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Japanese sound symbolism

This article describes sound symbolic or mimetic words in the Japanese language. Most languages have such words; for example, "bang", "zap", "ding", "slither", "pop", etc. in English. Sound symbolic words occur more often in Japanese (and Korean as well, although this article will only be concerned with the former) than in English—they are found in formal as well as vernacular language.

These words cannot be considered onomatopoeia. Many mimetic words in Japanese are for things that don't make any noise originally, most clearly demonstrated by しいんと shiinto, meaning "silently".


They can be classified into three main categories:

  • Phonomime or onomatopoeia (擬声語 giseigo or 擬音語 giongo)

words that mimic actual sounds.

  • Phenomime (擬態語 gitaigo)

mimetic words to represent non-auditory senses.

  • Psychomime (also called 擬態語 gitaigo or 擬情語 gijoogo)

mimetic words that represent psychological states or bodily feelings.

While onomatopoeic words abound in every language, phenomimes and psychomimes are much rarer.

In Japanese grammar, sound symbolic words function as adverbs, often taking the particle と (to) because they are seen as quotations. Most sound symbolic words can be applied to only a handful of verbs or adjectives. Japanese learners would be well advised to learn these words together with their possible referents. In the examples below, the classified verb or adjective is placed in square brackets.

some examples
sound symbolism meaning
jirojiro (to) [miru]
[see] intently (= stare)
kirakira (to) [hikaru]
[shine] sparklingly
giragira (to) [hikaru]
[shine] dazzlingly
''doki doki [suru]
a throbbing heart
guzu guzu [suru]
to procrastinate or dawdle
(suru not optional)
shin to [suru]
[be (lit. do)] quiet
(suru not optional)
pinpin [shite iru]
[being (lit. doing)] lively
(shite iru not optional)
yoboyobo ni [naru]
[become] wobbly-legged (i.e. from age)¹

  1. に (ni) instead of と (to) is used for なる (naru = become)

Other types

In their Dictionary of Basic Japanese Grammar, Seiichi Makino and Michio Tsutsui, point out several other types of sound symbolism in Japanese, that relate phonemes and psychological states. For example, the nasal sound [n] gives a more personal and speaker-oriented impression than the velars [k] and [ɡ]; this contrast can be easily noticed in pairs of synonyms such as ので node and から kara which both mean because, but with the first being perceived as more subjective. This relationship can be correlated with phenomimes containing nasal and velar sounds: While phenomimes containing nasal consonants give the feeling of tactuality and warmth, those containing velar consonants tend to represent hardness, sharpness, and suddenness.

Similarly, i-type adjectives that contain the fricative [ɕ] in the group shi tend to represent human emotive states, such as in the words 悲しい kanashii (sad), 寂しい sabishii (lonely), 嬉しい ureshii (happy), and 楽しい tanoshii (enjoyable). This too is correlated with those phenomimes and psychomimes containing the same fricative sound, for example しとしとと降る shitoshito to furu (to rain / snow quietly) and しゅんとする shun to suru (to be dispirited).

The use of the gemination can create a more emphatic or emotive version of a word, as in the following pairs of words: ぴたり / ぴったり pitari / pittari (tightly), やはり / やっぱり yahari / yappari (as expected), and many others.

See also


  • Akutsu, Satoru (1994). A Practical Guide to Mimetic Expressions Through Pictures. ALC Press, ISBN 4-87234-322-0.
  • Hamano, Shoko (1998). The sound-symbolic system of Japanese. Tokyo: Kurosio.
  • Hasada, Rie (2001). "Meanings of Japanese sound-symbolic emotion words". In Harkins, Jean & Anna Wierzbicka (eds.) Emotions in Crosslinguistic Perspective (Cognitive Linguistics Research 17). Berlin, New York: Mouton de Gruyter, pp. 217–253.
  • Seiichi Makino and Michio Tsutsui, Dictionary of Basic Japanese Grammar, The Japan Times, 1986. ISBN 4-7890-0454-6.
  • Martin, Samuel E. (1964). "Speech labels in Japan and Korea", in Dell Hymes (ed.), Language in Culture and Society: A reader in linguistics and anthropology. New York: Harper and Row.
  • Ono, Shuuichi (ed.) (1989). A Practical Guide to Japanese-English Onomatopoeia and Mimesis. Tokyo: Hokuseidoo.
  • Shibatani, Masayoshi (1990). The Languages of Japan. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, (esp p. 153vv).

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