J-Slang: Japanese onomatopoeia

Japanese must be one of the richest languages in onomatopoeia, words imitating sounds; “giongo” or “giseigo” in Japanese. A great many of these consist of two syllables, once repeated, and sound a bit like baby language. Maybe that’s why I became infatuated with them, but as this affection grew, I noticed that these words are very practical, convey meaning quickly, and often surprise native speakers, because they’re rarely textbook language. (A good number of them I’ve come across in TV commercials.) So I’ve decided to compile as extensive a list of these words as possible, out of personal interest and for the benefit of anyone who desires to pick up some very Japanese vocabulary. Read them out loud and see if you can’t imagine the accompanying action or state!

My Japanese is mediocre, and my translations may be off, so all contributions and corrections are more than welcome. There are bound to be more: unless I’ve miscalculated, 4489 possibilities exist to combine the 45 Japanese syllables in pairs (including the soft g-, z-, d-, b-, and p-led syllables, but excluding combinations with themself, combinations beginning with “n”, and all “kyo-” or “sho-“type contractions).

J-Slang English Contributor Notes
bachin-bachin heavy typing Kishida-san  
bara-bara scattered, loose thduggie  
bari-bari tearing, crunching thduggie
bata-bata rattling, commotion
thduggie’s piece of cardboard
becha-becha chattering, prattling, gooey, messy thduggie  
bera-bera nonstop rapid talking Anna  
beron-beron very drunk Olivier  
beta-beta sticky Tsuri-san, Suzuki-san  
beto-beto gooey Hiromi  
betsu-betsu separate textbook  
biri-biri like an electric shock Stef  
bori-bori hard to the bite Hiromi  
boro-boro rumpled, scuffed, slightly damaged thduggie  
bota-bota drip(ping) Santa and her friends  
boto-boto drip(ping) Santa and her friends
buka-buka too big, baggy
thduggie’s piece of cardboard
bura-bura idly, aimlessly (strolling or walking) Stef, Anna  
buru-buru shaking, shivering with cold or fear Robert  
butsu-butsu grumbling, complaining, muttering thduggie  
buu-buu cow lowing capnquackenbush
byuu-byuu whistling (wind) Ohashi-san
chapu-chapu splashing water Joseph G
chiku-chiku prickling pain Stef
choki-choki snipping, cutting Kinjirou, Tsuri-san
chuu kiss, peck Holly Skewis, Erika Acosta
dan-dan slowly but surely textbook  
dara-dara lazy, sluggish, prevaricating thduggie  
doki-doki excited, nervous (esp. in romantic situations) thduggie  
doku-doku gushingly, profusely thduggie  
don-don quickly textbook  
fura-fura meandering, without direction (walking) thduggie, Mishima-san  
fuwa-fuwa cushy soft thduggie  
gachi-gachi chattering (of teeth), thinking hard Mieko  
gara-gara clattering, rattling thduggie  
gari-gari scratching, clawing thduggie
gatsu-gatsu voraciously Mil of the Cosmodrome
giri-giri just barely thduggie, Stef
gishi-gishi grinding teeth Joseph G
gisu-gisu strained (atmosphere), thin and bony thduggie  
goku-goku quickly (drinking, swallowing) Okaasan  
goro-goro idle, relaxed Stef  
goro-goro thunder Stef  
guden-guden dead drunk Olivier’s dictionary  
gun-gun rapidly, smoothly (aircraft, boats) thduggie  
guru-guru turning round, spiraling Santa and her friends, thduggie  
gusha-gusha messed up; flowing slowly Tomoko Diesel, usha; thduggie ?
gutsu-gutsu simmering Olivier’s dictionary  
guzu-guzu snuffling Joseph G
gyu-gyu squashed together (as on train) Joseph G
hara-hara uneasy thduggie  
hiku-hiku sniffing, twitching thduggie  
hiri-hiri hot, burning feeling (sunburn) Hiromi  
iro-iro various textbook  
jan-jan a lot thduggie  
japan-japan (sic) splashing (water on oneself) Kishida-san  
jari-jari crunchy, grainy (to the bite) Matsuo-san
jiri-jiri sizzling, scorching (sun), alarm bell, oozing out, gradually, irritatedly
thduggie’s piece of cardboard
jiro-jiro (miru) staring, scrutinizing thduggie  
jori-jori to shave Mieko  
kachi-kachi ticking (of clock) Hiromi
