April 21, 2008

Waza waza and uja uja.

Japanese onomatopoeia is incredibly cool. But if you don't already know, can you figure out which of the 2 words above is supposed to sound like "many small things gathered together and moving, such as a swarm of insects or a crowd of people seen from a distance" and which is supposed to sound like "doing something difficult on purpose, even though there is no need to, such as swimming across a river instead of taking the bridge"?

I'm glad there are words for these things at all, whether they seem truly onomatopoetic or not. Let's just adopt the Japanese words. No need to anglicize. This isn't like the way there are endless versions of how a dog bark or a cock's crow gets transliterated in different languages. People knew they needed those words before they noticed that other languages spelled the sound differently. The Japanese originated the desire for words that sounded like many small things moving together and doing something difficult but unnecessary on purpose. We see their words at the same time we first think we want such words, so waza waza and uja uja it is.

28 comments:

Maguro said...

My favorite is "pachi pachi", which refers to clothes that are too tight. Somehow it just seems perfectly descriptive.

AllenS said...

When you listen to the engine on a Harley Davidson motorcycle idleing, it is supposed to sound like "potatoe, potatoe". With or without the e.

Rick Lee said...

They seem quite backwards to me. Waza waza is perfect for a swarm of something.

rhhardin said...

Radio Japan does onomatopoeia, audio, Nov 19, 2004

Traumatized from an earlier encounter audio, Dec 12, 2000

Jennifer said...

I love Japanese. Not onomatopoetic, but one of my favorite Japanese words is "natsukashi" which describes that warm feeling that washes over you when you return to a place you haven't been in a while.

It's like they've identified and distilled so much into their language that it includes whole ideas instead of just building blocks.

George said...

Automatic piano are words like 'bang' whose meanings are contained in their sounds. Alliteration is the pleasingness of repeated similar sounds in words, such as 'waza waza.'

Two dandy untranslatable Japanese words are...

aware...the feeling one gets upon seeing leaves fall or blossoms wither...the bitter pleasure one takes upon apprehending life's fleeting evanescences.

ma...the something in the nothing, especially in the arts. An English rendition would be the 7Up slogan "Put some Un in your life."

Ron said...

There needs to be word for complaining out loud while you're alone in the house about one's lack of coffee(!!!) while trying to write a blog comment.

Ron said...

How about a word for the feeling of omnipotence you have when something you predicted in great detail happens just as you said it would!

rhhardin said...

Wm. Empson on the modern (1950) trend toward living dictionaries

All you can object is that the use of the thing must be very narrowly to remind and not to inform. And after all most people use dictionaries in order to be informed. Even inside England probably the majority of users do it, and the dictionaries are used widely by foreigners with little knowledge of English. For that matter the same principle is used far too much in interlingual dictionaries ; I remember opening the standard pocket Japanese-English one and finding against some characters only

``An inch of steel, the merest of a weapon.''

This blank verse line is as ``living'' as could be, and in most cases would lead into absurdity any unfortunate man who copied it out. What he needs is as nearly as possible the opposite ; something that would warn him of possible absurdities when writing English, and of the unexpected tricks that may be being played by an English author in his reading.

Middle Class Guy said...

There are four taste elements- sweet, sour, salty, bitter. This has been the case for centuries. All cooking and eating revolves around those four elements. Over the past several years a fifth element has arisen; umami- from the Japanese root meaning delicious. Umami has no direct English translation.

Umami is much harder to discern as it can be used to describe characteristics savory, meatiness, or richness of a dish or food.

I would not use it around certain people though. It could be confused with yo mamma.

Kirk Parker said...

Perhaps we should broaden the discussion beyond just Japanese--there's a whole world of wonderful idiosyncrasy out there.

Smilin' Jack said...

Making up new words for everything is stupid. It wastes the combinatorial power of language, through which an infinity of meanings can be expressed by combining old words in new ways. It's the same kind of stupid as using thousands of characters to represent written words instead of an alphabet. That's why it takes the Japanese forever to learn to read and write their own language.

Eugene said...

The cleverness doesn't stop there. As I explain here, it has become common practice in Japanese manga to use the "squared" sign to avoid writing the characters for onomatopoeia twice.

halojones-fan said...

Let's not forget that according to the Japanese, breasts have a sound effect; this is where "furi kuri" comes from.

Original Mike said...

