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Japanese Onomatopoeia


Onomatopoeia. Thats a big scary term with a much less daunting meaning: any word that mimics a sound. In English, onomatopoeia consists of words like boom, pop, and cock-a-doodle-do. Of course, Japanese also has onomatopoeia (which they call : ). They have LOTS of it, and not just silly comic book sounds either. If youve been studying Japanese for more than a couple weeks, you probably already know a couple: (a little) is an onomatopoeia, and so is (correctly, obediently) and (slowly). Sometimes we dont even think of those words as onomatopoeia, but they are. Even a certain lightning-wielding, yellow mouse characters name turns out to be a simple fusion of sounds which means sparklesqueak (actually, I think I like the English name better). Anyway, my point is theres so much onomatopoeia in Japanese that it will make your head spin (the sound for dizziness would be , by the way).

In fact, Japanese has so much onomatopoeia that they use them to describe all sorts of things, many of which (like dizziness) dont actually make a sound. Maybe that seems strange, but we have some very similar words in English too, for example dilly-dally or wishy-washy. Just try to imagine if there were literally hundreds of words like that, and that on a given day youd probably hear, read or use at least 50 of them. Yet despite how common onomatopoeia are and how important they are for things such as casual conversation or reading fiction, they seem to be regarded as irrelevant by a lot of teachers and teaching materials. Common ones are taught as adverbs and thats about it. The common perception among native Japanese speakers is that these words are easy because all they do is convey a sound. No kanji = easy. Well Ive got news for the native speakers: these words are NOT easy and they DO require special attention. Its exactly because these words are not tied to kanji that they take on multiple, sometimes unrelated meanings and develop their own peculiar nuances and usage quirks (I seem to remember Japanese speakers complaining about this aspect of English vocabulary, no?). No kanji = less restrictions on usage = more vagueness and confusion. In this article, Im going to attempt to give readers a framework for understanding and using onomatopoeia.

Onomatopoeia Forms
The first thing that you need to know is that there are three basic forms an onomatopoeia can take.

Not all words can take all the forms (the three examples above are actually more flexible than most). Also, sometimes different forms of the same onomatopoeia will have somewhat different meanings, though they are usually either the same or strongly related. The important thing is just to be aware that onomatopoeia in Japanese (when used in a sentence) appear in one of these forms. The second thing to know is that the particle you should associate with onomatopoeia is . One of s primary functions is to mark quoted speech, such as in: kare wa konnichiwa to itta. He said hello. But also describes sounds in exactly the same way: kare wa gokugoku to nonda. He drank making a gulping sound. In fact, the in the TO-ending words above () is the particle . The particle is actually built into the form (therefore, dont add any other particle when you use them). The Double and RI forms of onomatopoeia are trickier, as each word has its own usage nuances. Some words will almost always come with a , some will always omit their . As Ill explain later, some words are even treated similar to nouns and can be used with

particles like and , but the basic rule of thumb is: the particle to use with an onomatopoeia is (even though it is often omitted).

One of the things that complicates the issue of learning onomatopoeia is that in addition to words like and , which are so common that we dont really think of them as onomatopoeia, there are also words that sound like and which may even be used like onomatopoeia, but arent. You probably know a couple of these already too: is an example. For all intents and purposes, you could consider this word an onomatopoeia, but its meaning is derived from the kanji () rather than the sound of the word. Other examples of this kind of pseudo-onomatopoeia are and . Since these words arent really onomatopoeia, you have to be much more careful about which particle you select (if any). The abovementioned three can all optionally take , but others such as , , and can never take . Still others such as and will always appear with . Dont worry about remembering all the specifics, just understand that not all words which sound like an onomatopoeia are. And Japanese has one other another kind of fake onomatopoeia which is made by doubling adjective or verb stems (~I form). The meaning of the resulting word is dependent on the stem, so usually these arent too hard to figure out. For example, ( hot) becomes and ( to float/be cheerful)

becomes (in high spirits). These doubled-stem words are kind of a middle-ground between true onomatopoeia and the pseudo- ones which I mentioned above. Their usage is fundamentally the same as true onomatopoeia, except that youll never find them in RI or -TO form.* *: there is one exception that I know of:

Using Onomatopoeia
Okay, so now that you kind of have an idea what exactly an onomatopoeia is in Japanese, its time to look at how to use them. Theres four basic usage patterns that you will find onomatopoeia in:

