Ever since I started learning Japanese (which makes me sound much better than I am – sorry to disappoint, but when I say “learning Japanese”, I mostly mean “drinking with the Japanese”), I’ve had a soft spot for their onomatopaeic descriptions. They’re pairs of words that describe the sound something might make. Except that it might be something that has no sound – such as pika pika to mean sparkly or shiny, giri giri to mean arriving just in time (similar meaning to by the skin of your teeth), or muri muri, for “I can’t do it”.
I think they may be called reduplicative ideophones, but I’m not too familiar with the official terminology (feel free to wade in, those who are). I just like the words. So, as I currently have a Japanese guest staying/captive, here are ten:
Being unable to walk straight when drunk (or exhausted, or carsick, etc). Fula is the sound of veering to the side, and comes from the verb meaning to call in at.
The way a candle flame sways from side to side, or the way a voluptuous woman walks. Maybe oscillating.
Feeling faint, dizzy or dreamy because you’ve seen or spoken to someone you fancy (particularly someone out of your league).
When something is too bright and flashy, even garish. Similar to pika pika, but with a negative meaning.
When you’re so busy that your actions become chaotic and confused. Bata is the sound of moving things in a hurry.
Smooth or silky, like hair, or fine sand.
Kind of the opposite of sara sara – used to describe rough, dry skin, or coarse sand.
To be snappy, or short. I think it literally translates as snappy, as you can also call overcooked bacon kari kari. “Kari kari shineide” is “don’t be snappy”.
A softer version of kari kari, meaning something more along the lines of touchy/irritable.
To wander around, hang around or muck about without a purpose. By this point in the evening things were getting a bit tipsy, and my companion broke out into a song that went “chin chin, bura bura, sausage” (which means “cock, hanging around, sausage”) then looked at me as if that should explain everything. I’m not convinced it did, but I think it’s something like the opposite of mura mura (horny). Anyway. Moving swiftly on.
What I find particularly interesting about these is that none of them have kanji. That is, unlike almost all Japanese words, they don’t have picturegram symbols. Instead, they’re written in the phonetic alphabets. When they’re used to describe a sound, they’re written in hiragana, the traditional phonetic alphabet, but when they’re expressing concept, they’re written in katakana – an alphabet usually reserved only for foreign words and swear words.
However, there are a few exceptions – such as betsu betsu (to go halves), doh doh (to have self confidence or pride) and joh joh (to be in high spirits). These all have kanji.
I’ve been trying to think of similar words in English, but beyond itsy bitsy teeny weeny (weenie?) yellow polka dot bikini and higgledy piggledy, I’m not getting far. And they’re not really the same anyway, as they’re not exact repetitions. I suppose there’s so so.
Anyway. I don’t really have a conclusion, other than “look at these, aren’t they cool”. But I’d be interested to hear what others think of them, particularly people who know their linguistics or their Japanese, as I am very much an amateur in both fields. (I do like drinking sake, though.)
With thanks to 中野雅弘.