A Contrastive Analysis of “Laugher” Onomatopoeia and Mimetic Words between Japanese and Chinese

Author: Yihua Xia (Graduate School of International Cultural Studies of Tohoku University, Japan)
Speaker: Yihua Xia
Topic: Language Socialization
CALA 2020 General Session


In the Japanese language, onomatopoeic words occupy an indispensable part of the lexicon (Makino 1982: 130). In particular, mimetic words for laughing are the most iconic words. Some scholars point out that the alternation of phoneme type or manners of articulation is the expression of emotional overtones (Tamori, 2002). For instance, the simple vowel [a] presents ‘cheerful, nice and pleasant laughs’; the constriction vowel [o] signifies ‘more feminine and graceful’. However, there are only a few studies focusing on the Chinese sound symbolism of mimetic expressions. Therefore, to further explore the Iconic Semantics of the Chinese mimetic words becomes essential.

The primary objectives of this thesis are as follows: 1) to explore the Iconic Semantics of onomatopoeic for laughing, thereby contributing to the identification of the differences between vowels and consonants; 2) considering some grammatical, derivational and morphological aspects of Japanese and Chinese onomatopoeic words, to examine the relationship between the characteristics of onomatopoeia and the elements of culture.

The sentences were collected from the corpus for Sino-Japanese translation. It was found that 424 Japanese consists of 178 mimetic onomatopoeia (giongo) and 246 non-onomatopoeic ideophones (gitaigo); 279 Chinese consists of 249 mimetic onomatopoeia and 30 non-onomatopoeic ideophones. The characteristics of the two categories, including ‘tone of voice,’ ‘facial expression,’ and ‘bodily gestures’ were carefully considered. Furthermore, ‘CaboCha’ and ‘MeCab’ were carried out to extract nouns, adjectives, and verbs from sentences for analysis of the dependency structure. These parts of speech are more conducive to distinguish the meanings of onomatopoeias.

Based on the corpus data, the sound and meaning of the words containing /a/, /e/ in the Chinese onomatopoeia and mimetic words were found similar to those of Japanese. Notably, the words containing /u/, /o/, /i/ with the various forms derived from the core sound exhibited subtle differences in types of smiles. Also, the use of an adverb, adjective, or verb to furnish vivid descriptions and subtle nuances of multiple actions was observed in the Chinese onomatopoeia expression. Although most of the Japanese onomatopoeia and mimetic expressions function as adverbs, this trend is not maintained in the Chinese translations and the use of verb and adjective is more frequent.

Keywords: Onomatopoeia, iconic semantics, vowels, consonants, translation, Chinese, Japanese,