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.