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Japanese sound symbolism

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Title: Japanese sound symbolism  
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Japanese sound symbolism

An example of Japanese sound symbolism jaan!

Japanese has a large inventory of sound symbolic or mimetic words, known in linguistics as ideophones.[1][2] Sound symbolic words are found in written as well as spoken Japanese.[3] Known popularly as onomatopoeia, these words are not just imitative of sounds but cover a much wider range of meanings;[1] indeed, many sound-symbolic words in Japanese are for things that don't make any noise originally, most clearly demonstrated by しいんと shiinto, meaning "silently".


The sound-symbolic words of Japanese can be classified into four main categories:[4][5]

  • Animate phonomime (擬声語 giseigo)
words that mimic sounds made by living things, like a dog's bark.
  • Inanimate phonomime (擬音語 giongo)
words that mimic sounds made by inanimate objects, like wind blowing or rain falling.
  • Phenomime (擬態語 gitaigo)
words that depict states, conditions, or manners of the external world (non-auditory senses), such as "damp" or "stealthily".
  • Psychomime (擬情語 gijōgo)
words that depict psychological states or bodily feelings.

These divisions are not always drawn: sound-symbolism may be referred to generally as onomatopoeia (though strictly this refers to imitative sounds, phonomimes); phonomimes may not be distinguished as animate/inanimate, both being referred to as giseigo; and both phenomimes and psychomimes may be referred to as gitaigo.

In Japanese grammar, sound symbolic words primarily function as adverbs, though they can also function as verbs (verbal adverbs) with the auxiliary verb する (suru, "do"), often in the continuous/progressive form している (shiteiru, "doing"), and as adjectives (participle) with the perfective form of this verb した (shita, "done"). Just like ideophones in many other languages, they are often introduced by a quotative complementizer と (to).[6] Most sound symbolic words can be applied to only a handful of verbs or adjectives. In the examples below, the classified verb or adjective is placed in square brackets.

Some examples
Sound Symbolism Meaning
jirojiro (to) [miru]
[see] intently (= stare)
kirakira (to) [hikaru]
[shine] sparklingly
giragira (to) [hikaru]
[shine] dazzlingly
doki doki [suru]
with a throbbing heart
guzu guzu [suru]
procrastinating or dawdling
(suru not optional)
shiin to [suru]
[be (lit. do)] quiet
(suru not optional)
pinpin [shite iru]
[be (lit. do)] lively
(shite iru not optional)
yoboyobo ni [naru]
[become] wobbly-legged (from age)

Other types

In their Dictionary of Basic Japanese Grammar, Seiichi Makino and Michio Tsutsui point out several other types of sound symbolism in Japanese, that relate phonemes and psychological states. For example, the nasal sound [n] gives a more personal and speaker-oriented impression than the velars [k] and [ɡ]; this contrast can be easily noticed in pairs of synonyms such as ので node and から kara which both mean because, but with the first being perceived as more subjective. This relationship can be correlated with phenomimes containing nasal and velar sounds: While phenomimes containing nasals give the feeling of tactuality and warmth, those containing velars tend to represent hardness, sharpness, and suddenness.

Similarly, i-type adjectives that contain the fricative in the group shi tend to represent human emotive states, such as in the words 悲しい kanashii (sad), 寂しい sabishii (lonely), 嬉しい ureshii (happy), and 楽しい tanoshii (enjoyable). This too

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