The sound of snow

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.
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Sources: J-Slang: Japanese Onomatopoeia; Japanese sound effects and what they mean; A list of Japanese onomatopeia; Arare vs. Hyou [message board discussion].

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Dave Bonta (bio) crowd-sources his problems by following his gut, which he shares with 100 trillion of his closest microbial friends — a close-knit, symbiotic community comprising several thousand species of bacteria, fungi, and protozoa. In a similarly collaborative fashion, all of Dave's writing is available for reuse and creative remix under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. For attribution in printed material, his name (Dave Bonta) will suffice, but for web use, please link back to the original. Contact him for permission to waive the "share alike" provision (e.g. for use in a conventionally copyrighted work).

14 Comments


  1. “Utturi. The sound the heart/mind (kokoro) makes when overwhelmed by beauty.”

    This is it! This is what I felt in the snow the other day.

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  2. mm-ahhh – the feeling one gets when the wind gusts but the legs remain warm as toast due to the muffling effect of long underwear

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  3. Enjoyed the blog (and the Wikipedia article was fascinating) but what it lacked were English examples. I found a couple: “zip to the storeâ€? (hurry to the store), as an example of a phenomime and, “so and so has a bubbly personality,â€? an example of a psychomime, both in the article Pragmatic Function of Japanese Mimesis in Emotive Discourse which I’ll need to a little more awake than I am just now to try and digest.

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  4. Thanks for posting this, Dave. It’s quite interesting and I would never have thought to look for anything like this. Now, how to fit it into poems?

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  5. I know one or two people who like to explain a feeling or a concept with made-up words that sound like onomatopoeia, now that you mention it. (Not that you mentioned anything like it.) I guess I could figure out if these words were really something like onomatopoeia if I could hear what they hear in their head when they experience the thought.

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  6. Korean has the same distinction between external/internal onomatopoeia:

    “monnnnng” (really just “mong” but drawn out to make the point), like “shiiin” or “jiiin”–being stunned beyond words.

    “bbusool-bbusool,” a kind of soft rain that’s more than a fog and less than the kind of rain that falls in steady plops, which goes “chulok-chulok”

    gashil-gashil: slightly scratchy

    whing: dizzy (an emotional or physical state) or whirling, as in wings or paper

    ssul-ssul/ssal-ssal: gently, and gentler.

    bbeonjeok: to leap up suddenly

    gapjak: sudden

    mae-mae: the crying of the cicadas, who are also simply called “mae-mae” after their cry.

    kkeul-kkeul: the same as “zzzz” for “sleeping” in English

    Lovely examples from the Japanese, too!

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  7. I sometimes wondered if a preference for text is associated with synesthesia of an auditory variety, an auditory sensation for a visual stimulus, like your sound of snow.

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  8. Thanks for these varied and interesting responses.

    mostly quiet – I do wear extra-thick long johns, but not the super-insulating kind (I’m a cheapskate where slothes are concerned).

    Jim – It makes sense that English would have a few of these. I think the psychological experience that produces them is universal, though we tend to think of such merging of the subjective and objective as a bad thing — the pathetic fallacy and all that.

    tom – Yeah. And if I’d been feeling more creative, I would’ve used them in the post, relegating the defintions to footnotes.

    Peter – Yes, I think you’re getting into the mindset necessary to speak Japanese at all: the communication of abstract realities is never anywhere near as important as establishing an empathetic bond with another person.

    Soen Joon – Hey, thanks for stopping by! Very interesting to learn that Korean does the same thing. Your two kinds of rain remind me of an idom I learned in Chinese class years ago: mau mau yu. Yu is rain, and mau is very fine hair, so the term is used to describe the finest drizzle. It’s not onomatopoeia, though, I don’t think. I believe Chinese has roughly the same proportion of that as English.

    John – You raise a very good question.

    Natalie – :)

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  9. There is a mountain in Japan,
    I have virtually visited: Amabiki,
    wringing rain from the spongy sky.
    “Pulling rain”, a friend said later,
    is the meaning of Amabiki; standing
    at the sink listening to pre-dawn rain,
    I had to wonder what the rain wanted,
    and what it was taking.

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  10. Hey Dave, a good way to reach the end of a long, heavy day (dossaa dossaa! sound of huge, heavy footsteps, like those of a work horse). Outside today a cold rain patters against the office window (pata pata), while my fingers are tingling from having been out in the cold and now sit in a heated room (piri piri), but my cheeks are still soft like a baby’s bottom (puyo puyo). Too many hours staring at the computer my eyes feel like prunes (chika chika, also the feeling of itching, dry skin) and since the store is closed downstairs I’m thirsty (kara kara). I have to head home soon on my bicycle but I’m pretty exhausted (hero hero) so I’m not sure if I’ll be able to ride in a straight line (yura yura). It’s raining pretty hard so I’ll most likely be splashing through puddles along the way (dzubaaa! goshi goshi) and the sound of the cars booming along the highway nearby (GOH GOH!) will make it hard to listen to the gravelly crunching (gara gara) of the dirt path around the potholes in the dark so that I fall into them (dzut’ton), and maybe go flying over my handlebars (buwaaa!), and break my arm (pohkih! said very quickly). That may or may not bring the screaming police cars (pii pohhh pii pohhh!), but will surely give me time to lie there in a muddy rice paddy to contemplate the existence in the universe (DOH DOH DOH DOHHHHH!).

    Actually most Asian languages use onomatopaeia, and usually with words doubled up like in Japanese. By the way “Utturi” cannot be pronounced that way in Japanese, you have to say “Uttsuri”. And, Tall Girl, I love “shiiin”! Isn’t that a great way to express silence or no opinion or nothingness?

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  11. Hey man, great comment! Thanks. I might reprint this so others will see it.

    About “Utturi” – Doh! (Said in Homer Simpson voice.) I’ll make the correction.

    Reply

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