I’ve now been living in Tokyo for a little over 2 years!  To celebrate this milestone (okay, fine, the milestone is just a coincidence; this blog post has nothing to do with it), I thought I’d share something I find delightful in the Japanese language, and that is its onomatopoeia.

Just like English, Japanese has words which are formed “from a sound associated with what is named.”  They are very often repeated.  Here are some examples of their words for sounds:

  • wan wan: a dog’s bark
  • nyan nyan: a cat’s meow
  • zaa zaa: heavy rain falling
  • mogu mogu: someone eating (maybe like omnomnom?)

However, Japanese also makes ample use of onomatopoetic words for things where the connection to a sound is less obvious, such as:

  • dan dan: gradually (the sound of footsteps)
  • don don: quickly (the sound of larger footsteps)
  • doki doki: nervous/excited (the sound of a fast heart beat)

And I mean waaay less obvious.  Ever wondered what sound something sparkling sounds like?

  • kira kira: sparkling, twinkling
  • peko peko: hungry (the sound your stomach makes as it gurgles perhaps?)
  • fuwa fuwa: fluffy
  • giri giri: barely

I think one of the things I love about these words (and there are oodles more) is the fact that they’re often used in casual conversation among adults.  Just this afternoon, as I was watching the Olympic men’s free skate while eating lunch at a restaurant, one of the women at the table next to me used the phrase doki doki shimasu to her companion, expressing the nerves/excitement of watching the athletes do breathtaking quadruple jumps.

Comments 4

  1. Tandava wrote:

    Ha! I’m eating breakfast as I read this, and totally hearing mogu mogu in my head. :-) I also like fuwa fuwa, which sounds like petting a cat.

    Posted 17 Feb 2018 at 07:48
  2. Sandra wrote:

    My favorites (that you haven’t mentioned yet) off the top of my head:

    ぺらぺら (pera-pera) – speaking fluently (in a foreign language)
    むしむし (mushi-mushi) – unpleasantly warm
    ぐーたら (guutara) – not having energy to do anything (I assume this is part of the source for Gudetama’s name)
    わくわく(waku-waku) – excited
    こけこっこ (koke-kokko) – the sound of a rooster :)

    Posted 20 Feb 2018 at 07:30
  3. Phil wrote:

    I have always been partial to ポツポツ (potsu potsu). This is the sound that occurs when rain is starting to fall and you can hear the individual raindrops.

    Posted 11 Jul 2018 at 06:40
  4. Ken Sugayama wrote:

    I am a linguist in Japan. This is not concerned with your blog. I am interested in the Dramatic use of So (alias Gen-X So) and came across your paper called ‘Gen-X So’ and jointly authored by Douglas Kenter and Eric Lee, mentioned in Prof. Arnold Zwicky’s blog. The paper seems to be a term paper submitted to Zwicky’s course in Linguistics in March 2007. Hope you still remember it. I tried to find the first author Douglas Kenter but I couldn’t. I happened to find your blog here. That’s why I come to ask a question on an example sentence in the paper.
    Following Pettibone (2004), you the authors gave an example of Gen-X So’s including the following.

    (6) (numbering in the original paper)
    I so rock at this.

    As far as my little research goes, I could not find a suitable meaning of ‘rock at’ in the sentence. I am wondering what the sentence means. Is ‘rock at’ here a colloquial use of ‘rock’?

    Another thing is that you three mentioned a paper by Pettibone, Jeanette (2004). Gen-X ‘so’. I am very much interested to read her paper, which I could not reach. Nor did I get to the author Jeanette Pettibone. Is it still available?

    Looking forward to hearing from you very soon.


    Ken Sugayama

    Posted 19 Jun 2019 at 02:08

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