What’s that sound?
When you study a new language, you always learn the proper way of communicating. But when you learned your mother tongue, you learned to express yourself, in good ways and bad!
Each language has a special way of expressing specific ideas and feelings: that particular way of explaining that exact idea that you want to get across. Japanese is no exception. In Japanese, there are two systems of words that are used to convey very specific ideas. One uses sounds for explanation (close to our onomatopoeia.) The other one describes characteristics.
擬音語 Giongo. [Gee Own Go] (gee with a hard g as in ‘guy’)
Giongo is the onomatopoeia for Japanese. Even though words like ‘slam’ in English are usual words, there isn’t much need to use them. In Japanese, however, they are necessary for regular communication.
Giongo is used in two ways. The most common way (at least that I hear) is the word is said twice to use it as an adjective.
For example, こりこり (ko ri ko ri) means crunchy. The word こり means ‘stiff.’ It’s said twice to explain that something is crunchy. So, if you want to explain that food is crunchy you simply have to say, “こりこり！”
These words mimic sounds. Some may be easy to understand while some may be difficult. Here are more examples.
こりこり(ko ri ko ri) – crunchy
ぱりぱり(paw ri paw ri) – crispy
The softer sound of the ‘p’ changes the texture to a softer one.
The second way is as an adverb. The Giongo is used with the grammar particle と (tow), which is used for quotations, then a subject and verb.
(Approximate pronunciation) Zaw Zaw tow ah may ga furu
This means: The rain is pouring down.
The Zaw Zaw is the sound of the pouring rain.
擬態語 Gitaigo. [gee tie go] (gee with a hard g as in ‘guy’)
Gitaigo was the one that took me by surprise. I had already discovered Giongo, despite the fact that no textbook ever teaches it. A woman was talking to me about this dish she made with asparagus and cheese rolled up in a thin piece of meat then sautéed. She seemed to quite like the cheese as she described it as とろっとした (tow row tow she taw). I thought, “What!? Melting cheese makes a sound?” I mistakenly thought it was onomatopoeia.
The word とろう (tow row) describes a specific manner. In English we have a large variety of words that would be used in various situations where the Japanese would use just the one. As for the cheese, I think “oozing” is the closest we can come. Doesn’t quite sound as appetizing, as ooze can also be used to describe things like blood.
Here are some more examples of gitaigo.
うきうき oo key oo key
Meaning: to be lighthearted or be on cloud nine
うろうろ oo row oo row
Meaning: to wander aimlessly
After these expressions is する soo rue (to do). うきうきする, うろうろする