Saturday, 11 February 2012
Sugoi Pera-Pera! The Joys of Japanese Onomatopoeia
One of my New Year's resolutions this year was to get back to studying Japanese, and after four classes I'm fully engrossed once again. There are a great many things I miss about life in Japan - from train station ramen to space-age toilets - but probably the single thing I miss the most is the Japanese language itself. I've spent a great many hours of my life studying Japanese and after three-plus years of separation from the language, I decided it was time to reimmerse myself in it.
Nihongo might just be the most fun language in the world to study. It's not the impossibly difficult language that many make it out to be, although it certainly has some fiendishly complex aspects to it. Pronunciation-wise, it is probably one of the world's easiest languages, and while much is made of the difficulty of learning kanji (the Chinese characters that comprise the bulk of its written form), I personally have always found kanji to be a labour of love - and one that definitely gets easier the further along you get. Grammar-wise, it's no tougher than any other language, and while the system of honourifics gets pretty complicated, it's all very learnable.
While Japanese may not be as uniquely difficult as many people (particularly Japanese people) will tell you it is, the Yamato tongue might just be the world's quirkiest language. It is the only language in the world that has a separate writing system for foreign loan words (katakana) or separate counting systems depending on the size, shape or attributes of the objects being counted. As I noted in my January post on portmanteaus, Japanese wordplay and punnery is a true art form, although any true stinker of a pun will elicit cries of Samui! ("Cold!"), which is the Japanese equivalent of booing and hissing at a terrible joke. Sometimes people won't even say it and just mime shivering from cold.
My absolute favourite attribute of the Japanese language, however, is its vast treasure trove of onomatopoetic expressions. All languages have onomatopoeia, but the Japanese live and breathe the stuff. Pick up any Japanese manga (comic book) and you'll see onomatopoetic expressions for everything from the earth shaking to rustling leaves which completely defy translation. (English translations of manga generally leave these in the original Japanese.) But Japanese onomatopoeia doesn't stop at actual descriptions of sound but also encompasses feelings like, joy, anxiety, anger and fear - and approximates what these might sound like if they had a sound.
A full list of Japanese onomatopoeic expressions would run into the hundreds. Here are 20 of my favourites that you can use for your next onomatopoeia trivia game.
1) Doko-Doko (ドコドコ) - Heart pounding from excitement.
2) Hara-Hara (ハラハラ) - Also refers to heart palpitations, but from anxiety rather than excitement.
3) Pera-Pera (ペラペラ) - To speak fast and fluently; used as a synonym for fluency in a language.
4) Pika-Pika (ピカピカ) - Sparkly, shiny, new-looking, as in a well-polished pair of shoes.
5) Zaa-Zaa (ザーザー) - The sound of pouring rain.
6) Goro-Goro (ゴロゴロ) - Laziness, loafing around. (Can also be used to describe the sound of a thunder storm.)
7) Bisho-Bisho (ビショビショ) - When something is sopping wet.
8) Giri-Giri (ギリギリ) - Just barely making it, squeaking through something.
9) Peko-Peko (ペコペコ) - Empty stomach, hunger pangs.
10) Bara-Bara (バラバラ) - Scattered, dispersed.
11) Chika-Chika (チカチカ) - Flickering light.
12) Gan-Gan (ガンガン) - Pounding sensation (e.g. pounding headache).
13) Hiri-Hiri (ヒリヒリ) - Burning sensation.
14) Uki-Uki (ウキウキ) - Over-the-top joy, happiness.
15) Waku-Waku (ワクワク) - Thrilled, excited.
16) Pocha-Pocha (ポチャポチャ) - Splashing in water.
17) Niko-Niko (ニコニコ) - Smiling, happy expression. (Can also mean smirking or leering, depending on the context.)
18) Puka-Puka (プカプカ) - Floating and bobbing in water or in space.
19) Choki-Choki (チョキチョキ) - Snipping, cutting.
20) Goso-Goso (ゴソゴソ) - To rummage through, dig for something.
For more, check out the Yomiuri Shimbun's "Pera-Pera Penguin" guide to onomatopoeic expressions.