I watch the snow start: fat flakes at first, growing smaller after the first ten minutes. It’s mesmerizing, and I could sit and watch all day if I only had warmer pants. I envy the deer hunters in their tree stands. It’s like a silent movie: so much in motion without a sound! I wonder how falling snow might be represented in Japanese, which has a lot of onomatopoeia for things that make no sound. As Cornell linguist John Whitman observes:
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. […]
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.
Sticklers who prefer a narrower definition of onomatopoeia refer to phenomime and psychomime — see the Wikipedia. Whatever you call it, the profusion of gisei-go, gitai-go and gijoo-go “sounds” constitutes one of the main attractions of Japanese comic books, I think, which for some reason always use katakana for them. The katakana script is also preferred for foreign loan-words, technical or scientific terms, and corporate brands: in general, anything a little out of the ordinary. But in fact onomatopoeia occurs with great frequency in spoken Japanese, perhaps because the language serves a more subjective worldview than, say, English. Here are a few examples I ran across on the web just now as I searched for the sound of falling snow. (Vowels are pronounced as in Spanish.)
Kasa-kasa: A rustle, as of grass or paper — maybe even sleet, I’m thinking.
Zaa-zaa: Another way of representing a rustle. Can also be used for static and other forms of white noise. A shorter version, za-za, denotes rapid footfalls on leaves or grass. Related but softer sounds are represented by saa-saa.
Hyuu-hyuu: The lonely sound of a cold wind. (Ordinary wind goes hooo or byuu.)
Shito-shito: The sound of falling rain.
Tsuu-tsuu: Another rain-sound. Also, the hum of insects.
Fuwa-fuwa: A gentle movement. Even gentler: fuwari-fuwari or funwara-funwara.
Noro-noro: A sound effect for anything happening slowly.
Paa: The sound of light shining. This can also be represented as po, bo, or kaa.
Uttsuri: The sound the heart/mind (kokoro) makes when overwhelmed by beauty.
Gunya: A sudden realization or minor satori — essentially, the sound of one hand clapping.
Shiiin, jiiin, or riiin: The sound of motionless staring. Implies being stunned beyond words.
Shin-shin: Snow as it slowly, steadily piles up.
Sources: J-Slang: Japanese Onomatopoeia; Japanese sound effects and what they mean; A list of Japanese onomatopeia; Arare vs. Hyou [message board discussion].