The reason onomatopoeia exist and the reason we use them is to describe. But essentially there are two and only two things

which onomatopoeia can describe: either an action/process or a condition/state of being. Which kind of description you are making affects the grammar you will need, hence I have distinguished between adverb (describing an action/process) and adjective (describing the state/condition of something) functions. Individual onomatopoeia can be tightly restricted to one certain usage, or they can have multiple meanings each with a different usage, or they can have one core meaning that can be applied both ways. This can be a headache for learners, but only if you take it too seriously. Onomatopoeia are supposed to make sentences more colorful, to add emotion and spice. Theyre fun! Without onomatopoeia, Japanese might as well be just one boring newspaper article about stock prices and exchange rates. But anyway, back to the topic The ADVERB usage (describing an action) is the default function of an onomatopoeia and also the simplest. Its simple because you just stick it in front of the verb youre describing, and decide whether or not to use . Some words will require it, but in most cases its optional. In cases where its optional, adding the helps bring out the aural aspect of the word, so its less common in everyday speech and more common in creative writing. Including also helps prevent word-order confusion if theres something between your onomatopoeia and your verb. The ADJECTIVE usage (describing an object/condition) is actually a specialized application of an adverb. Grammatically speaking, the

onomatopoeia wants to be an adverb, so we need to do some linguistic acrobatics to make it modify a noun. How do we turn an adverb into an adjective? We format it with either or . Dont concern yourself with the meaning of here because there really isnt one, were just using the formless verb as an intermediary between our onomatopoeia and our noun. is kind of the correct way to make an adjective usage, and (usually abbreviated to ) is the casual way, but theyre both doing the same thing: taking a sound and formatting it so that it can modify a noun. Because constantly formatting onomatopoeia is kind of inconvenient, a lot Adjective-natured onomatopoeia have developed a different usage. An Onomatopoeia with a N-ADJECTIVE usage can be used similarly to a noun. N is the perfect letter to represent these words, not only because they have some similarities to nouns, but because by happy coincidence they are mostly used with the particles and (and sometimes even , like a NAAdjective). Note that although these words have some grammatical similarities to nouns, it usually doesnt make any sense to use them as objects (). And if you find them with , its probably actually the TE-form of , not the particle . The SURU usage is very handy. You simply pair the onomatopoeia with the formless verb , and the resulting verb means to act/feel/occur/be in whatever way is described by the onomatopoeia. So for example, which I mentioned at the

beginning of the article describes dizziness and is used with . The typical usage of this is: atama ga kurakura shiteru. My head is spinning. One important thing to note about the SURU usage of onomatopoeia is it usually only makes intransitive verbs (verbs which dont take objects). To make these verbs transitive, you need to use the causative form: . Therefore: Tom no atama o kurakura saseta. I made Toms head spin. Sure, you could consider these to be adverbs. But if an adverb (such as ) is used almost exclusively to describe one particular verb (), and that verb is basically meaningless, wouldnt it be more helpful just to think of it as a verb unit?

Common Double-form Onomatopoeia

Onomatopeia Usage Meaning SURU to be edgy/testy, ticked off SURU to wander about aimlessly, loiter (various) shining/sparkling/glitter ADV laughing/chuckling (quietly/bashfully) SURU To act lazy, slow, procrastinate (various) spinning/turning curly (hair) ADV/SURU(speaking) secretively, quietly ADJ wet and slippery, slimy ADJ sticky

ADV staring fixatedly ADV steadily, without haste ADV unimpeded, continuous, sleek SURU feeling a thrill/adrenaline rush SURU acting antsy/squirmy ADV/SURUbusy, hurried, rushing from place to place SURU to twitch, spasm ADV/SURUwoozy/unstable, swaying from side to side N-ADJ ripped up (clothing), worn out, beat up SURU to get nervous/anxious with anticipation

Common RI- and TO-form Onomatopoeia

OnomatopoeiaUsage Meaning SURU to be disappointed/let down (various) firm/steadfast (various) more than enough/required ADV/SURUclearly, plainly ADV slowly ADV surely, without a doubt ADV/SURUwithout moving/motionless ADV properly, correctly, obediently ADV a little bit, somewhat ADV/SURUto space out, be distracted ADV more