How Onomatopoeia Give Pain a Voice in Japanese

No pain, no gain? Discover the many ways pain is described through onomatopoeia by reading JCMU Japanese language instructor Keiko Melville’s article below!


Onomatopoeia, or words representing a sound, are common in languages across the world. For example, if you are reading a comic book, you might see punches together with the word “pow” and explosions next to “boom.”

In English, these words are almost always are used for physical, real sounds. However, there are other types of onomatopoeia in Japanese that assign sounds to certain actions and emotions that don’t actually produce a real world sound. Included in these classifications of sound words are 擬情語 (gijyoogo), or sound words representing a psychological state or change.

Sounding out your pain

There are two overarching types of sound words in Japanese: 擬音語 (giongo) and 擬態語 (gitaigo). Giongo is what most native English speakers typically think of as onomatopoeia: representations of physical, real world sounds. Gitaigo, on the other hand, represent an action or state of being that otherwise does not make a sound itself. Gitaigo dealing with emotions are further categorized as gijyoogo.

There is no real world sound for “pain” of course, but gijyoogo allows it to be audibly expressed anyhow.

A young Japanese man who moved to Canada when he was a child once told me that he did not have any problems communicating with people in English. However, he struggled to describe his pain in the language. Though certain gijyoogo came to mind instantly for him, there was no easy equivalent outside of Japanese that he could readily use.

Medical benefits of onomatopoeia

No matter your native language, being able to accurately and quickly describe your pain is important in determining what you need do in order to feel better. The video below discusses how the human brain is able to characterize and work through pain.

In Japan, gijyoogo are also key for Japanese doctors in determining how to best treat their patients. Since there are so many different pain-related onomatopoeia that each describe different kinds of pain, it can really help them pinpoint the issue at hand.

Dr. Takeda, a linguist, and Dr. Ogawa, a pain research specialist, conducted their own studies on the topic in 2013 (article in Japanese). They asked 8,100 patients afflicted with chronic pain which onomatopoeia they use with their doctors when describing specific kinds of pain. The results show certain regularity between types of pain and the onomatopoeia used to describe them:

  • ガンガン (gangan): Generally used to describe pain caused by inflammation of the blood vessels, including headaches. Pain like this tends to be represented with the voiced consonant “G.”
  • ギシギシ (gishigishi) and ゴリゴリ(gorigori): These words were frequently used to describe joint pain, such as rheumatoid arthritis.
  • ピリピリ (piripiri) and チクチク (chikuchiku): Nerve pains were typically represented by onomatopoeia using voiceless consonants (such as “p” and “ch”).
Painomatopoiea
Headaches are generally described with ガンガン (gangan)

The Pfizer Pharmaceutical Company in Japan conducted their own research in September 2013 (link in Japanese). They asked 8,183 people all over Japan suffering from chronic pain about their symptoms. 82% of participants described their pain using various onomatopoeia, as they felt the need to express their specific kind of pain. In addition, 86% believe that using onomatopoeia help their doctors better understand their symptoms.

Interested in learning which areas of Japan used these sound words the most? The following three prefectures used onomatopoeia the most when describing their medical conditions:

  • Kyoto (90.0%)
  • Shiga (89.3%)
  • Wakayama (88.2%)

Different dialects, different ways to describe symptoms?

On the other side, people in the northern parts of Japan (such as Hokkaido and Akita) use onomatopoeia to describe their pain less frequently. Even when they are used, they tend to be different onomatopoeia altogether (link in Japanese) as a result of their unique dialects. For example, サラサラ (sarasara) is often used in the north to express feeling chills from a fever. On the other hand, the standard Japanese onomatopoeia is ゾクゾク (zokuzoku). エガエガ (egaega) is used to describes a pinching pain in the north, while チクチク (chikuchiku) is more commonly used in other parts of the country.

Fever.png
In the northern parts of Japan, fever chills are described with the onomatopoeia ザラザラ (sarasara). In other parts of the country, it’s generally ゾクゾク (zokuzoku). (original image © 2013 Aya Mulder. Licensed under CC-BY)

After a large earthquake devastated these areas, volunteer doctors and nurses came from all over the country to provide medical support. They often had trouble communicating with the earthquake victims, though, as they were often confused by patients’ expressions of pain due to the differences in dialects.

As each person uses these onomatopoeia in different ways, it can sometimes be challenging for doctors to determine exactly is being referenced. A doctor who works near JCMU and treats our students’ health problems said that the meaning of these words changes even from Japanese patient to patient – even without taking different dialects into account! Because of the high context required in understanding these words, I cannot imagine how difficult it is to translate pain or sickness from Japanese to another language.

Don’t hurt your studies by avoiding onomatopoeia!

It may be difficult to begin learning how to express your pain in Japanese, but it’s an important skill to have. If you are interested in learning more about pain or sickness onomatopoeia, then I recommend looking over the following sections of these Japanese language textbooks:

  1. An Integrated Approach to Intermediate Japanese, Lesson 12
  2. Tobira: Gateway to Advanced Japanese Learning Through Content and Multimedia, Lesson 7

I hope this article has shown you how important onomatopoeia are in Japanese daily life and medical care. It’s not just for pain, though – there are all sorts of ways in which sound words are used in regular conversation! I encourage you to continue learning even more about the versatility of Japanese sound words.

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