Japanese (and Chinese) Onomatopoeia

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I find Japanese to be YUNIIKU ("unique") in many respects. One of the most fascinating aspects of Japanese (aside from the enormous number of GAIRAIGO 外來語 ["loanwords"]) is the large amount of onomatopoeic expressions that may be drawn upon to add spice to almost anything that one wishes to say.

The immediate cause of my current reflections on Japanese onomatopoeia is a nifty translation aid for Japanese that goes by the name Perapera-kun ("Mr. Perapera"). (There's also a version for Chinese.)

Although I didn't know offhand exactly what PERAPERA meant, I could tell from its form that it must be an onomatopoeic term. When I looked PERAPERA up in my little Kenkyusha and Sanseido dictionaries, I discovered that as an adverb it indicates "fluently, glibly, volubly," as a verb it means "prattle, gibber, chatter, gab, rattle (on)," and as an adjective it describes something that is "thin, flimsy, skinny."

For a small sampling of colorful Japanese onomatopoeia, take a peek at this list. A more extensive collection, with a small bibliography and useful notes, may be found at here. A few months ago, we briefly reviewed Taro Gomi's An Illustrated Dictionary of Japanese Onomatopoeic Expressions ("Waza waza", 4/20/2008.) And some other Language Log discussions of the onomatopoeic words sometimes called ideophones are indexed here.

Manga and anime are particularly rich in onomatopoeic expressions, and that is where I have learned most of the ones I know. The MIT anime site that I just cited includes for PERAPERA mention of a joke in Azumanga Daioh (a video clip of the opening animation for this series is here): a foreigner approaches Nyamo-sensei and Yukari-sensei and tries to talk to them. His speech consists solely of "PERAPERA" repeated over and over again.

While I would not advise novices to emulate this hapless fellow, I can assure one and all that a little onomatopoeia goes a long way. During my first year of studying Mandarin long ago, I assiduously read through the whole of this wonderful old book:

Jozef MULLIE, The structural principles of the Chinese language: An introduction to the spoken language (Northern Pekingese dialect), 3 volumes. Translated from the Flemish by A. Omer Versichel. Peiping, Bureau of Engraving and Printing, 1932-37.

In these marvelous volumes, I encountered countless Pekingese onomatopoeic expressions. One that has stuck with me for more than four decades is SHABULENGDENGDE ("daffy") — I think that it was from Father Mullie's book that I learned this word. Whenever I utter SHABULENGDENGDE among Chinese acquaintances, they are stunned that I would know such an authentic expression from spoken Pekingese.

Thank you, Father Mullie, for teaching me real spoken language, not the usual textbook variety that is thrown at students!


  1. Shira said,

    July 21, 2008 @ 9:20 pm

    A fun learning aid for Japanese onomatopoeia is the teaching blog "Mrs. Onomatopoeia's Diary" (http://www.webjapanese.com/blog/onomatopoeia/). About once a week the author writes a chatty little essay (in Japanese) that spotlights one or sometimes two examples of giseigo. I often pick up other idioms from the entries as well. I recommend the site highly!

  2. John Lawler said,

    July 21, 2008 @ 10:50 pm

    Technically, onomatopoeia refers only to words for sounds which resemble their referent aurally, like pow, meow, tinkle. Many of the words in the list presented here aren't words for sounds and therefore aren't examples of onomatopoeia sensu stricto (though I'm sure that's what they're often called).
    These are probably better termed ideophones, like the ideophonic phonestheme kl- in English.

  3. Dill said,

    July 21, 2008 @ 11:46 pm

    I'm sorry but I don't see how 'shabulengdengde' is onomatopoeic—how does it sound like 'daffy'? The same goes for 'perapera', although perhaps it does sound like a rattle. Some of the words at the Japanese Onomatopoeia site you link (at http://www.coolslang.com/in/Japan/PeraPera.php) don't seem like onomatopoeia either, eg girigiri 'just barely'; kirakira 'glitter and sparkle'.

  4. Timothy M said,

    July 22, 2008 @ 1:47 am

    To John Lawler and Dill: Yes, although the words you've pointed out are sometimes referred to as onomatopoeia, technically they're not. In Japanese, these words are called 擬態語 (gitaigo), and one definition for them that I've seen reads: "phonetic representations of phenomena perceptible by non-auditory senses, and phonetic representations of human psychological states." As a translation for the word "gitaigo," most dictionaries will give something like "mimetic words," which is a phrase both unspecific and unfamiliar to a lot of people, so I guess that's why people commonly just say "onomatopoeia."

  5. Simon Cauchi said,

    July 22, 2008 @ 2:53 am

    I remember being taught in my youth (by my tutor in French at Oxford) that there ain't no such thing as onomatopoeia really. You only need to compare the common conventional representations of sounds to see how different they are from each other in different languages. An English cock (sorry, USians, I mean rooster) crows "cock-a-doodle-doo", a Turkish one "kukuriku", etc. The Turkish representation is obviously an adaptation of the French "coquerico", not a direct attempt at a faithful representation of the sounds made by Turkish cocks.

