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Japanese has a great number of onomatopoeic words, which are essentially sound-like expressions for describing different things for weather conditions (べたべた, hot very humid sweat weather), over animals sounds (わんわん, Dog sound, actually a valid word for "dog" for children), to some word which describe more abstract things, such as うろうろ (wandering aimlessly)

There is a great list of examples here on Japanese onomatopoeia.

I find this part of the language specifically hard to get since there seems to be no pattern to how the words are formed? Also, always when i ask native speakers of Japanese seem to quite agree on these word and i was wondering where people actually learn them? I was theorizing about Manga being the prime source of distribution, but would appreciate any insights on this.

  • You might be also interested in how German or French speakers agree on grammatical gender while there seems to be no pattern. – broccoli forest Jun 10 '16 at 10:50
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    yes, this is a good example. Being a German native speaker myself and teaching some German i can see often the frustration that irregular noun genders cause. You are right, it is just random and you have to remember them. Interesting case if though when there is a new word, e.g. a product, such as 'Gmail' which needs to be referenced in a language which requires a gender for each noun. Is it 'Die Gmail' or maybe 'das GMail'? i know a number of cases where people might not actually agree in such a case... I think the children's book hint a an interesting one. – hlaubisch Jun 10 '16 at 11:44
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    They probably "agree" on them like they would any other word... – Blavius Jun 10 '16 at 13:02
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    i was wondering where people actually learn them? みんなが日々の生活の中で使っているので…。(特に大阪人の会話なんか擬音語・擬態語だらけ。) – Chocolate Jun 11 '16 at 10:52
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This is a partial answer only, but children's books. Books targeting kinder and first-grade kids tend to have a very specific style ~ they are generally hiragana only, use a lot of "kid speak" and informal Japanese, and they are very heavy on mimetic/onomatopoeic words.

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Exactly the same as other words.

The thing about 擬音語{ぎおんご} and 擬態語{ぎたいご} (strictly speaking "onomatopoeia" only describes 擬音語, though it's commonly used for both) is that to Japanese speakers, they're just words like any other. How did you learn helter-skelter, mishmash, or bang?

In other words, how people learn language, and why they agree on the more or less arbitrary relationship between sound and meaning, are fascinating questions that are far too big for this post, so for our purposes I'll just say "the usual methods". That includes manga (and manga use a lot of them, for roughly the same reasons American comics use a lot of "Bam!" and other words to convey sound and motion), but also children's books, deliberate education in school, and especially hearing the everyday conversations of adults.

Bonus fun fact: it's not quite true that there's no pattern to how they're formed. Tolkien was a big proponent of the idea, now mostly out of fashion, that there is a strong relationship between the sound of a word and its meaning, and there is modern evidence of this as well, at least in some contexts. Specifically in Japanese, one volume of ダーリンは外国人 (a slice-of-life comic with some interesting linguistic moments) explored the idea that words like ゆれる (to sway or wobble) may actually come from ゆるゆる ("wobble-wobble"), not the other way around, and that may provide insight into the formation of language; ゆるゆる "sounds right" for that activity in a way that ピカピカ wouldn't, so maybe language is mostly made of progressively more complex/obscure onomatopoeia. Not very scientific, perhaps, but intuitively compelling and fun to think about. If true, these words may be easier to learn because the relationship between sound and meaning is clearer, and therefore more common in children's books and conversation, and less so with adults.

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    +1 This is what I was thinking. I'm sure people "agreed" on onomatopoeic words before there were lots of children's books. – Blavius Jun 15 '16 at 1:52
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I think わんわん・ヒヒーン・にゃー and so on are just animal sounds like you would have in any language and like WeirdlyCheezy says probably come from children's books.

But...

  • うろうろ could be a doubling of the two syllable noun うろ meaning "empty" with a dash of the word 迂路 meaning "detour"
  • ねばねば is a doubling of the root of the verb ねばる meaning "to stick to"
  • ぱさぱさ could be a doubling of the noun はさ which is a rack for drying rice
  • ぺらぺら could be a doubling of へら meaning "flat" or "smooth"
  • ごろごろ is a doubling of the root of the verb ころぶ meaning "to roll"
  • うきうき is probably a doubling of 浮き meaning "to float"

So then these kinds of words would be produced from vocabulary that the native speaker may already know and have kind of a sound-feeling for. But they sound different and are used differently enough that to a native speaker it might be hard to quickly connect one word to another sometimes.

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