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Do Anime and other casual writers try to make true sound words or just words similar to the emphatic words already existing in Japanese?- true some of those are fairly close to the real sounds but a lot aren't. Its obvious if its a dog they say ヲオフ or バルク  rather limiting themselves to  ワンワン and many other better examples of the word expressing something more abstract rather than the trying for the actual sound within the limits of Japanese writing but what if the context isn't so clear- how do you tell?

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    ワンタン is a typo, I presume. I think little yippy dogs do sound more like ワンワン than ヲオフ、actually. – nkjt Nov 25 '13 at 13:24
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    How exactly is that "obvious"? I'm pretty confident that no dog has ever made a noise that sounded anything like "バルク". – rintaun Nov 25 '13 at 20:08
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Onomatopoeia vary a lot between languages (for example, nicely illustrated!), and what you think sounds like or unlike the real sound is much more cultural than absolute. If you are referring to new, or at least, not-in-dictionary 擬音語{ぎおんご} in manga etc, and how to tell their meaning, I think they are often in practice just variants on existing sound effects or words, and context combined with knowledge of similar words is normally enough to get a rough idea of the meaning.

This paper: オノマトペ(擬音語擬態語)について has some interesting information on how different sounds sound to native speakers of Japanese. For example, unvoiced vs. voiced sounds:

まず、清音、濁音に対して持たれる印象は全体的に共通しているようである。清音に は軽快、清らか、小さいという印象が持たれ、濁音には鈍重、濁り、大きいという印象 があり、時には否定的なイメージを持たれる傾向にある。これはあえてここで述べなく ても、日本語話者であれば、「カタカタ」と「ガタガタ」、「サラサラ」と「ザラザ ラ」、「トントン」と「ドンドン」などその音、様子の程度で無意識に使いわけている だろう。

Basically, unvoiced sounds are lighter, clearer and smaller; voiced sounds are heavier, duller and louder; so 「トントン」and「ドンドン」already would be unconsciously differentiated by native speakers (the former more of a knock or a tap; the latter more of a pounding or banging for example that of a large drum).

It cites another source, オノマトペ(擬音語・擬態語)を考える by 丹野真智俊 (this appears to be a book and I cannot access the full text of it), where research was done into how different kana gave different impressions in 擬態語:

丹野真智俊が行った研究(2005)によると、「し」は静かなイメージ、「ふ」軽い、「げ」汚い、「ぜ」苦しい、「ぷ」かわいいといった共通のイメージがある

These were common "images" of the kana: し = quiet, ふ = light, げ = dirty, ぜ = painful or difficult, ぷ = cutesy.

They conclude that this common understanding among native speakers allows authors to be understood even when they invent new onomatopoeia or use existing ones in unusual ways:

その作者たちが新しく作り出したオノマトペや、一般的な使われ方と違った表現が使われることがある。これらもそれぞれの文字への共通のイメージがあるため、作者がイメージする音や様態に近いイメージを想像でき、しかも、新しい表現で既存の表現を使用した時以上に生き生きとした描写になるのであろう。

  • The sound/image association is also mentioned in A Dictionary of Basic Japanese Grammar. – Igor Skochinsky Nov 25 '13 at 21:29

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