When learning Japanese, have you ever encountered any four letter words that make absolutely no sense? You wonder if it’s a foreign word, filling word, or just something made as a joke. Yes, I’m talking about words like this: わんわん、ざあざあ、and きらきら.
Such words are sound-symbolic words which fall into categories known as: 擬音語（ぎおんご）、擬声語（ぎせいご）、擬態語（ぎたいご）、擬容語（ぎようご）、and 擬情語（ぎじょうご）.
Woah! What’s up with all these categories? Don’t worry, they will not be so difficult to differentiate once we go through them. Having some knowledge about this can help you gain a better insight into the Japanese language and give you better vocabulary to describe many phenomena.
音（おと）means “sound.” Words that fall into this category describe sounds found in nature as well as sounds created by objects and things. Let’s look at an example:
The rain falls.
Basically, there is no real equivalent to ざあざあ, and the best translation would be, “The rain falls pitty-patter.” The sound of rainfall was accepted as the ざあざあ sound in the past, hence this word.
Beating the drum.
Once again, the sound of the drum beat was accepted as どんどん, hence this word.
声（こえ）means “voice.” Words that fall into this category describe the sounds produced by living beings including animals. Here is an example:
The dog barks “woof.”
わんわん is very similar to the sound “woof” used in English when describing a barking dog. This usually goes with 吠える, which means “bark.”
The baby cries.
The crying sound of babies came to be accepted as オギャー, and it is usually used together with the cries of babies (only humans). For cries of kittens, it would be ミィーミィー.
態（たい）has the meaning of “appearance” or “impression.” Words falling in this category describe the appearance or impression of non-living beings.
The jewels dazzle.
輝く（かがやく）has the meaning of dazzling, and the キラキラ adds another layer or dimension of the phenomenon of the dazzling of the jewels. This is quite similar to other sentences I have given. Even without having such words, the sentence makes sense. However, adding that symbolic word enhances it, giving more quality, essence, and clarity to the sentence.
The room is messy.
ごちゃごちゃ describes a certain space being messy or disorganised. Try pronouncing this adverb. How does it sound? Yup, very messy!
Words that fall into this category describe the appearance or impression of living beings, including animals and plants. Let’s take a look at some examples:
The cat walks lazily.
のろのろ portrays the subject as being lazy or lethargic. This is generally used for living beings that possess movement.
The morning glory grows mightily.
ぐんぐん has the meaning of “mightily” or “vigorously,” and it’s commonly used when talking about plants or young animals. You can use it for infants, but it’s seldom used like this.
情（じょう）has the meaning “feelings,” and words that fall into this category describe the phenomenon of feelings and emotions. Here is an example:
I am irritated since he isn’t coming.
イライラ describes irritation and displeasure.
I’m very excited as I will be going to the movie theatre tomorrow.
ワクワク describes feelings of excitement and thrilling sensations.
Let’s have a quick recap. In Japanese, there are sound-symbolic words which fall into the categories of 擬音語（ぎおんご）、擬声語（ぎせいご）、擬態語（ぎたいご）、擬容語（ぎようご）、and 擬情語（ぎじょうご）. It doesn’t necessarily have to be related with sound, as we saw its relations with appearance, feelings, and voice.
They can be found as four letter words with two letters repeating itself. That’s not always the case though (some examples are: ばたーん、さらっと、しんみり、and うっとり). But, being able to distinguish the four letter word is a good starting point. They tend to add another layer, dimension, and essence, which livens up a sentence.
Japanese people in the past had a lot of time to observe and ponder nature. The abundance of rich, interesting, and meaningful 俳句（はいく）poems in Japan from master poets like 松尾芭蕉（まつおばしょう）is only a small reflection of this. As a result, this lead to the creation of very unique words derived from meticulous observations in the Japanese language. Adverbs are just one aspect of this.
Please take note that these adverbs can be written in either Hiragana or Katakana. However, as you may have noticed in mangas, 擬音語（ぎおんご）and 擬声語（ぎせいご）tend to be written in Katakana while 擬態語 tends to be written in Hiragana. Sometimes there is a preference.
Let’s finish off with some tips when memorising these words.
Think and feel like a Japanese native. How do they listen to nature? How do they listen to sounds? Try and observe the way Japanese people interpret things.
Start using these words in your daily conversations. The more you use them, the easier it will be to store them in your memory. Don’t concentrate on memorising them by themselves; put them in sentences and memorise the sentences as a whole. It’ll give you a better understanding of their context and the occasion of their use.
Start small, then build on it. You don’t need to rush anything first. Go slowly, and then increase the speed and rate of exposure to new symbolic words.
Hero Image by author