In Japan, one can buy dictionaries of onomatopoeic words, the largest compendium of which lists more than 4500 entries. Onomatopoeia is stenciled into manga to create the visual equivalent of sound effects. Bashou’s most famous haiku leaves it up to readers to hear in their own heads the sound water makes when a frog jumps into an ancient pond: 古池や蛙飛こむ水のおと (Furuike ya kawazu tobikomu mizu no oto) (30 English translations of this poem can be found here).
The scope is not limited to sounds that people and animals make. One might be able to find equivalents in one’s own language (at least in countries where such animals can be found) for wan wan (dogs), nyaa nyaa (cats), kaa kaa (crows), buu buu (pigs), jii jii (cicadas), poppo (pigeons), koro koro (crickets), meh meh (goats), hin hin (horses), mou mou (cows), kokkekokkou (chickens), kerokerokero (frogs), piyo piyo (chicks), chuu chuu (mice), buun bun bun (bees), hoh hoh hoh (owls), and kyakkya (monkeys). A purring cat makes a goro goro sound, but a dog yelps kyan kyan when it is hurt, and a fox cries kon kon. A hawk? Pii hyororo.
A sumo wrestler treading heavily does doshi doshi, nosshi nosshi. When he tumbles and falls, he suten suten. When he rolls, gorori. When he pulls with all his strength, gui gui. When he slams onto another wrestler, dokan. When he falls, dosatto. When he slaps, bashitto. A thud is don, a bang is gatsun (but when heads bang, it’s gon).
There are plenty of words to capture the sound and feel of the weather. When it rains, one gets gusho gusho and gusshori as well as bisha bisha and bisshori. For pouring rain, one can choose from among these sounds: zaa zaa, zaatto zatto, bisho bisho, dosha dosha, bara bara (which also applies to hail). A drizzle sounds like this: shito shito and shobo shobo. A small amount of splashing is bicha bicha. When it’s pleasantly moist, it’s shittori; when it’s sweaty, it’s jittori; and when it’s clammy-sticky, it’s jito jito.
Then there is a class of words that doesn’t so much imitate sound as mimic action or feeling. A throbbing headache is gan gan, a hacking cough is gohon gohon. A sudden injury is gikutto, a dull pain is shiku shiku, a sharp, continuous pain is kiri kiri, continual throbbing pain is zukin zukin, and prickling pain is piri piri.
Rage has many “k” words: katto, kakka, kan kan, kochin, musha kusha. And complaint takes the form of “g” words like gata gata, guzu guzu, gota gota, and gocha gocha. Depression: kusa kusa, shio shio, kusha kusha, shonbori, sugo sugo. Sound sleep is guusuka and gussuri. Nodding off is kokkuri kokkuri. Light sleep is torotto. Peaceful sleep is suya suya. No sleep at all is manjiri.
When one enters a state of dreaminess: uttori. When one is thinking carefully: jikkuri. When something closely resembles another: sokkuri. When one is fluent (or else talks too much): pera pera. When one is solitary: potsun.
For personality, there is easygoing (assari, sarari), indecisive (uji uji), insensitive (gasa gasa), cheerful (karari), stubborn (kachi kachi, kochi kochi), jittery (kyoto kyoto), standoffish (tsun tsuun), frivolous (fuwa fuwa), impudent (nuke nuke, shaa shaa), and fidgety (moji moji).
There is a rich vocabulary for cooking, eating and drinking. The sound boiling or simmering liquid makes is gutsu gutsu, kura kura or gura gura, koto koto or goto goto, and buku buku when it bubbles. Gulping, guzzling, and gurgling have their eloquent counterparts in gabu gabu, gabo gabo, kyutto, kukuu, gutto, gubiri gubiri, goku goku, and kokun. Sizzling sounds include jaa jaa, juu juu, jiri jiri.
The popular dish shabu-shabu apparently takes its name from the onomatopoeia for the stirring movement one makes when dipping meat with chopsticks into hot water. Chopping is butsu butsu, slicing through vegetables like carrots and lettuce saku saku, and sprinkling dry herbs para para.
And for how things taste or feel in the mouth, there is hoku hoku (warm and fluffy, as in a hot potato), sappari (light and refreshing, as in fruit with lemon juice), assari (light and delicate, as in fugu sashimi), shaku shaku and shakitto (crunchy and fresh, like a mizuna salad), kari kari and paritto (crispy, like good tonkatsu), torotto (melts in one’s mouth, like takoyaki), shiko shiko (pleasantly firm, as with noodles), shari shari (tangy, in the case of sherbet), and hiri hiri (spicy, when talking about Thai curry).
Note: This essay was originally published in “Letters to Narcissus”