Do you know this feeling?

uja uja, Gomi 1989:24 · © 1989

What better way to compensate for the overload of text in the previous posts than with some excellent illustrations of Japanese gitaigo? I have recently been looking at Taro Gomi’s delightful Illustrated Dictionary of Japanese Onomatopoeic Expressions, featuring cartoon-like depictions of almost 200 Japanese sound-symbolic words used to evoke certain sensations, feelings, and sensory perceptions. 1 The style of the illustrations calls to mind another favourite of mine, The Far Side. But whereas Larson has to create his weird world from scratch, Taro Gomi merely illustrates existing words from Japanese. Talk about the genius of language!

Given the special status of ideophonic vocabulary (the fact that it depicts rather than describes), it should come as no surprise that illustrations of such words work so well; better perhaps in fact than verbal definitions (see Samarin 1967 for some of the issues lexicographers face in the description of ideophones).2 In the preface to his dictionary, the author/illustrator voices some pretty clear opinions on this issue:

So linguists do not deal with onomatopoeic expressions. Or perhaps I should say, they are unable to deal with them. And this is not surprising; onomatopoeic expressions are not the kind of subject matter that expert linguists can take up as a separate topic and study academically. [Oops! MD] After all, onomatopoeic expressions are not really language; they are, in a sense, raw language.

Moyamoya, dorodoro, gochagocha, barabara, fuwafuwa — no other words can describe these expressions. They represent a world of their own (…). Linguists, who are always described by such orthodox adjectives as kashikoi (wise), tadashii (right), erai (great), or rippana (respected), cannot handle them. If they handle them carelessly, they will run into problems.
(Gomi 1989:iii)

What can I say? One thing I’ll grant the illustrator immediately: he is indeed perfectly qualified to handle this subject matter. Here’s another example:

buku buku

buku buku, Gomi 1989:149 · © 1989

In Siwu, one would probably use the ideophone lùɖùù for this, or pumbuluu if it was a person’s stomach. Even though every ideophonic language has its own conventionalized inventory of expressive forms, there are cross-linguistic tendencies in sound-symbolism that amount to universals or near-universals. The use of voiced consonants and back vowels to evoke large and heavy things, as both Japanese and Siwu do in this case, may reflect one such universal.

nyoro nyoro

nyoro nyoro, Gomi 1989:123 · © 1989

Although many of the ideophones illustrated by Gomi seem to be about inner feelings and emotions (cf. also Kita 1997:181), there are also words that evoke other types of sensations and sensory perceptions. Visual patterns, for example, as shown in the the illustration above. Interestingly, in Siwu, the corresponding ideophone is nyɛmrɛnyɛmrɛ.

I’m taking this dictionary with me on the next fieldtrip to Ghana — it’s going to be lots of fun!


  1. Gomi, Taro. 1989. An Illustrated Dictionary of Japanese Onomatopoeic Expressions. Transl. by J. Turrent. Tokyo: Japan Times.
  2. Kita, Sotaro. 1997. Two-dimensional semantic analysis of Japanese mimetics. Linguistics 35:379-415.
  3. Samarin, William J. 1967. Determining the meaning of ideophones. Journal of West African Languages 4, no. 2:35-41.
  4. Westermann, Diedrich Hermann. 1927. Laut, Ton und Sinn in Westafrikanischen Sudansprachen. In Festschrift Meinhof, 315-328, Hamburg: J.J. Augustin.


  1. Kita (1997) calls gitaigo ‘manner mimetics’; they are in opposition to a much smaller group of giongo ‘sound mimetics’. []
  2. Note, however, that Gomi does in fact include quite elaborate verbal definitions alongside his illustrations. []

13 thoughts on “Do you know this feeling?”

  1. hmmm… random thought, as I was just reading about Nabokov’s synesthesia. Could ideophones be described as a sort of societal sound > emotion synesthetic expression? A bit farfetched, but it is compelling and might explain why some languages might have more ideophones than others.

  2. Sounds like a really handy book – I wish I had a copy handy. Showing the giraffe picture brought the immediate and spontaneous response “!”, which I take as further evidence for my hunch that Kwarandzie’s CVC*2 verbs really are expressive. (The other two pictures were a little less effective – in the first one, in particular, people focused on the person in the middle rather than the somewhat vaguely drawn bugs.)

  3. Khawaji: The link to synesthesia is a very intriguing one indeed, and it fits nicely with the observation that ideophones often combine information from different sensory modalities. I am not sure though how exactly that would explains why some languages might have more ideophones. (I have a post in the works on that issue; meanwhile, see this interesting article by Janis Nuckolls.)

    Lameen: Indeed, that’s one problem of using this as elicitation material: people may focus on different things. The way I see it, these illustrations are great to get informants in the ‘expressive mood’ (as Gérard Diffloth would say). I don’t expect them to yield perfectly comparable data. (In fact, even for the Japanese ideophones given, the illustrations are not always a perfect fit.) Oh, and re: the first illustration: what about the hair of that person? Isn’t there a nice expressive verb for that in Kwarandzie?

  4. Hi Mark,

    Thanks for visiting my page.
    Wowwww,this article impressed me with the idea of learning gitaigo on Gomi’s Dictionary.It explained Japanese gitaigo in a good way,the illustrations make it easy to learn.I wish i could get this book as part of my collection.

  5. Gomi’s book is indeed a great resource for those interested in gitaigo. I’d also like to recommend 101 Japanese Idioms by Michael and Senko Maynard, which gives a similar illustration-based treatment to idioms. (Illustrations by Taki)

    And while I’m at it, Shoko Hamano’s The Sound-Symbolic System of Japanese is a good treatment of giongo and gitaigo by an actual linguist – but without pictures. To be fair to Gomi, though, Hamano’s book was published nearly a decade after the original appearance of his 日本語擬態語辞典.

    Hamano, Shoko. 1998. The Sound-Symbolic System of Japanese. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

    Maynard, Michael L. and Senko K. Maynard. 1993. 101 Japanese Idioms. Chicago: Passport Books.

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