Pikapika Dorodoro Barabara Buriburi Punpun Wanwan…

擬音語 are the Japanese version of Western onomatopeia. They are often used in comics, to add intensity to a scene, describe a noise or even a texture (though technically these would be 擬態語, and not onomatopoeia). But they have a much wider use, often replacing bona fide words or full sentences, in everyday conversations. They nearly all follow the same specific pattern: a group of two syllables repeated twice (pika-pika, pera-pera etc)… which makes them very easy to spot and remember… Using them in your daily conversation will simultaneously propel you to the ranks of l33t native speakers, and make you sound like one of these 13 year-old Japanese schoolgirl with 5 pounds of plushies dangling from her keitai.

I have compiled below a short list of all those I could remember, off the top of my head, along with a few friends’ contributions. I have made arbitrary use of katakana and hiragana, more or less dictated by what I’ve seen more often in writing. Rule of thumb is that most of these can be found in either form, depending on the mood of the author and the type of material it is used with. Mouse-over the kanas to get the romaji pronunciation….

The ubiquitous (all the time, provided you ever watch TV or speak to a Japanese teenager):

  • ピカピカ glittering!
  • ソラソラ sparkling!
  • ギリギリ quick (chop chop!)
  • ぺらぺら fluent (in a language)
  • ぺこぺこ starving
  • モシモシ [when answering the phone]


The commmon

  • ドロドロ messy/dirty (a room, a floor) or muddled (a relationship)
  • チャキチャキ efficient
  • ツルツル smooth, slippery
  • プンプン intense smell or furious anger
  • ポツポツ bit by bit
  • ベタベタ clingy (overeager lovers) or sticky (sweaty gaijin pig)
  • じめじめ humid, damp
  • ゆらゆら flickering

The uncommon (friends use them, dunno how universal they are):

  • バラバラ scattered, all over the place
  • エロエロ [will let you guess that one…]

The rare (those you likely won’t find in a dictionary, as they are total slang):

  • ブリブリ high
  • パキパキ fucked-up (much stronger than the slightly ‘cute’ ブリブリ)

The manga-style (those that sound like a comic strip description all by themselves):

  • キョロキョロ looking around restlessly
  • イライラ getting nervous (also as kanji: 苛々)
  • うろうろ walking aimlessly
  • カチカチ scared motionless

The real deal (actual onomatopeia, such as used in comics):

  • ワンワン bow-wow (dog)
  • ザアザア water sound (rain, river etc), white noise
  • ケラケラ cackle (hen)… [not quite certain]

The fake (not really 擬音語, but still close):

  • 色々 miscellaneous
  • 時々 sometimes
  • 中々 quite, considerably

Now your turn: send me your favorite 擬音語!

10 comments

  1. I hear bara-bara at work all the time in reference to part shipments that go out in split lots (with very negative connotations, of course).

    How about some Kansai-ben? bochi-bochi seems pretty common. Also, the other day I learned hona-hona, which apparently is something people say when they part (with variations like like hona-sainara, too).

    Great list, dr Dave, thanks for putting it together.

  2. I recall hearing “bara-bara” in the context of restaurants–I recently went to Japan with a large group (13 people), and we had a nasty habit of all dining together at the same place. The staff would often ask if it would be okay if we were seated “bara-bara”, i.e. at different tables instead of all in one place.

  3. Helen: yea, I like ドキドキ (can be used for example to say that one has special feelings for somebody), I have fond remembrances of the lengthy explanation I was given the first time I heard it…

    MacTuitui: wow, indeed, those are for serious aficionados… I’m wondering, though, if one couldn’t draw a separation between the ones used in everyday language and sometimes documented in dictionaries (that sounds like an onomatopeia, but aren’t really one) and the ones that seem to be only used to describe a sound (pure onomatopeia), especially in mangas and the likes. The list of the latter is nearly endless, since anybody could virtually create their own to reflect a sound.

    I particularly remember happening upon a list of the most popular sounds for automatic weapons in mangas: some of these were quite hilarious (I think machine guns were something like “BU-DUM-BU-DUM”)…

    Jeff, Lothe:
    Indeed, bara-bara has many different meanings and uses (interestingly, my dict gives a slightly different definition for the katakana and hiragana spellings). When used to refer to objects (as in “all over the place”), or placement of people, I think it is common language. The way I’ve been hearing it with friends, though, is usually as “scattered”, but inside one’s head… As in “She’s a bit bara-bara sometimes…”
    Of course, it isn’t much of a sliding, since we do it in English too… But I gather this isn’t something you’d say in a formal conversation, and some people might even fail to catch what you mean if you use it that way…

    Anyway, thanks all for your contributions, keep’em coming! 🙂

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