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Friday, November 20, 2009

Jazz Up Your Japanese with Onomatopoeia

Jazz Up Your Japanese with OnomatopoeiaJazz Up Your Japanese with Onomatopoeia

by Hiroko Fukuda
Kodansha International

ISBN: 4-7700-2956-X238 pp

Originally published by Kodansha as "Flip, Slither and Bang: Japanese Sound and Action Words" as part of their Power Japanese series, this volume has undergone a makeover for the 21st century. Fukuda has added a useful overview introduction, and revision quizzes, both of which should help key Japanese onomatopoeia stick in your head. And there's a lot to remember.

While Japanese has appropriated Chinese script for most of its conceptual words, and promiscuously borrowed from English and other languages for more recent phenomena such as computers, it can be proud of the homegrown nature of its pervasive onomatopoeia - not to mention their expressive 'punch'. While in English, such words are often associated with animal noises and children's tales, Japanese uses onomatopoeia widely, in anything from literature to everyday adult conversations, and to express everything from a simple sound to a complex emotional state. What English often uses metaphor to express, Japanese gets across with onomatopoeia.

Wanwan may indeed be the sound of a Japanese doggy, but mukamuka means seriously cheesed off, gennari means worn out, and sesseto means as regular as clockwork. Adult enough for you? Fukuda's introduction helps the learner contextualise the different forms and uses of Japanese onomatopoeia. This, along with an overall book structure based around situational dialogues, creates a fairly structured learning approach. As usual with a book focusing on one aspect of language, there is the temptation to pack in as many target expressions as possible until the dialogues become a bit buyobuyo (bloated). But apart from this, the language is very natural (in fact, "too" natural for the beginner, who should first be learning standard Japanese verb forms, for instance).

The dialogues are followed by clear explanations of the target onomatopoeia and example sentences. All text is provided in original Japanese (with furigana readings) plus an English translation, while the dialogues also come in a romanised form for the less able reader. Helpful cultural notes are also scattered throughout the text. The quizzes at the end of each section review the onomatopoeia, and the handy indexes allow you to find both Japanese and English definitions, so you can locate a particular expression you've heard in Japanese, or find an equivalent for the English concept you want to get across, independently of the dialogue contexts. Note though that this book is not a substitute for a dictionary of onomatopoeia, as it chooses to be selectively detailed rather than comprehensive.

Jazz Up Your Japanese with Onomatopoeia is subtitled For All Levels, which I think is a little ambitious, as much of the material would be overwhelming for neophytes. But this very density of information is a boon for the more advanced student. It will reward close study by significantly enhancing your knowledge of an underemphasised aspect of Japanese language that in many ways embodies the Japanese mindset.

Richard Donovan


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