Japanese has around 1,200 onomatopoeia divided into 3 families (Kadooka, 2009.; Inose,n.d. ). That’s around 3x more than English has. Onomatopoeia are words used to represent calls of animals, sounds of nature, sounds of people, and other sounds (Alilyeh & Zeinolabedin, 2014). Luckily, manga doesn’t use all of these sound words. However, it’s common for manga to leave these sound words untranslated. First, it’s expensive to edit the sound effects and replace them with English. English words can mess up the flow and impact of the story. Next, English lacks most of the sound effects found in Japanese. So manga readers have to learn these words. This actually means manga readers have an edge over traditional book-readers.
Manga is called a multimodel text. This simply means it takes many different skills to read. Manga readers have to understand some aspects of Japanese culture to get the references. You have know how to read the overlapping images and text. Not to mention good manga is read right to left. Now add in Japanese sound words and words English lacks like shonen, shojo, and maiko. Manga encourages a variety of skills, from image interpretation to the Japanese language, that reading traditional prose cannot do. Manga readers have better developed multidimensional thinking than traditional readers because of the complex cinematic language of the medium. Manga readers are comfortable with seeing different languages and looking up the meanings of words. They are more aware than the general reader about cultural differences between countries.
Understanding Japanese Sound Words
With all that in mind, let’s look at how Japanese onomatopoeia work. There are 3 families and 5 classes. Families group words together by what sounds they mimic. Classes group words by their structure, how the words themselves look and sound. English sound words have the same families and classes. Let’s look at the families before we get into the more technical classes (Inose, n.d.):
Giseigo: These words mimic voices of people and animals.
- ワンワン wanwan (bow-wow);
- キャア kyaa (aaaah).
Giongo: Words that imitate sounds.
- ザアザア zaazaa (the sound of rain, English lacks a true equivalent)
- バキッ baki (crack)
Gitaigo: words that represent something visual or a feeling.
- ニヤニアヤ niyaniaya (smiling ironically)
We will look more into gitaigo later. These are not true sound words but they appear in both anime and manga. I will use katakana for sound words, but you may also see them in hiragana and kanji. Onomatopoeia are mostly written in katakana. Katakana is used to write loanwords like television, テレビ (terebi) and to make words stand out.
Okay, so let’s go into the classes. There are 5 classes that categorizes word structure (Kadooka, 2009).
Bare stem – this is the root of the word. Think of the word study. Stud is the stem. Study becomes studied in the past tense. Studying is the present perfect tense. A word stem is the basic version of the verb.
hanasu (to speak) => hana (bare stem) => hanashimasu (speak, present tense)
Japanese sound words in this class use the stem like hana
Altered Reduplication – repeats the first word with a slight change. Think bow-wow. ガサゴソ gasa-goso (a rattling sound).
Doubled Base – repeats the base sound of the word. Think rattattat.
Reduplication – repeats the sound. Think pop-pop. コロコロ korokoro (something rolling) This is the most common class of sound words.
Miscellaneous – catches all the other words that don’t fall into the previous groups.
So why do you need to know this? It can help you determine which words are sound words and which are not while you read. Sound words can have degrees and knowing the class helps you determine if the words are related:
ハタハタ hatahata – the sound of something fluttering in the wind
パタパタ patapata – the wind is stronger than in hatahata
バタバタ batabata – the wind is stronger than in patapata.
They words retain the same Reduplication and Doubled Base (ata). This is pretty technical. But knowing these classes can help you know, at a glance, if the word is an onomatopoeia.
Words Representing a Sight or Feeling
Gitaigo aren’t unique to Japanese. We have them in English too: smirk, wink, grin. Gitaigo clarify or emphasize expressions or feelings a character has. One of the most common is じーっ, jii. This means “stare” and is often used with a character, well, staring at another or the reader. Gitaigo become a part of anime’s visual language. They are not meant to be read as much as seen. Mimetic expressions, as these are called, are common in Japanese language. These expressions sometimes appear in anime.
Words that translate to headache and other internal feelings make it clear what a character is experiencing. Manga isn’t able to describe internal feelings like prose can. In a novel, you often sit inside a character and watch events through their eyes. In manga, you are an outside observer. Gitaigo allows authors to clue readers in on internal feelings. They work the same way as writing “Timothy rubbed his throbbing head.” We can see the character rub their forehead, but we may not know it is because of a headache instead of an itch without gitaigo.
Japanese Sound Words Guide
This chart is by no means complete, but it should help you learn some of the more common onomatopoeia found in manga. The chart uses katakana and hiragana. I then provide the transliteration in English and its rough translation.
Gitaigo are in bold. The table is sorted by katakana/hiragana to help you find the phrase by its first letter. This guide doesn’t contain every sound effect.
Aliyeh, K. & Zeinolabedin, R. (2014). A Comparison between Onomatopoeia and Sound Symbolism in Persian and English and Their Application in the Discourse of Advertisements.International Journal of Basic Sciences & Applied Research. Vol., 3 (SP), 219-225.
Inose, Hiroko (n.d.) Translating Japanese onomatopoeia and mimetic words https://www.academia.edu/8327377/Translating_Japanese_onomatopoeia_and_mimetic_words
Kadooka, K. (2009). Onomatopoeia Markers in Japanese. Lacus Forum 28. 267-275.
Schwartz, A., & Rubinstein-Avila, E. (2006). Understanding the Manga Hype: Uncovering the Multimodality of Comic-book Literacies. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy 50 (1) 40-49.