Patterns in mimetic words

We all know how mimetic words like ゆっくり,ぴったり,うじゃうじゃ,きらきら,きっと,じっと and so forth are prevalent in Japanese. I’ve been treating them like any other word, looking them up and adding to SRS as I encounter them. They seem to be more prevalent in immersion than in learning materials. Like kanji, after seeing enough of them you start to notice patterns, but I haven’t quite been able to pin down anything concrete and end up looking them up anyway. I was wondering if anyone figured out some good strategies for guessing their meaning?

Because they usually function as adverbs, it’s often possible to guess their meaning from context. If there’s kanji, that is also a hint (although they are usually written in kana). For instance, even through きらきら does not have kanji listed on Jisho, I assume that it comes from the verb 煌めく (きらめく, to sparkle). They tend to come in certain forms, such as ◯ったり, ◯っと, and ◯々. I’m sure the kind of sound also has something to do with it, but I don’t have any intuition for this.

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Ping me later and I’ll see if I can link any of my Japanese Linguistic prof’s work. This is her near area of expertise

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There’s a surprising amount of these words out there. I remember at one point I was making an excel spreadsheet consisting of mostly those 〇ったり pattern ones, and I think those alone numbered over 100. Tofugu has an article about these words that you might find helpful.

One pattern, for example, is that voiced variants of onomatopoeia words tend to invoke a stronger, deeper, louder, and/or lower-pitched sound than their unvoiced counterparts. For example, ころころ (which probably comes from 転ぶ) has the feeling of a pebble or a light object rolling over, while ごろごろ invokes more the image of a giant boulder crashing down a hill.

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Check out the book Jazz Up Your Japanese with Onomatopoeia. I’ve only ever skimmed it, but it covers patterns around onomatopoeia and could be helpful.

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Usually if you can’t guess their meaning, it’s because you don’t know a certain word ime. If you can’t guess うねうね it’s probably just because you don’t know 畝る.

So I think the general premise of finding a strategy to guess their meaning is flawed. Either you have the knowledge to make it apparent/guessable, or you don’t.

My suggestion is to just add them if you can’t guess them, and chances are eventually you’ll come across the origin word.

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The Dictionary of Basic Japanese Grammar also has a discussion about onomatopoeia sounds in one of the appendicies.

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@Vanilla for some reason, I thought that a lot of mimetic words weren’t derived from anything in-particular. But if that is the case, then the problem should solve itself naturally.

@seanblue thanks for the book recommendation. I actually picked it up today and will be giving it a read.

@Belthazar right you are. The discussion seems centered on how the sound relates to general categories of mimetic words. It is very interesting how they can represent psychological states, which has no equivalent in English. I will paraphrase for anyone who is interested.

Source: A Dictionary of Basic Japanese Grammar, Seiichi Makino and Michio Tsutsui.

  1. Voiced vs voiceless consonants
    Voiced consonants are big, heavy, dull, or dirty, whereas voiceless consonants are the opposite, like @phyro said. E.g. きらきらと光る, to sparkle, ぎらぎらと光る, to shine dazzlingly.

  2. かきくけこ, がぎぐげご sounds
    Represents things like hardness, sharpness, separation, sudden change etc. かちかちと凍る, to freeze hard. ぐっと引く, to pull with a jerk.

  3. さしすせそ sounds
    Being quiet and/or quick. こそこそと逃げる, to escape quietly. しんみりと話す, to talk quietly.

  4. らりるれろ sounds
    To be slippery, smooth, or fluid. サラサラと流れる, to flow smoothly. スラスラと答える, to answer with ease.

  5. まみむめも and なにぬねの sounds
    Warmth, softness, stickiness. ぬるぬるしている, to be slimy. むちむちしている, to be plump.

  6. ぱぴぷぺぽ sounds
    Explosively, suddenness, strength. ぴっさりと叩く, to whack. ペラペラと喋る, speak fluently.

  7. やゆよ sounds
    Weak, slow, soft. ヨレヨレになる, to be worn out. ゆっくりと話す, speak slowly.

  8. う sounds
    Related to human psychology or physiology. うとうとする, to doze. うんざりする, to be fed up.

  9. お sounds
    Represents a negative human psychological state. おずおずしている, to be nervous and timid. おたおたする, to not know what to do.

  10. Sounds with an え vowel
    Something vulgar. へべれけになる, to be dead drunk. ヘラヘラと笑う, to laugh when embarrassed.

They also mention how a glottal stop creates more emphasis, like やはり and やっぱり. This part seems fairly intuitive at least.

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あ sounds often denote that something is annoying or childish, which is why a lot of onomatopoeia for cat/dog/kid noises have them.

It looks like my professor’s dissertation is exactly what you’re looking for. Page 2 (preview page 13) has a comparison of walking mimetic words.
https://www.proquest.com/openview/db2c693fbe02bc1cf3a061b64830bce0/1?pq-origsite=gscholar&cbl=18750&diss=y

It’s a 300 page dissertation, but probably has everything you might want to know. I remember we studied the structure patterns in class, although it didn’t stick with me well. Hopefully you have access to a post secondary education database that will give you full access.

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This is fantastic, thanks for the link! I don’t have access, but it looks like the University of Florida library has published it as well.

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Perhaps you’ll be able to find or request a published version then :slight_smile: Best of luck to you!

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Fortunately it seems to be freely available at this link. It’s from the University of Florida, where the dissertation was published, so I believe it is legit. Universities usually make dissertations freely available.

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That’s baller :eyes: I might have to read the whole thing if I find time

This is really cool. Thank you both for sharing.

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