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O Fim duma Viagem

Onomatopeia

JAPAN | Saturday, 30 April 2016 | Views [436]

Technically the theme of chapter seven was “Japanese pop culture,” but in reality, onomatopoeia would have been a better descriptor. Because that's what the reading, dialogue, and large amounts of homework focused on.

This might seem like overkill. And, in most languages, it would be. Maybe you can do a quick aside after you finish a chapter test and your students don't really want to learn, but you have twenty minutes of class left so you need to do something. Might as well go through what animals sound like in English vs. the target language. It might be relevant someday. If they're ever interacting with young children maybe? Otherwise you're not usually expected to say onomatopoeia, and by definition, if you hear them you should be able to figure out roughly what they mean.

In Japanese, one could comfortably teach an entire elective course meeting once or twice a week on onomatopoeia alone. Such a class could be interesting, serious, and incredibly useful. Because in Japanese, onomatopoeia are incredibly important.

The first thing you need to know about Japanese onomatopoeia is that there are three different subcategories of it. Giseigo, giongo, and gitaigo. Giseigo are the sounds of voices, animal or human. Cats go nya, nya, dogs go wan, wan, children playing go waa, waa, etc. Giongo are the sounds that objects make. When your computer is broken, it might go peeeen. Thunder goes goro goro. And so on. Gitaigo are the reason that Japanese onomatopoeia are actually worth studying.

See, gitaigo are not approximations of the sound something makes. They are, rather, approximations of the sound that something would make if it did make sound. Or something like that. For example, if you have a fever, you go “zoku zoku.” If someone is grinning, they have a “niko niko” face. And… so on, I guess?

The way the textbook explained it, Japanese doesn't have as many verbs as English, so it needs onomatopoeia to serve as adverbs. “Laugh/smile” is ambiguous unless you use onomatopoeia to specify whether they're giggling, guffawing, or grinning. When you say “cry” do you mean sob, wail, weep, snivel, or sit there silently with tears streaming down your face? In English, this calls for a stronger verb, or possibly an adverb. In Japanese, you would use onomatopoeia.

Having read the chapter in the textbook and talked about the it with the teachers for several classes, Dan and I have come to the same conclusion- gitaigo should not be thought of as onomatopoeia. They should be thought of as adverbs or adjectives and learned that way. The problem is that the Japanese speakers we interact with don't want us thinking of gitaigo that way.

“What does ‘pasha pasha’ mean?”

“It's onomatopoeia.”

“Yes, obviously. What does it mean, though?”

The idea that it's onomatopoeia, and sounds like what it means, can only carry you so far. Like, basically it helps you figure out what the giongo are. If I tell you that Person A was going pata pata down the stairs, but Person B was going batta batta, you probably have a rough idea of who you'd rather live downstairs from. If I told you I had a chiku chiku pain, you'd likely have no idea what that means, or how that compares to a gusa gusa or zubari zubari pain.

And yet our Japanese teachers kept expecting us to come up with the right onomatopoeia on our own. “Oh, she likes strong, macho men? What's the onomatopoeia for that?” How am I supposed to know?! Morimori definitely sounds… like some forests, if I'm being honest. How do you get strong with big muscles from there?

“Your stomach hurts? What kind of pain?”

“Like it's being stabbed with a knife.”

“No, what's the onomatopoeia for that?”

Nope, can't think of anything other than loud screaming that would reflect that. And I get that these are important words to use, because “zubari zubari” is definitely much quicker and easier to say than setting up a similie in proper Japanese. But it's not obvious. At least not to Americans.

Over lunch, Dan tried to get John's help on understanding why Japanese onomatopoeia worked the way they did. John did not have much insight to add. “Some things just sound like being stabbed to Japanese people.”

“Chiku chiku” sounds like being stabbed with a needle-like object repeatedly. “Gusa gusa” sounds like being deeply stabbed repeatedly. Or like the pain in your heart that comes from your boyfriend becoming your ex-boyfriend via a monologue about how terrible a person you are. “Zubari zubari” sounds like being deeply stabbed near important organs. “Putsu putsu” sounds like making a lot of holes by stabbing something soft. And so on with a lot of onomatopoeia that actually don't sound like anything.

Although I'm not terribly fond of the way they're treated like they're sounds that should be obvious by themselves instead of words that must be memorized like all other vocabulary, I do have to admit that Japanese onomatopoeia make things easy more interesting. Consider the following story.

I was in the math classroom, doing tsura tsura (thinking deeply for a long time.) Suddenly… Peeen! (I had an idea.) I worked with this until I realized I was on the wrong track. Kabeen. I became gakkari (disappointed), and went for a walk. While I was tobo tobo-ing, (trudging along disappointedly) the right solution was muku muku. (Suddenly arose.) I was ran ran (jumping for joy.) Uttori (transfixed by wonder) at the beauty of math, and went back to the room to tsura tsura some more.

Obviously the story is changed by throwing Japanese words info the mix, regardless of whether they're onomatopoeias or not. Also, two of those words (gakkari and uttori) were words I'd previously learned as regular verbs and just happened to find in an onomatopoeia list. Still, I think it would be more interesting to read aloud with the onomatopoeia, and am honestly rather amazed by some of the onomatopoeia that do exist. Even if I have no idea where they come from and don't think they sound like what they're supposed mean. They're useful Japanese words that are fun to say, and what more could you really want from a vocabulary list?

Tags: grammar, japanese

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