English speakers do not usually pay much attention to onomatopoeias. Yes, these literary devices help us to agree that dogs bark and horses neigh. They are also a lifesaver in literature class, when you have problems finding a rhyme to your nearly completed poetry assignment. On the whole though, we should be able to reach a consensus that onomatopoeias only make up a mere few acres of land in the analogous English language forest.
But newsflash to all manga lovers: Japanese has approximately 1,200 onomatopoeias. To put things in perspective, that is 3 times more than what English has in its arsenal. Clearly, the derivation of words from the imitation of a sound associated with its referent is well-received among the Japanese audience.
My aim today is to inaugurate the uninitiated into the world of Japanese onomatopoeias. If you want a more comprehensive guide and can afford the time, click here. Otherwise, here are some pointers you should definitely know when reading your manga:
1. Many Japanese onomatopoeias are composed of repeated sounds.
For instance, Kirakira means sparkling, like how the stars twinkle in the night sky. Mokomoko is the term for fluffy, like the fluff in a wool jacket. Hirahira refers to the movement of a light object, like waving one’s handkerchief. Many Japanese onomatopoeias display this characteristics.
2. Unlike English, Japanese onomatopoeias usually take up meanings of their own.
You might have already realised, but Japanese onomatopoeias do not end at the imitation of a cat’s meow. These sounds usually acquire meanings of their own, and are used frequently in casual speech. This makes some Japanese onomatopoeias inscrutable to those oblivious of their meaning. You can try guessing, but it is nearly impossible to get it right.
Recently, I was told that I was going to be taught in a Bishibashi manner. What does Bishibashi mean? See if you got it correct.
3. Japanese onomatopoeias are integral in daily communication
While it probably does little to improve your test scores in school, onomatopoeias are regularly thrown around in Japanese speech. Read the following conversation and you will understand:
A: “Oh, your coat’s so Mokomoko!”
B: “Thanks! But I bought it a year ago, so it’s slightly Boroboro (old and tattered) now… By the way, you are going for Arashi’s concert today right?”
A: “Yes! I am so Wakuwaku (excited) right now! Hope it does not rain though.”
B: “True… if it Zaazaa (The sound of rain = if it rains), it’ll be a big problem for the audience…”
4. Japanese onomatopoeias can be used to express quantity or degree
From the onomatopoeia that the speaker uses, you can tell how strong the wind was. If the wind is breezy and comfortable, Soyosoyo is used. But if the wind is cold and chilly, the Japanese would describe it as Byuubyuu. If a sudden gust of wind comes by, it would be described as Pyuu.
5. The sound of silence exists in Japanese
The Japanese found a way to verbalise silence. It’s Shiin.