku – moving your mouth, unable to make a sound
  • kyaa – screaming
  • kun – sniffing
  • koto – pot cooking
  • kofuu – inhaling
  • kishi – crackling
  • kipashi – crunch
  • kata – typing on a computer
  • juru – slurp
  • jita-bata – fidgeting or writing
  • guha/goho – coughing

Gitaigo

The other form of onomatopoeia, gitaigo words, are more abstract than the giongo words, and are used to describe an action, like a facial expression, or an emotion, or feeling, with an associated sound. These words tend to depict the more atmospheric aspects of the Japanese language, and are written in hiragana. If you’re already learning this language, and you’d like to kick your Japanese into high-gear, this course on Japanese Mastery Method will take your conversational skills to the next level.

  • bisshori – to be soaked
  • ira-ira – to be irritated
  • pika-pika – to shine or sparkle (like the sound Pikachu makes)
  • pyon-pyon/uha-uha – jumping
  • musha-musha – someone eating or chewing
  • odo-odo – feeling uneasy
  • uto-uto – falling asleep
  • uka-uka – to be careless
  • icha-icha – two people making out
  • iso-iso – to move around in a lively manner
  • awawa – panicking
  • ba – sudden movement
  • busu(tto) – sulking
  • chira – glancing
  • chokin/chokichoki – cutting
  • daradara – sweating
  • gaaan – shock or embarrassment
  • zuun – ponderous or depressed
  • zui – approaching suddenly
  • zoro – swarm
  • yoro – stagger
  • wara – gathering or swarming
  • tororin – thick head
  • sara – glossy hair
  • powa – blushing
  • paku – moving your mouth, unable to make a sound
  • oroori – drenched in tears
  • oro – running around in panicked excitement
  • muwa – stench
  • mozo – to be reluctant or embarrassed
  • mowa – imagining or pondering
  • kyuru – winding
  • kyodo – suspiciously
  • kiri – sharp or brisk
  • kaa – blush
  • gyu – gripping or hugging

For those of you that are familiar with Japanese pop culture, such as anime or manga, you may already be familiar with some of these words. For those of you who are seeing these for the first time, some of them actually kind of sound like the animal they are depicting (kero kero for frogs, moo moo for cows), or the action they are evoking (awawa for panic, and pyon-pyon for jumping), while others seem almost random (daradara for sweating?). If the Japanese language and culture interest you, why not consider a trip to the land of the rising sun to hear these words for yourself? This course on how to travel safely abroad, along with this article on how to pack for travel will both help get you prepared for any long voyage.