A friend just wrote this as a comment on a photo of mine on Facebook.

Is it an actual word or is it what I call a "vocal noise"?

By "vocal noise" I mean those things which convey some meaning but they're not really lexical and can't be used like regular words. Examples in English include "shhh", "zzz", and "tsk tsk".


The only real difference between what you call vocal noises and regular interjections (such as "Well well", "Wow!" or "Ouch!") is that these vocal noises do not fit into the phonology of their language, usually for one of two reasons:

  1. They use sounds that are not inside the phoneme inventory of the language, such as "tsk tsk" which is actually a dental click (a sound that exists as a perfectly normal phoneme in many of the native languages of Southern Africa, but not English).

  2. They use existing phonemes, but combine them in normally unacceptable ways (in linguistic terms: in ways that are incompatible with the language's phonotactics). The English "shh" use the perfectly normal English phoneme /ʃ/, but it used irregularly, since English doesn't normally allow words composed of consonants alone, without any vowels, and also since the consonants /ʃ/ is usually very prolonged.

If we choose to use this criterion to distinguish between "regular" interjections and "vocal noise" interjections, then あらら is definitely a regular interjection: it's a completely normal word as far as its phonology goes: it doesn't have any strange sounds or phoneme configurations. It's really not different than the English "Wow". It's probably an onomatopoeia if that's what you mean, but for the record so is わんわん, どきどき、旗 (originally: [pata], cf. ぱたぱた, the modern onomatopoeia for flapping) and probably even 光 (originally: [pikari], cf. ぴかぴか, the modern onomatopoeia for shining things).

  • I almost mentioned the phonology stuff but thought I might make the question overly linguistic - glad you didn't hesitate though! Interestingly, Jim Breen doesnt't include it in his famous WWWJDICT. I also thought about using "onomatopoeia" but I knew it is often confused with some other phenomena, especially in Japanese and I wasn't sure enough. Jun 15 '11 at 14:44
  • @hippietrail: Strictly speaking, words such as ぴかぴか and ばらばら are not really onomatopoeia, since they don't imitate any natural sounds, but rather represent a sound that is somehow identified with a certain event or manner. As for dictionaries, well, certain interjections are often omitted from them - probably because they are too colloquial, or their meaning is hard to define.
    – Boaz Yaniv
    Jun 15 '11 at 15:31

According to this: http://kotobank.jp/word/%E3%81%82%E3%82%89%E3%82%89

It is a word that is used when you are surprised or astonished.

Perhaps like the English "woah"?

  • french "ahlala" also "ohlala"
    – repecmps
    Jun 15 '11 at 13:47

A few friends of mine say it quite often, to express some kind of slight compassion. If someone said "I have to work on Sunday", they would say "arara, what a pity" (あらら、大変です) in return. I would consider it a real word/interjection.

  • weird, edict doesn't seem to have an entry for あらら. According to answers.yahoo.com/question/… あらら is a word "Adults say when they saw small children made small mistakes". Do you think that's accurate?
    – Pacerier
    Dec 16 '13 at 0:42

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