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Japanese language comes out to play
by Chris Arning| London, UK
Thursday, 7 June 2012
tags: consumer culture, culture, making sense, semiotics
If the kanji script can be said to be the heart and soul of the Japanese language, and the socially contextual honorific language its social conscience, then gitaigo would be the funny bone or at least the limbic system! Gitaigo (literally meaning onomatopoeic expressions) are doubled syllables such as puru puru, giri giri, tsuru tsuru or kira kira. These words, which can sound like names of Chinese pandas or Thai gogo girls, are used liberally in daily conversation by all Japanese people and appear in manga and in Twitter feeds.
Gitaigo act either like adverbs letting us know how things are done, how someone feels or the general atmosphere feels. As Seizo Terasaki puts it: “After all, onomatopoeic expressions are not really language; they are in a sense raw. Moya moya, doro doro, gocha gocha, bara bara, fuwa fuwa – no other words can describe these expressions. They represent a world of their own…” (Nihongo Gitaigo Jiten: An Illustrated Dictionary of Japanese Onomatopoeic Expressions, Tokyo: Plus Alpha, 2004).
They introduce a disruptive emotional component into Japanese. Depending on the context, this can be a sense of whimsy or a brutally direct and visceral rawness. For instance uki uki means a sense of excitement and the hard k between the two vowels seems to convey this. Beta beta means sticky and the hardness of the t seems to convey that sense of icky glueyness. Mecha mecha means messy and seems to convey this sense of disarray, particularly when contrasted with a mellifluous gitaigo like tsuru tsuru meaning smooth. Chiku chiku describes something prickly, and lo and behold is spiky to pronounce too. Niya niya means to smirk and there is something distinctly smarmy about the sound too.
This is because these are all examples of what Roman Jakobson called the iconic in language. He claimed that Saussure’s vision of arbitrariness missed out on the aspect of language that words such as smash, svelte or staccato evoke. They somehow innately resemble the concepts that they refer to through their sonic attributes, so are not totally arbitrary.
Gitaigo also confound expectations about Japanese being po-faced and serious in the sense that they are emotive (in the Jakobsonian sense) words, conveying in a very direct image the addresser’s feeling about something. Superficially, this seems at odds with the highly context dependent and often subtle, euphemistic way the Japanese usually attenuate emotions in language.
In this sense, gitaigo can be likened somewhat to the imagist epiphany meant to be elicited by the best haiku – evoking an emotion with a jolt in a matter of syllables…
As with much in ambiguous Japan, there are many potential interpretations and the use of gitaigo can seem also to be a phenomenon related to the love of children and the basics of childish nonsense language. After all, we start our journey towards mastery of language through baby talk such as baba, mama and the like and then move on to more complex syntactic constructions. Perhaps Japanese reveling in the gitaigo is also (just like the mania for kawaii, regressive fantasy, widespread desire for childhood regression and doting on kids) a facet of this desire to leave adulthood.
In advertising, gitaigo are widely used to convince the Japanese that they will feel a certain way or think a certain way if they purchase a certain good or consume a certain experience. Strawberry juice will be tsubu tsubu meaning pulpy and natural. The beauty and skin care brands promise a brand that will leave your skin feeling puru puru (plump) and tsuru tsuru (smooth). Pillows, bedspreads or female breasts (depending on the magazine) will be fuwa fuwa (soft). Mobile phones designed for older people, with large displays and buttons, are called raku raku (meaning leisure).
To summarise, gitaigo are a vindication of Jakobson’s insistence on the importance of the iconic in language, an example of the whimsy, play and ingenuity at the heart of Japanese culture, and proof of how visceral words can give brands a rhetorical flourish.
© Chris Arning 2012
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