For those learning Japanese as a secondary language, onomatopoeia is often considered as difficult to master as honorifics. This is largely due to the fact that many onomatopoeias are rooted in concepts and logic unique to the Japanese people themselves, and therefore pose a special challenge for foreign students of the language. To make matters worse, onomatopoeias in Japanese follow a remarkably similar pattern and thus have a tendency to sound almost identical, even though they are used in wildly different situations. It is no wonder then why many Japanese learners give up before they reach proficiency in them. Because of their difficulty, I never force learning onomatopoeia on my own students; instead, I try to help them understand that onomatopoeia is an integral part of Japanese culture, and that using it successfully in conversations with native speakers will go a long way toward bridging the ever-present cultural divide. With that said, let’s examine some common Japanese onomatopoeia.
わくわく・どきどき (wakuwaku / dokidoki)
This pair of expressions is used to indicate feelings of excitement.
わくわく is used for fun things - for example:
I’m excited about tomorrow’s karaoke!
どきどき is used for nervousness:
I’m nervous about the test.
For situations containing both fun and nervousness, the two onomatopoeic expressions can even be combined to express this state:
I’m excited and nervous about my date tomorrow...
When you meet someone who speaks Japanese fluently, you can say
Your Japanese is very fluent.
Be warned, though: if you receive such a compliment from a native speaker, it might be wise to say, いえいえ、まだまだですよ～。”No, no, not there yet,” since Japanese people are generally fond of modesty.
This onomatopoeia is used for describing soft things: futons, sweaters, hair, soft bread, etc.
These clothes are so soft and warm.
You have fluffy hair
I really want to eat some soft bread.
Of course, you can always use the word やわらかい (yawarakai) instead of saying this onomatopoeia. It is also important to keep in mind that ふわふわ includes the concept of voluminosity, so it can never be used to refer to thin objects – even if they are soft.
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. The phrase ぐちゃぐちゃ, for example, is very commonly employed to indicate that something is messy, soggy, or confused:
The warehouse is a mess.
My mind is cluttered.
Even in formal situations, people say things such as
Sorry that the room is so messy right now...
This expression is used for describing things that are scattered or disconnected; it can also indicate a situation in which a group of people have differing ideas or opinions.
The cards have been scattered all about.
Everyone has differing opinions.
The above onomatopoeias were created in an attempt to verbalize mental images of objects or situations. In addition, the Japanese language also contains onomatopoeias created to mimic original sounds, such as those of animals, vehicles, and weather phenomena.
ニャ～ニャ～・ワンワン (nya-nya- / wanwan)
Some of the Japanese onomatopoeias for animal sounds may sound quite similar to those found in other languages: ニャ～ニャ～ for a cat and ワンワン for a dog, for instance. But on some occasions, Japanese people seem to have come up with a completely original verbal representation. In Japanese, a pig makes the sound ぶーぶー (buubuu), while a frog says けろけろ (kerokero). These might be very different from those found in your native language!
This onomatopoeia has its origins in the sound of hard rain. Instead of saying things like あめが強い (ame ga tsuyoi) or あめがつよくふってる (ame ga tsuyoku futteru), people often say 雨がざーざーだ, although all three expressions have the same basic meaning.
When Japanese people use an onomatopoeia, it allows them to picture a situation more clearly in their minds. In fact, onomatopoeias are so important that sometimes Japanese natives cannot even think of a good alternate word to express what they sense or feel. Although they are difficult, working hard at becoming proficient in these expressions will prove to be a big step toward your Japanese becoming ぺらぺら!