Since returning from Tokyo in early February, I’ve set aside about an hour every day to study hiragana and katakana, two of Japan’s syllable-based writing systems. Each contain about 48 characters, some frustratingly similar in appearance (like many of you, I occasionally have trouble distinguishing between シ and ッ,or ザ and せ), others so downright bizarre you would think they were created with the express purpose of annoying you (Yes, を, I’m talking about you). Still, in the long run they’re a lot easier to master than kanji, the system of Chinese-based pictograms that number anywhere between 5000 to 10 000. I have to wonder what a kanji keyboard would look like. Incredibly confusing is my guess.
Anyway, all things considered, 96 or so symbols isn’t too tall a task (although I much prefer the relatively simply 26 alphabet system I’ve been operating under for most of my life) and I think I’ve done a pretty good job of learning them. But learning to spell and sound out the words is only half the battle. Actually figuring out what the words mean is another matter entirely, one that has proven fairly daunting – especially when it comes to sound effects.
The other day, I was reading my study manga when I stopped to sound out a word. I was stymied. Akemi informed me it wasn’t a word but a sound effect – in this case, the sound made when one picks up something very light. Yep, there’s a specific sound for that in Japanese. There’s also a specific sound someone makes to convey the sense of anxious/impatient waiting (so wa so wa), the sound of billowing smoke (mo ku mo ku), the sound of someone napping (su ya su ya) and the sound of paper being torn (bi ri bi ri bi ri).
The Japanese have about 2000 of these mimetic words (known as gitaigo and giongo), but you can apparently get by only knowing between 400-500.
Let me help get you started:
bi shi: the sound made when you stand up straight.
hiri hiri: the sound made by a painful burn.
chiku chiku: the sound made when someone jabs you lightly with something sharp like the corner of a piece of paper.
buooooon: the sound of a hair dryer.
ji ri ji ri: the sound of the sun’s rays beating down on you on a hot summer’s day.
pa ta pa ta: the sound made when you fan yourself or a bird flaps its wings.
gu cha: the sound made when you crush and empty beer/soda can.
pi ka pi ka: the sound made when you achieve some sort of enlightenment that results in a light from the heaven’s shining down upon you.
gai ya gai ya: the sound of a lot of people talking.
bura bura: the sound made when someone wanders about.
ba sa: the sound made when you drop a stack of papers down on something.
shi yu: the sound made when a screen door slides open easily.
ga ra ga ra: the sound made when a screen door slides open with effort.
ko so ri: the sound made by someone sneaking about.
bo ki: the sound of a bone or chopstick breaking.
be shi: the sound of a slap.
bo ri bo ri: the sound made when you’re eating a hard snack like a rice cracker.
And, by the way, in Japan, dogs don’t woof or arf, they waan waan, cats don’t meow they nyan nyan, sheep don’t baaaa they meeeeeh, horses don’t neigh they hi hiin, pigs don’t oink they buu buu buu, and cows don’t moooo they moooooow. And snakes? They sssssss of course. What did you expect?
Finally – heto heto: in my case, the sound of being thoroughly exhausted after researching this blog entry.
36 thoughts on “March 29, 2012: In Japan, the dogs go “waan waan”, the cats go “nyan nyan”, and the sheep go “meeeeeeeeh”!”
Pa ta pa ta made sense! 🙂
gargling and screen doors make the same sound? Who knew?
I applaud your efforts. I can barely keep up with my native tongue.
I still can’t figure out most of them, but funny enough when I watch someone speaking and they use gitaigo, it makes perfect sense. But I would never know which ones to call upon when trying to add them to anything I might say. The only 2 I do know and use are the ones for correct, or right answer (“ping pong!”) usually said while holding your arms over your head forming a circle. And of course the opposite, which is the wrong or incorrect answer, usually accompanied with making an X with the arms and saying “buuu”. But other than those, yeah, Ive been stymied for years.
Oh thank you, Joe and Akemi! Those background sounds in the manga have driven me crazy for years! And, of course, they have a name. Or two. I’m going to save your list for reference.
Ah, kanji. Actually, once you get used to them, they’re really helpful because of all the homophones in Japanese. Now you’ve got me wanting to go back and start studying Japanese again.
Earlier this week, as I was leaving work, I passed by the breakroom on my way out the door. I thought I heard someone singing in there. But as I walked by, I looked and it was an oriental girl talking on her cell phone. Your blog entry might explain the language she was speaking and what it sounded like to me. Music or singing. Very interesting…
I’ve been reading your blog for a while now, and I think it’s great that you’re picking up Japanese. Any language can be a royal pain in the arse when you first start, but it gets better over time.
These mimetics don’t seem like purely words that are sounds. The word “sounds” isn’t covering everything. It’s like they are some kind of sensory cross-over between the action and sound.
Or maybe they are associations…
ree ree ree – hovering a stabbing knife near a shower curtain
doot doot – sound of shark stalking surfers
…they don’t sound like that but have clear actions associated with them.
Thanks for teaching the word mimetics. It seems more useful than onomatopoeia.
As a polyglot (look it up), I find he onomatopoeia sounds make a lot of sense. Hmmm…perhaps I should attempt Japanese next.
I think I’ve mentioned the family-heirloom blanket on this blog. Pleased to report that I delivered it to the American Textile History Museum in Lowell, MA, last week.