  6. Laurent C said,

    July 22, 2008 @ 3:58 am

    The joke about foreigners only saying PERAPERA seems much related to the bar-bar story, from old Greece (where "barbarian" is supposed to come from). Could PERA be a japanifying of English Blah?

  7. Peter said,

    July 22, 2008 @ 7:59 am

    Is Japanese "unique" in having lots of ideophones? I am sure that there are linguists reading this blog better able to answer this question than I can, but I would have thought chiShona (and perhaps other Bantu languages) would rival Japanese in this respect.

  8. language hat said,

    July 22, 2008 @ 8:47 am

    I wrote about these expressions here. While I did not use the term "onomatopoeia" (I said they "represent not only sounds but various other… states of being, shall we say?"), I think it's a little silly to focus on the failure of this word, which is commonly used and understood (as opposed to, say, "ideophones"), to exactly match the range of the Japanese terms. Isn't it more interesting to discuss the actual phenomenon?

  9. Chinese (and Japanese) translation guide « Word Lily said,

    July 22, 2008 @ 9:53 am

    […] found this via a Language Log post last night, although that post was just using this as an example of onomatopoeia in Japanese, which is […]

  10. cb said,

    July 22, 2008 @ 10:54 am

    "I think it's a little silly to focus on the failure of this word, which is commonly used and understood"

    Well, that's the problem I had when I was reading "onomatopoeia" in the article. I was looking for examples, and didn't see any. I know it seems like a distraction from the point of the article (which I now have to reread in order to understand what it's saying, which is possible thanks to the usage issues brought up earlier in the comments), but I must say that it's not "silly" to express confusion that makes the article less meaningful.

    Beside which, the concepts behinds these Japanese words is a little bit new to me. It would be interesting to know why it's more common there than in other languages.

    (By the way, I don't know whether I've encountered the word "ideophone" before, but I can grasp its meaning without much trouble thanks to its oft-used roots.)

  11. John Lawler said,

    July 22, 2008 @ 1:16 pm

    It's also called Phonosemantics, and it's a well-known phenomenon in Japanese, Indonesian, and many African languages. It's less well-known in other languages — at least not by linguists, though native scholars often tell different stories — but it's undoubtedly widely present all over the map.

    The basic phenomenon is just the result of historical reinforcement of the simplest kind of vocabulary-learning strategy ("if it sounds like X, it must mean like X") on certain sound combinations, above a criterial threshhold (no doubt combined to some degree with physical iconicity, but that's not very well established, imo).

    See here for a bibliography of work on one variety of phonosemantics (phonesthemes, "Assonance-Rime Analysis").

  12. Doc Rock said,

    July 22, 2008 @ 4:54 pm

    I'd just point out that Korean, the oft neglected third leg of the East Asian tripod, also has many such expressions.

  13. Dill said,

    July 22, 2008 @ 8:55 pm

    In support of my earlier comment (which appears out of order for some reason, my post was the second, not the third), and in reply to Language Hat, I agree with CB. After all, onomatopoeia has some cross-linguistic validity. If I know the relevant orthography I can generally 'get' onomatopoeic words from other languages. But ideophones, as John Lawler points out, do not have cross-linguistic validity so I was really not understanding what the article was about until someone mentioned ideophones.

  14. language hat said,

    July 23, 2008 @ 8:44 am

    Well, I guess it's a difference of background and philosophy. The word "ideophone," which seems so transparent to those with academic backgrounds, is gibberish to most of the reading public. For similar reasons, at LH I give pronunciations in sloppy amateur form (Hiawatha = high-uh-WAH-thuh), despite the cries of "Why don't you use IPA?," because IPA is only intelligible to a tiny minority of the potential visitors to the site.

    I would have thought it was clear from reading the post that Mair was not talking about the "bang bang" kind of onomatopoeia, but I guess if people were puzzled, more explanation should have been given.

  15. Alicia Casuso said,

    July 23, 2008 @ 3:54 pm

    I also find it extremely amusing that Japanese should use so many words like these. One thing I notice is that people who are familiar with listening to Japanese, even though they don't speak it, can understand or guess better the meaning of these expressions.

    When English-speaking people find a new word in their mother tongue, they will say things like "this word sounds like it means so and so". A lot of people just explain it with "etymology", but then, words that have no etymology, such as "Yadda Yadda Yadda", are well understood. Other people then say it's explained by context, but I'm not quite sure of that.

    Once I got a crazy idea. What if… the languages we spoke were like music genres? They have a melody that plays on certain scale (intonation), rythm, and a set of instruments (phonemes). So for example, if you ask a jazz band to play a representation of a busy city, you'd get something completely different than from a rock band or a Japanese folkloric band.

