Japanese Onomatopoeia: Giongo, Giseigo and Gitaigo

Both spoken and written forms of Japanese contain lots of onomatopoeia. Despite this, few textbooks spend much time explaining Japanese onomatopoeia in detail. I highly advise learners dedicate time to study this fascinating part of the language.

Using onomatopoeia helps to vividly describe an action or state. Take the verb 笑(わら)う warau for example; this can mean to smile or laugh depending on the context. By adding different onomatopoeia we can change the nuance of this verb:

ニヤニヤ笑う niyaniya warau to grin, smirk

クスクス笑うkusukusu warau to giggle, chuckle

ゲラゲラ笑う geragera warau to burst into laughter, crack up

We Japanese learners can often guess the meaning of some words in context. However Japanese people tend to use onomatopoeia in a much broader sense.

Types of Onomatopoeia in Japanese

There are three Japanese terms that fall under the umbrella of onomatopoeia (オノマトペ):

擬音語/ぎおんご Giongo

Giongo mimics a sound – think of ‘bang’ or ‘crash’ in English

ざあざあ (zaazaa) = sound of pouring rain/ rushing water

雨がざあざあ降っている ame ga zaazaa futteiru

The rain is pouring down

がちゃん (gachan) = slamming or clanging sound

花瓶が床に落ちてがちゃんと割った kabin ga yuka ni ochite gachan to watta

The vase crashed to the floor

 

擬声語/ぎせいご Giseigo

Giseigo mimics a voice (usually of an animal) – think of ‘woof’ or ‘meow’ in English

わんわん (wanwan) = a dog’s bark

犬がわんわん吠えている  inu ga wanwan hoeteiru

The dog is barking

おぎゃー(ogya) = a baby’s cry

赤ちゃんがおぎゃーおぎゃーと泣く akachan ga ogyaa ogyaa to naku

The baby is crying

 

擬態語/ぎたいご Gitaigo

Japanese uses gitaigo to mimic a state. This is pretty uncommon in English; there are terms like higgledy-piggledy (meaning ‘in a messy state’) which have a similar feel.

We can break gitaigo into three categories:

Firstly, words that indicate a state or condition, e.g.

きらきら (kirakira) = sparkling, glittering

星が空にきらきらと輝いている hoshi ga sora ni kirakira to kagayaiteiru

The stars are sparkling in the sky

つるつる (tsurutsuru) = smooth

ラーメンをつるつるとすする raamen wo tsurutsuru to susuru

I slurp the noodles

Secondly, words that describe how an action is being performed, e.g.

ぺらぺら (perapera) = fluently; thin/ flimsy (paper/ cloth)

姉は5年間スペインに住んでいましたので、スペイン語がぺらぺら

My older sister is fluent in Spanish because she lived in Spain for 5 years

のろのろ (noronoro) = slow, sluggish

彼は亀のようにのろのろ歩いた kare wa kame no you ni noronoro aruita

He walked as slow as a snail

Lastly, words that indicate feelings or emotions, e.g.

イライラする (iraira suru) = to be irritated

私は食事をしないとイライラする人だ watashi wa shokuji wo shinai to iraira suru hito da

I’m a person who gets annoyed when I haven’t eaten

びっくりする (bikkuri suru) = to be surprised

そのニュースを聞いてびっくりした sono nyuusu wo kiite bikkuri shita

I was shocked to hear the news

Slightly changing the sound of the onomatopoeia can also add further nuance, for example:

ドアをトントン叩(たた)く doa wo tonton tataku to knock/ tap on the door

ドアをドンドン叩(たた)く doa wo dondon tataku    to bang on the door

 

How I study Japanese onomatopoeia

If I come across a new onomatopoeia, I look it up in a dictionary or ask a friend to confirm the meaning. Then I make a note of it in my vocabulary notebook. When I do this, I always write it down as a phrase or in the context of a sentence rather than the word on its own.

Since these words are often hard to translate into English, having example sentences or phrases are essential. Studying them in the context of sentences will be helpful for not only memorising onomatopoeia but also using them naturally in conversation. This is especially true for gitaigo which is less intuitive to English speakers.

Onomatopoeia is very frequently used with specific verbs. Others are formed into verbs by adding する, so remembering the onomatopoeia as a verb means you will know the meaning of it even when it appears without する.

わんわん –> わんわん吠(ほ)える wanwan hoeru = to bark

にこにこ –> にこにこ笑( わら)う nikoniko warau = to smile

You’ll notice in some of the examples in this post that some onomatopoeia can take the particle と, often when with a verb. There isn’t a specific rule on when to use . My recoomendation is to make a note of which words use it in your example sentences or phrases.

Resources for learning Japanese onomatopoeia

Referring to a decent Japanese-English dictionary is fine for giving an idea of a rough meaning, although you may find that there is not a direct English translation.

I’ve listed a few sites below that might help your studies:

OnomatoProject

Onomatoproject page screenshot

There is a great website called the Onomato Project which lets you practice onomatopoeia in the form of online quizzes. Each word is accompanied by illustrations and example sentences. If you use Anki, you might find the shared Onomatoproject Anki deck a better choice for studying on the go.

Sura Sura

However, if you are an intermediate learner, then I fully recommend going straight to a Japanese resource called Sura Sura, which is an online Japanese onomatopoeia dictionary. It may not have every word you are looking for, but for the onomatopoeia that is on the site, you will find a simple explanation in Japanese, accompanied by a photo which helps illuminate the meaning.

sura sura japanese onomatopoeia screenshot

Each onomatopoeia also has example sentences and notes on things like the etymology of the word and how it differs to others with a similar meaning. Best of all, each page has a link to Twitter showing tweets from native speakers using the word you are looking up.

National Institute for Japanese Language and Linguistics (NINJAL) website

Screenshot showing japanese onomatopoeia

I also recommend the マンガを読もう section of the NINJAL website above which has some extremely helpful comic illustrations.

The above websites show just how useful it is to have visual context for learning how onomatopoeia is actually used. Therefore pictures, manga, and TV are especially good places to see these words in context. Sometimes I will draw a picture (despite being terrible at drawing!) alongside new onomatopoeia in my notebook.

PS. Think you’re pretty good with onomatopoeia in Japanese? Check out this video below and see if you can spot them all!

Do you have any special tricks for learning onomatopoeia? Let me know in the comments!

0 thoughts on “Japanese Onomatopoeia: Giongo, Giseigo and Gitaigo

  1. Phi says:

    Good stuff! Hope that you’ll also add Romaji for shorter words for people like me who keeps forgetting the three Japanese alphabets 🙁

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