Steve Martin used to say he had a hard time learning French because, did you know?, they have a word for everything. Now I'm not so sure he was correct.

I was taught a Japenese word (which I've forgotten, but I know the notebook at home in which I wrote it down) which means "to follow a stream to its source".

Michael_H said...

I propose the words "sucki sucki", meaning: The empty sound of a politician's lips sweeping silently over a citizen's backside in the vainglorious seeking of that citizen's vote.

Balfegor said...

Let's not forget that according to the Japanese, breasts have a sound effect; this is where "furi kuri" comes from.

No . . . the sound effect for breasts is "boin." Furikuri is just a Gainax anime.

Re: Waza waza and uja uja, I'm not sure that waza waza is really intended to be onomatopoeic. The uja uja isn't really a swarm of insects buzzing, though. The word used in the Japanese caption on the Language Log post is actually "ugomeku," (as ugomeiteiru) which is more like "writhing" or "squirming" than just moving or buzzing. I think that communicates that it's creepy crawlies, rather than what you'd think of as a swarm. "Moving" would have been ugoiteiru.

Another Japanese sound effect I like is the sound of silence -- shin. Usually, in comics, drawn out across the length of the background, like し~~~~ん.

Umami has no direct English translation.

It's MSG.

Michael_H said...

So a pair of breasts would sound boin boin?

Yes, I think that's right.

Michael_H said...

One of my favorite Japanese words is harukaru, which describes confident uncertainty.

It sounds like this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GCNO7P47Rs8&feature=related

Balfegor said...

So a pair of breasts would sound boin boin?

Yes, I think that's right.


An alternative sound is provided by purun purun. I was going to say that this is a sound effect also used for jello or purin, but I googled ぷるんぷるん, and the first few links are obviously pornographic.

One gets to know these things.

rhhardin said...

Is there a Japanese word for ``wrong at the top of your voice?''

Original Mike said...

Is there a Japanese word for ``wrong at the top of your voice?''

Frederfrederson-san

David said...

What's wrong with the English onomatopoetic "susurration," which is, according to the American Heritage dictionary, "A soft, whispering or rustling sound; a murmur?"

I've seen it used, wonderfully, to describe the movement of a flock of butterflies.

Balfegor said...

Some other fun ones:

pika pika (sparkling or glittering, like a freshly cleaned floor you can see your face in)

kira kira (sparkling or glittering, like someone who emanates charisma or something. I guess.)

zawa zawa (the murmur of conversation; I've also seen it for the rustle of grass in the wind)

zoku zoku (the sound of cold shivers running down your back. Or maybe an electric feeling)

tsuru tsuru (the sound of something smooth or slippery)

mogu mogu (the sound of chewing)

doki doki (the sound of a heartbeat)

boro boro (the sound effect of being run-down and falling apart)

poro poro (the sound of something overflowing, e.g. tears, memories)

gan gan (a sound effect for something forceful and violent, like a headache)

tsun tsun (the sound of being stuck up)

dere dere (the sound effect of being bashful/shy/lovestruck)

tsun dere (a term for a female character who is alternately haughty and shy)

yan dere (a term for a female character who is alternately murderously violent and shy)

I wanted to add the sound effect for a hot bath in a public bathhouse (taken, I think, from the sharp echo as people drop their scrubbers or their buckets or whatever), but I can't remember it.

Revenant said...

tsun dere
yan dere

Someone's an anime fan... :)

Mitch H. said...

Revenant: it took you that long to figure that one out?

I'm not sure if the FLCL thing is pre-Gainax or not.

(For the studio audience, FLCL is a somewhat experimental show which drops into "animated comics" for about five or ten minutes, at which point some of the sketchier characters go off on a riff on the name of the show, rattling through about a half-dozen onomatopoeic definitions of what it might mean, almost all of them dubious or dirty.)

Mangaka are endlessly fecund when it comes to sound effects, and there's lots of pornographic manga with a crying need for sonic descriptions of breasts. It's got to be the Eskimos' terms-for-snow of eromanga.

Balfegor said...

Someone's an anime fan... :)

And how! Actually, mostly comics nowadays. But when I was a teenager I liked the cartoons.

Griffin said...

I think my favorite is "niko niko," the "sound" of smiling or being happy.

Coincidentally, there's a good Greek restaurant in Houston by that name. It makes me smile.