kachi-kochin rock hard Joseph G
kan-kan (okoru) very (to get very angry) thduggie  
kara-kara thirsty Hiromi, Okaasan
kira-kira sparkling, twinkling Philip, Mil of the Cosmodrome
kisu-kisu kissing (duh) thduggie  
kocho-kocho secret Naito-san  
kocho-kocho (suru) to tickle Naito-san  
kori-kori crunchy (e.g. biting on cartilage) thduggie  
koro-koro rolling (small, round object) Stef  
kotsu-kotsu clicking (of high heels) Kishida-san  
kuta-kuta dead tired thduggie
kuyo-kuyo worry about, brood over Bert Dekkers
kya squealing Erika Acosta
kyoro-kyoro (look around) restlessly
thduggie’s piece of cardboard
masu-masu more and more thduggie  
mecha-mecha lots, very Chiharu, Nami  
mii-mii sheep bleating capnquackenbush K
misu-misu under one’s nose thduggie K
muki-muki suitability thduggie K
muri-muri impossible Gillian Kalitsi K
muzu-muzu itchy, impatient, excited Suzuki-san, thduggie  
naga-naga very long Stef  
naka-naka hardly thduggie
naka-naka quite, rather Ohashi-san  
neba-neba sticky, viscous thduggie
nita-nita grinning Mil of the Cosmodrome
noro-noro slowly Stef  
nya-nya cat Nakagawa-san  
nyoro-nyoro slithering Mishima-san  
pachi-pachi dripping wet Chiharu, Nami  
pachi-pachi shutter-snapping Hiromi  
pachin-pachin small, cute Kishida-san  
paku-paku quickly (eating), munching Hiromi, Joseph G
para-para light fall (rain, powder) Suzuki-san
pari-pari crispy (e.g. potato chips) Santa and her friends
pasa-pasa dry (hair, cakes, etc.) thduggie, Santa and her friends  
pata-pata pattering (feet) Hiromi  
peko-peko very hungry Olivier  
peko-peko apologize excessively, with bobbing head Hiromi  
pera-pera fluent(ly) Anna, thduggie  
pero-pero lapping (like a dog) Hiromi  
peta-peta sticky; pressing repeatedly Tomoko Diesel; thduggie ?
pichi-pichi fresh, lively thduggie  
pika-pika bright, flashing, sparkling Stef  
piri-piri hot (in taste) Stef, Hiromi  
pocha-pocha elastic (skin) thduggie
poki-poki snapping, popping (e.g. twigs) Joseph G
poto-poto drip(ping) in large drops Santa and her friends  
potsu-potsu bit by bit, spotty thduggie  
potsun-potsun first raindrops Hiromi  
puchi-puchi popping (e.g. ikura, bubble plastic) Nakagawa-san  
pun-pun angry (girl) Robert Ho
puri-puri angrily thduggie
puri-puri smell(ing) strongly thduggie  
rabu-rabu romantic (love-love) Stef  
saku-saku crunchy, eating noisily Santa and her friends, Hiromi  
sara-sara fluently, smoothly flowing thduggie  
sara-sara dry, squeaky clean thduggie  
sawa-sawa soft?, patting? thduggie ?
shaa-shaa shamelessly, carefree thduggie  
shari-shari luxurious Naito-san  
shiba-shiba often, frequently thduggie  
shibu-shibu reluctantly Hiromi  
shiku-shiku crying Santa and her friends
shin-shin sound of heavy snow Sadako Yamamura
shito-shito raining Santa and her friends  
shiwa-shiwa (very) wrinkled thduggie
shuwa-shuwa opening a soda can Roger Ferrari
sowa-sowa nervous thduggie
suku-suku (growing/sprouting) quickly
thduggie’s piece of cardboard
sura-sura fast (writing) Hiromi  
suru-suru (to) nimbly (small animals, etc.) thduggie  
suya-suya sleeping peacefully Mil of the Cosmodrome
tabi-tabi often, repeatedly Stef  
tama-tama occasionally thduggie  
tekka-tekka shiny, sweaty Avi Fischer
teku-teku walking, footsteps; poke to get attention Kishida-san; Sarabjit
tikka-tikka shiny, sweaty Avi Fischer
tiri-tiri curly (hair) Luiz Roberto Kamide
toku-toku pouring quickly, in gasps thduggie, Mishima-san  
ton-ton patting shoulder Ohashi-san  
toro-toro drowsily Stef  
tsuru-tsuru smooth to the touch Hiromi  
uro-uro loitering, aimless wandering thduggie  
uzu-uzu itching to do something thduggie  
waku-waku nervous, excited, trembling thduggie  
wan-wan dog Nakagawa-san  
waza-waza go to the trouble of, expressly, intentionally thduggie  
zaa-zaa pouring rain, rushing water, white noise Santa and her friends  
zabuun-zabuun pouring water (on oneself) Kishida-san
zun-zun rapidly, by leaps and bounds
thduggie’s piece of cardboard

