Chit-Chat Among Japanese Farm Animals
Professor John Whitman
Onomatopoeia is "the naming of a thing or action by a vocal
imitation of the sound associated with it" or "the use of words whose sound suggests the sense" (yourDictionary.com Quick Lookup). This is a commonplace of human languages, in
particular as it relates to the cries of animals. Examples in English include "buzz," "thud," "zip," and words referring to the noises made by domestic animals: "bow-wow," "miao,"
"moo," and so forth.
A Japanese farmer upon rising early in the morning might expect to be greeted by the sounds in the table below. See if you can associate the basic barnyard animals with the
Japanese sounds they make by typing in the name of the animal (in English) beside the sound. You may check you answer by pressing the question mark. (Japanese vowel sounds are
very similar to those of Spanish. Double vowels indicate no change in the vowel sound, but rather how long the vowel is held when it is pronounced).
Click here to see how good you are at figuring out Japanese Farm Animal Sounds.
Were you able to associate the animals with their cries? This table illustrates an unexpected fact of onomatopoeia. Although each language imitates sounds occuring in nature which
are presumably the same everywhere in the world, each language interprets these sounds in accord with its own sound system and culture.
In addition to those onomatopoeia which imitate the sounds of nature, called gisei-go in Japanese, Japanese recognizes two additional types of onomatopoeia: one that
basically suggests states of the external world (gitai-go), and another that basically names internal mental conditions and sensations (gijoo-go). There is some
overlap between the two.
For example, while the word "bashi-bashi" suggests the natural sound of smacking some one across the head, "ton-ton" suggests someone's knocking on a door, and "guu-guu" depicts
someone in a deep sleep accompanied by snoring. Gitai-go terms such as "gocha-gocha", a state of disorder common to apartments, and "pika-pika", which depicts a shiny
object but also describes a "spic and span" place of residence, seem to be completely opaque to non-Japanese (although pika-pika is probably related to the verb hikaru "to shine".
The fact that whole dictionaries consisting of so-called Japanese onomatopoeia, gisei-go, gitai-go, and gijoo-go, exist testifies to the fact that many of
these expressions are equally opaque and require interpretation to the Japanese themselves.
Additionally, if the distinction between the external gitai-go and internal gijoo-go onomatopoeia isn't clear, there is good reason for this. While some of these
forms are clearly descriptive of internal states, e.g., ira-ira "frustrated" (the Japanese press labeled the seemingly unending war between Iran and Iraq the "Ira-Ira War"), there
are many which can be used to describe both external or internal states, for example, "gocha-gocha", which can quite accurately describe either the cluttered state of my office or
that of my mind.