Pow! Thump! Thwack! Onomatopoeias attempt to write sound effects on page so we can hear them through our eyes. They include calls of animals, sounds of nature, sounds of people, and other sounds (Alilyeh & Zeinolabedin, 2014). The Batman TV series from the 1960s played around with visual sound effects during fight scenes. This allowed the series feel like a moving comic book.
Manga has its own set of sound effects. As a manga reader, you may notice how publishers translate few of these sound effects. One reason: it would require someone to edit the artwork. This costs money. A second reason: Japanese has sound effects English doesn’t have. The Japanese language hasaround 1,200 onomatopoeia classified into three families (Kadooka, 2009; Inose, n.d.). English sports about a third of this number. Many sound effects remain untranslatable.
Combining Japanese onomatopoeia with English words gives manga readers an advantage over prose readers. Scholars call manga a multimodal text. This means manga requires readers to use a broad set of skills. Manga readers have to know how to read text combined with images. They have to know Japanese sound effect words and English transliterations like maiko and shonen.Of course, good manga reads right to left, which requires the brain to work differently. This means manga readers develop stronger multidimensional thinking abilities than traditional readers.
Most manga use katakana to write onomatopoeia, but sometimes you’ll see hiragana and kanji too. Katakana specializes in loanwords from other languages. For example: television, テレビ (terebi). In English grammar, transliterations and uncommon loanwords appear in italics—you won’t see tacoin italics, well except for here. Katakana serves a similar purpose as italics.
The Three Families
Onomatopoeias fall into three families. Each family represents a type of sound they attempt to mimic. English sound words share the same families (Inose, n.d.). The first two families represent stereotypical sound words. The last family, however, involves more than sound.
The Call of the Wild
The first family, giseigo, includes words that mimic the voices of people and animals.
Thud, Smack, Crack
The second family, giongo, imitates sounds like rain and Batman punching the Joker.
Sights and Feelings Have Sound?
The last family, gitaigo, represents feelings or expressions. English has the same words: smirk,wink, and grin are examples. Manga uses this family to clarify a character’s expressions or feelings. For example, じーっ, jii, means stare. It’s used to clarify how hard a character looks at something. In a similar way, these words help readers understand what the character feels in a scene. Mangadoesn’t allow us to sit inside the heads of characters like novels do. We are outside observers. Gitaigo allows readers to see a character’s inner state. We see a character rub their forehead, but without gitaigo’s cue, we wouldn’t understand it is because of a stress headache. This chart will give you a better idea of how this family works:
burn (as in sunburn)
The Structure of Onomatopoeia
Understanding the structure of words helps us understand which family we are dealing with. Sound words fall into five classes (Kadooka, 2009). Stay with me. This gets a little technical.
Words have a base called a bare stem. This is the unchanging part of a word. For example:
This idea works with English words. This bare stem can act as a sound word.
The next class is calledaltered reduplication. It repeats the first word with a slight change. Think:bow-wow and ガサゴソ(gasogoso),a rattling sound.
Doubled baserepeats the base sound of the word: rattattat.Reduplication repeats the complete sound instead of just the base. Think pop-popand カサカサ(kasakasa).Of all the classes, we use this the most for sound words. All other words fall under a miscellaneouscategory.
But why does it matter? Why do you need to understand these classes?
They help you determine which words are sound words. You don’t need to be able to read katakana to know if a word is a sound word when you understand these classes. Just look at the symbols. This also helps you look up the words. Finally, understanding these families helps you discover related sound words. Some words come in degrees, such as the sound of something blowing in a breeze (hatahataハタハタ )and the sound of something blowing in a stiff wind (batabataバタバタ).Their shared phonemes reveal their relationships.
Manga pulls from a rich collection of onomatopoeia, many of which lack English equivalents. Understanding the construction of these words along with memorizing katakana will enhance your enjoyment of manga. It also gives you a mental edge over people who read only prose. Not to mention, Japanese onomatopoeia could add pizzazz to your own creative work.
Aliyeh, K. & Zeinolabedin, R. (2014).A Comparison between Onomatopoeia and Sound Symbolism in Persian and English and Their Application in the Discourse of Advertisements.International Journal of Basic Sciences & Applied Research. Vol., 3 (SP), 219-225.
Writer. Librarian. Japanophile. Chris enjoys a good, musty book-fort. As a librarian, he gets to indulge his love for books and research on a daily basis. When he isn't writing about Japanese folklore, he enjoys painting and getting lost in the woods. You can read his attempts to smash words together at www.japanpowered.com.