Giongo (擬音語), Giseigo (擬声語), and Gitaigo (擬態語): Japanese Onomatopoeia

You don’t have to be in Japan long to start to hear them.  Those funny sounding, repeating words that sound both funny and foreign to the uninitiated.  I’m talking, of course, of giongo (擬音語), giseigo (擬声語), and gitaigo (擬態語).

Though there is some overlap between the terms, they can arguably be defined in the following terms:

  • Giongo refers to sounds made by inanimate objects.
  • Giseigo refers to sounds made by living things.
  • Gitaigo, a more abstract class of expression, refers to words that depict psychological states or bodily feelings, or non-auditory senses.

Though one can wax poetic about the differences, I prefer to focus on the fun of these expressions, such as the sound of a heart beating (どきどき), sparkling (ぴかぴか), giggle (くすく), smile (にこにこ), or sleeping soundly and snoring (ぐうぐう).

Though some of these words have a repeating quality to them, it is not necessary.  Take, for example, the words to describe the sound of an explosion (ドカン) or the sound of a hard blow (ズガ).  Another interesting example is the “sound” of silence (しいん).  There is no end of fun words, as this short video explains:

It is said that there are some ways to guess at the general meaning of some giongo, gitaigo, or giseigo.  For example, one site posits that a useful rule of thumb when dealing with Japanese onomatopoeias is that expressions beginning with a hard ‘g’ sound (が, ぎ, ぐ, げ, or ご) are typically used to describe lethargic or otherwise undesirable states.

For more examples of onomatopoeias, check out the pages on website here, here, here, or here.


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