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There is a pattern in which some mimetic words that take the form ABAB have cousin words that take the form ABり or AっBり and mean something very similar, sometimes identical. For example:

  • にこにこ・にっこり
  • ぽちゃぽちゃ・ぽっちゃり
  • はきはき・はっきり
  • ぴくぴく・ぴくり(と)
  • ひらひら・ひらり(と)
  • ふらふら・ふらり(と)
  • のろのろ・のろり(と)

However, the meanings are not always exactly the same, and sometimes there are meanings associated with one member of the pair that are not present on the other. For example, while both ひらひら and ひらり capture the manner of light, nimble, fluttering movement, only ひらり seems appropriate for intentional movement, such as that of a person.

  • ひらりと馬にまたがった。
  • ひらひらと馬にまたがった。(???)

Regarding the question of which alternative form a given ABAB word gets, it seems like maybe the principle is that if the B character is something that can accept っ before it, っ is likely to enter, else it does not. But sometimes both are acceptable:

  • にこにこ→にこり→にっこり.

However, there is no guarantee that any particular ABAB word has an alternative form, or vice versa. For example:

  • かさかさ, but not(!)かさりと・(!)かっさり
  • ゆっくり、but not(!)ゆくゆく

So my questions are:

  • Can we make any general statements about the relationship of these pairs besides the fact that they often do come in pairs, and when they do, they often but not always have similar meanings?

  • Are there any principles about how the meanings tend to be different? For example, the ~り variant tends to feel like a single action while the ABAB variant tends to feel like a repeating action (thinking of ぴくぴく versus ぴくり).

  • Is there a principle that determines whether the alternate form (if any) of an ABAB word will be ABり versus AっBり? Does it come down to the B character being something that can take a small tsu?

Thank you in advance!

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  • In general, when there's a contrast, ABAB refers to a status or continuous action, whereas AっBり, ABり and ABっ refer to a short phenomenon or action. ABっ is usually instant. Some onomatopoeias simply don't make sense as an instant action (e.g., ザーザー for heavy rain, ゲラゲラ for unstoppable laughter), which may be why their alternative forms do not exist.

  • As for the difference between AっBり and ABり, yes I think AっBり tends to be acceptable when B is in カ, サ or タ行. This explains why ひっらり, にっやり and so on are wrong. When both forms are acceptable, I feel the AっBり version tends to be more emphatic, but the difference is small.

  • There are some words that look like AっBり but describe a state. がっしり, しっとり, さっぱり, もっさり and so on describe a state on their own, and they do not have ABAB or ABり counterparts. ぽっちゃり also belongs to this category, since we don't usually say ぽちゃぽちゃ. However, some of these may not be onomatopoeic or mimetic words in the first place. I think, at least, ゆっくり and ちょっぴり are pure adverbs rather than onomatopoeic or mimetic words, though the borderline is admittedly blurry.

  • As always, there are exceptions. For example, こてこて and こってり have diverged, and they are typically used to describe totally different things. Still, I believe the number of such tricky words is fairly small.

    • Note that ひらひら/ひらり is not an exception. They refer to the same manner of motion except for its duration, so I don't think anything special is happening here. ひらひらと馬にまたがった is strange simply because mounting a horse elegantly doesn't take more than a couple of seconds.
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    This is very useful. I have been looking for a similar description in scholarly works in the past.
    – jogloran
    Commented Dec 27, 2023 at 7:03
  • Thank you for the excellent reply! Commented Dec 27, 2023 at 16:42
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    There are forms like がしがし, しとしと, もさもさ. And while ぼちゃぼちゃ might be unusual in the modern language, citations for it predate ぼっちゃり by some 200 years. Commented Dec 28, 2023 at 5:16
  • Side note re: 「ひらひらと馬にまたがった is strange simply because riding a horse elegantly doesn't take more than a couple of seconds」, perhaps you meant "mounting" instead of "riding"? Commented Dec 28, 2023 at 5:18
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    @EiríkrÚtlendi Yes, fixed. Thank you!
    – naruto
    Commented Dec 28, 2023 at 23:45

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