Did the login steal my comment again?
@ Sparrowhawk – I’m thinking it also explains all the vocalizations in anime. I swear, sometimes if you close your eyes while watching action-packed anime it sounds like porn…or in some cases, a rough time in the bathroom after eating at Taco Bell. 😛
Chris Judge on the Mentalist tonight!
Like, for example かみ kami can mean 神 god, 紙 paper, and 髪 hair.
And then there is はやい hayai which can be 早い(hayai, early) or /速い(hayai, quick).
Also, bridge and chopsticks are both pronounced hashi はし, but you usually refer to chopsticks as the honorific o-hashi, which makes it all right and perfectly understandable. Right?
You have my sympathy (and empathy), Joe.
@das: Methinks you have an overactive imagination. 😉
Jay Acovone on Mentalist as well.
Well, I was going to thank Joe and Akemi for the language lessons.
Then, got to Das’ comment….LOL.
@ Das – Thanks Das, you made my day. It was pretty crappy til your comment.
I’m still laughing – or rofl – ro ro ro…LOL..
My friend just had her first book published! E-book and paperback! I’m so happy for her! It’s pirate-based historical nautical fiction, not your cuppa, Joe, but it’s right up my alley. Just wanted to share.
The Prodigal, by S. K. Keogh:
Okay…wow. That was weird. 😛
So. I’m seeing a pattern here… Words that repeat themselves, are usually probably Sounds..? hmm… I’m not sure this learning a new language via “Action-Comics” is such a good thing…
Somehow, KLINGON-KARAOKE sounds like it might be a *lot* EASIER to do! …just saying…
I know that through watching NHK world it does get confusing…there are programs on there to help you learn Japanese. They even have things on their website as well to help you…which is great but I can hardly speak English!… 😛
The animal sounds make some sense, at least. It’s not like the animals make consonant sounds. Also, Welsh sheep also say meeeeh instead of baaa.
Here, the sound of a painful burn less less like “hiri hiri” and more like “sonofaBI—”
Interesting that all those sound effects have names. Do any other languages do this I wonder?
After an earthquake, my shi yu doors became ga ra ga ra doors, and vice versa.
I dutifully went to college night courses to learn Japanese when in Japan, but as an on call tech who was called often, I ended up dropping them time and again. Eventually the command would’t sign off on tuition assistance anymore. Which is how I learned bar Japanese, shopping Japanese, and talking to little kids and grannies Japanese. I could read signs. It sufficed. All my adult and school age neighbors insisted on English, even my houseowner who knew about a dozen phrases.
“ji ri ji ri: the sound of the sun’s rays beating down on you on a hot summer’s day.”
What sound does that make? Does that go with:- “hiri hiri: the sound made by a painful burn.” ? If they make a sound, they certainly go together where I’m concerned. I think the sound must be OUCH! 🙂
I occurs to me that we do this in English, but it’s not as structured as Japanese.
Da dont da dont – the Jaws music when the shark was attacking.
Da Da Da dont – the notes from Beethoven showing the other shoe is about to drop.
A wolf whistle in the presence of an attractive person.
The whistle bomb drop showing something bad is about to happen.
When I lived in the west country of England, I had a Cockney who worked with who would employ Cockney Rhyming Slang…”Wanna have a Butcher’s?” and “We’re in Barney.” Among others… I had a list I kept in my desk to keep track. Just recounting this to show it’s not so easy learning or even natively speaking English sometimes either 😉
Daunting. Absolutely daunting. Good luck, Joe!
Wow. Cool, das! And how did you do that amazing link?
Funny, was just commenting to a friend in China about it being impossible to really comprehend a culture without learning the language. So much of what is important, nuances to their thinking, comes through their words and meanings.
So, if I told a Japanese person I want to be a Nyan Nyan cat for Halloween, he would understand why I need the cat suit, but may be confused by the giant pop tart and gay pride cape.
You need audio examples of your these sounds.
Guys, please check out the link above and give if you can – this little guy deserves a chance! I know for a fact that this is not a scam, so please, every little bit helps!
I miss Stargate.
I’m in Bremen, finally. Totally exhausted, totally happy, kinda anxious and really looking forward to Monday when my internship starts.
Btw, hated hiragane and katakana likewise. They are unbelievable hard for foreigners, because there are so many and have to relation to the sounds or between the h- row or the s-row or any others. I forgot about them pretty quick as well 😉
Patrick’s secret language: “Eh” is Help! Or what my husband and I like to call, “SERVICE ME!!!!” If you don’t respond within 1/10 of a millisecond to the first “eh”, they grow in subsequent loudness and urgency. Even when you are in another room and respond, “Just a minute.” Or scream JUST!!! A!!!!! MINUTE!!!!!! that only delays him for 2.3 seconds when it starts again. It is my least favorite sound in the world. We need to break him of this habit.
Joe, I asked my daughter (who is learning Japanese) for some pointers for you. She suggested writing the Japanese names for things (in hiragana) on post-it notes and pasting them on the items around the house. We have post-it notes all around the house currently… on the window, door, light switch, mirror, table, dresser, etc.
Hope this helps!
All I know is ‘chu’ is the sound a rat (mouse?) makes.
So much fun!! http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cross-linguistic_onomatopoeias