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Thursday, March 13, 2008

Japanese onomatopoeia

擬態語

Japanese is rich in onomatopoeia – words that try to directly capture the sound or feel of something. English has no shortage of it either: vroom, clip-clop, titter, bang, etc. But whereas many of them are considered somewhat inappropriate in “serious” English (e.g. eentsy weentsy, hoity toity, woof woof, etc.), in other words, peripheral, they are at the very heart of the Japanese language.

One of the first you will hear when you start learning Japanese is part of the compliment “Pera-pera desu ne!,” or “You’re fluent, aren’t you!”. While pera pera can have a slightly negative meaning too, it is usually reserved for bera bera, which always means something like “glib voluability” or “easy prattle”.

The real appeal of Japanese onomatopoeia is how they make such a direct non-grammatical appeal to be understood. Many of them, once heard, can never be forgotten. For example, metcha kutcha (the “ku” pronounced “coo”), meaning “a complete mess,”
“totally mixed up,” “in utter disorder,” etc.
Or, maa maa, meaning “fair to middling,” “nothing to write home about,” “touch and go,” etc.
Or cha chi, meaning “tinny,” “cheap and nasty”.
Or funwari (“foon-wa-ree”) meaning “gently,” “in an airy manner”.
Or uro uro, meaning “to loiter, circle round aimlessly”.
Or tsun (“tsoon”), meaning “haughty, dismissive, with one’s nose in the air”.
Or kuru kuru (“round and round”).
Or gui gui, (“strongly, vigorously, with all your might”).
Or deko boko (“bumpy, uneven”).
Or miin miin, (the sound a cicada makes).
Or nyoro nyoro, the sound of slithering.

Many Japanese onomatopoeia come from real verbs, nouns, and adjectives (or perhaps the onomatopoeia originally came first). For example masu masu, or “more and more,” “increasingly,” clearly comes from the verb “masu,” meaning “to increase, to grow”. Or shibu shibu, “grudgingly,” “with bad grace,” from the adjective shibui, “astringent, tart, bitter”. Or nade nade (“the sound of stroking something”) from the verb "naderu," which means to stroke.

Others venture into realms of meaning where you wonder what the original inspiration was. For example, soro soro, meaning “in a little while from now,” or gunya, the sound associated with sudden realization of something. Or waza waza, meaning going out of one’s way to do something. Or yatto, meaning “finally, after a great deal of waiting”.

Japanese manga are probably the richest source of onomatopoeia in Japanese, where they are dramatically splashed across pages in appropriately dramatic fonts and font sizes.

And no matter how long you’ve been studying the language, you’re always hearing new ones. Bikkuri! (the sound of surprise).


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