    And if we accept that languages are music genres, couldn't we also represent the world according to the music at our disposal? And wouldn't a word like "Yadda" sound a lot like English blah, but not so much so to the Japanese, etc?

    If you extrapolate and start naming things that don't have a characteristic sound, such as sparkly, you need to step back and ask yourself if indeed that thing is soundless.

    Do you know how terror sounds like? How about suspense? Romance? How about… pirates!?

    Yes you do. Because of Hollywood. If I'd have to make an uneducated guess, I'd say theatre, anime and even Hollywood have given sound to Japanese apparently soundless words throughout the years. If I could even go further, I'd say before these were popularized, there were musicians and poets and minstrels who could somehow represent ideas in sounds. I don't think it's that far-fetched. People can dance ideas too, or paint them. We should not fall in the trap of thinking and not sensing, feeling, using our intuition. Logic is not the only way of representing the world.

    Now, in English "bling bling" is used for sparkly stuff. The official meaning is "flashy or elaborate jewelry and ornamented accessories" but I don't think it's so much about the elaboration as it is about the shine/sparkleness. I don't think million-dollar jewerly would be considered bling bling if it doesn't shine. On the other hand, things that are not expensive can. Such as immitation jewerly, sparkly ornaments, etc.

    Now, I know a few people will argument that "bling" evokes the sound of jewerly chiming, and it may well have been like that at the beginning. But over the years, sparkles have always been represented by chiming sounds. Does that mean sparkles have sound? In our heads, at least, they seem to.

  16. John Lawler said,

    July 23, 2008 @ 6:15 pm

    @Alicia Caruso
    Actually, bling fits right in with the other 70 English simplex words beginning with bl-. You can see the list and their phonosemantic breakdown here. (Bling isn't on the list because I did this analysis back around 1990, and it's a recent slang term.)

    Besides the possible onomatopoeic value that you mention, there are three phonosemantic classes for bl-, with which 57 of the 70 words are coherent:

    Contained Fluid: blood blister blast blubber blimp blush blow …
    Color/Eye: blaze blot blind blip black blue blond bleach …
    Excess: blurt blither blur blight blanch blotch blear …
    with considerable overlap. Bling doesn't appear to have anything to do with contained fluids, but certainly color and excess match nicely.

    You can find more than anyone would ever want to know about the phonosemantics of this assonance (and also br-and pr-) here

  17. mark (the ideophone) said,

    July 29, 2008 @ 1:33 pm

    Peter asks Is Japanese "unique" in having lots of ideophones?
    No it isn't; ideophones occur abundantly in lots of southeast Asian languages (where they are usually called 'expressives', Diffloth 1976); in the majority of African languages (Childs 1994), especially south of the Sahara; and in some Native American languages (e.g. Qechua, Nuckolls 1996).

    Doc Rock already noted above that they are very common in Korean too; in fact, there are lots of PhD theses on various phonological aspects of Korean and Japanese ideophones; and likewise on African ideophones.

    I don't have much to add to the terminology discussion except that the common use of the term 'onomatopoeia' does seem to divert from the fact that all of the sensory modalities (not just the auditory) play a role in ideophones.

  18. Fireworks and News from Japan « Mara In Japan said,

    August 14, 2008 @ 1:43 pm

    […] Language Log: Japanese (and Chinese) onomatopoeia explains 擬態語 ("gitaigo"), "sound effects" for adjectives and adverbs. […]

  19. Jess Tauber said,

    August 14, 2008 @ 3:45 pm

    Perhaps not that much uniformity in nomenclature- but plenty in terms of form/meaning mapping tendencies.

    Interestingly, longer forms present in languages with huge numbers of ideophones tend to be structured in ways similar to certain complex verb constructions, such as the 'bipartite verb' so popular in western North America, where instrument/bodypart/manner-of-action and location/pathway terms flank the main root. The ideophone usually assorts with the manner side of the equation. All sorts of facts suggest that ideophones are in opposition to normal grammaticalized forms. And just as grammaticalization tends to focus on the spatial/temporal, the ideophonic flip side tends to focus on energy/mass relations. Many more things could be said.

    But don't mind me- just go on with your discussion….

  20. Pinyin news » onomatopoeia in Mandarin and how to write it in Hanyu Pinyin said,

    May 2, 2009 @ 12:17 am

    […] Japanese (and Chinese) Onomatopoeia, Victor Mair at Language Log, July 2008 […]

  21. Aaron said,

    May 5, 2009 @ 11:54 pm

    Not that it matters that much, but your kanji for gairaigo uses a variant of 来 that is not used in modern Japanese. (Correct: 外来語).

  22. Leonardo Boiko said,

    July 31, 2009 @ 1:35 pm

    Oh but those old seiji with extra little people on them are so cute!

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