used with negatives
K written with kanji, thus technically not onomatopoetic
? uncertain – someone please confirm!
“textbook” refers to Minna no Nihongo I and II

Big helps:
JWPce waapuro using
Jim Breen’s Japanese-English Dictionary

Harry Lawrence has written an entire book on the topic.

Joseph G. adds an important note:

I noticed entries on your site’s list of Japanese onomatopoeia that would not be actual onomatopoeia because they are not derived from sounds but rather other words. There seems to be some confusion on thew part of your contributors (including the Japanese ones) as to the meaning of onomatopoeia.
Important :
All words that repeat their stem are not onomatopoeia. The meaning or origin of the word needs to be understood to determine if the duplication is onomatopoeic or not.

Please see the Japanese section of the wikipedia entry on reduplication.
In Japanese there is the tendency to modify some adjectives by repeating the stem to give them a somewhat different nuance. An example is of this is the adjective nagai 長い -long. By repeating the root without the “i” ending you get Naga-naga, which can be used to express something long in the “drawn out” or unnecessarily long as in “long-winded” sense. However, just because it is repeated does not mean that it is an attempt at imitating the sound of something too long (in duration) or someone being long winded. Therefore, this is not to be considered an onomatopoeia.
Another example, “Cho” 「蝶」 is butterfly but is more commonly said by repeating the Kanji rendering it “Cho-Cho”,「蝶々」. However, just because it is repeated does not indicate that it is in anyway derived from the sound a butterfly is perceived to make.

I’ve listed below the ones on your list that are not onomatopoeia but simply derived from other words being repeated. There may be more that I’ve missed. (Interestingly, at first glance, I thought Kisu-kisu which comes from English “Kiss” was not an onomatopoeia But after looking at the wikipedia site for kiss, I noticed that is says the Old English word it comes from, “coss,” is “perhaps onomatopoetic.”)

These are not onomatopoeia:
betsu-betsu (betsu 別 means separate)
dan-dan (dan 段 means level or step- step by step)
giri-giri (giri切りmeans to cut as in deadline – just avoid getting cut)
iro-iro (iro 色means color as in various colors)
masu-masu (masu 増すmeans to increase-not a sound)
naga-naga (see above)
naka-naka (not from a sound)
rabu-rabu (from “love” which is not a sound or onomatopoeia)
shiba-shiba (しばしば -is not a sound)
tabi-tabi (たびたび -same as above)
tama-tama (たまたま-not from a sound)

Although Joseph is right, I’ll still keep the whole list up.  And one of these days I’ll get the table to look nicer and hiragana into the table.  Now I’m just glad to have updated it and moved it here from the former geocities location (2009/10/11).

Do you know more onomatopoeia? Did you spot any glaring mistakes or omissions? Send your contribution to stephan.stuecklin [at] a3.epfl.ch!

This site used to be at http://www.geocities.com/thduggie/japan/jslang.htm, but then geocities closed.

6 thoughts on “J-Slang: Japanese onomatopoeia

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