Since I became a dad and we raised our kids to be bi-lingual in Japanese and English, I’ve come to incidentally learn a lot of “baby” Japanese words, but also a lot of sound-effect words too. Compared to English, Japanese has a large vocabulary of descriptive words for sounds, movement, moods and such. These are called giongo (擬音語) “sound effect words” and gitaigo (擬態語) “situational words” in Japanese. It’s very common in daily conversation to use them when telling a story to a friend, or complaining about something, or in literature, though not so much in polite, formal conversation. Nevertheless, they’re very handy for conversational Japanese.
One challenge for learning such words most of these words have no direct equivalent in English and they’re often really situational. Instead, when learning such words, the English translation in dictionaries will be a verb or adverb.
Here’s an example list of words I’ve compiled, and their English meaning. If you’re learning Japanese, it is a good investment of time to learn them. Some of these words are mainly used by young children, but many are not:
- niko niko – To grin, smile.
- niya niya – Smiling evilly.
- heta heta – To wither, wilt (vegetables).
- poki-! – To snap (twig, pencil, etc).
- hoka hoka – To be warm (drink, sweater, blanket, etc).
- hai hai – Kids word for crawling on the floor.
- pyun pyun – Kids word for moving fast.
- kon kon – To pile up (snow flakes).
- zara zara – Rough, gritty (sandpaper, dry skin).
- pasa pasa – Dried out.
- suka suka – Smooth surface.
- kuta kuta – Exhausted, physically.
- doki doki – To be startled, heart fluttering.
- hira hira – Sound of a leaf falling, fluttering.
- waku waku – The feeling of being excited about something.
- kune kune – Winding, meandering (e.g. a road).
- suta suta – Walking briskly.
- soro soro – Momentarily, imminently.
- somo somo – In the first place, to begin with.
- dossan – To land on the ground with a thud.
- gokkun – To swallow (food, drink, etc).
The big thing to remember about speaking Japanese is that less is more. Japanese language tends to omit previously understood parts of speech, unlike English where we like to make more precise descriptions using more words.1 In Japanese, it’s often ok to be succinct and vague.
For example, if you see a leaf falling, you might describe it like:
hanabira ga hirahira shiteiru (a blossom is fluttering down)
But in Japanese, you could even drop the verb:
hanabira ga hirahira
Or drop the subject (assuming the listener already knows) and say:
Hirahira in this context is a loaded word in Japanese, so to a native speaker it will evoke a mental image and say plenty. That’s why it’s not always easy to translate into English. Speaking from experience, this is far from an exhaustive list, and over time you just pick up more such words. That’s why exposure to Japanese media and conversation is super helpful. You’ll find such little gems from time to time. 🙂
1 Inexperienced Japanese speakers, as a result, often sound too wordy. Time, practice and experience help address this by teaching more efficient, native ways to express the same thing. 🙂