I understand that 擬音語 (ぎおんご) imitate sounds, like どきどき imitates a heartbeat. So, if these onomatopoeia don't have roots I wouldn't be at all surprised.

But where do 擬態語 (ぎたいご) come from? Do いらいら (to be irritated), きらきら (to glitter), すっきり (to be refreshed/relieved) have root words?

It was said on this Japanese.SE question that ぴかぴか came from 光 (ぴかり), is this generally the case or an exception?

  • To me "root" generally refers to the part of an inflected word minus its inflections. Then again "stem" also has that sense. I'm trying to think of a better word for your question text though you make it perfectly clear in the body of your question. Jul 18 '11 at 7:11

I didn't exactly say that ぴかぴか comes from ひかり (originally pronounced pikari), but rather that ひかり itself seems to be 擬態語. That is, pikari may come from pika which may have been used to mean 'shining' back in the old days just as it is today.

I don't have time now to search for the etymology of the specific words you gave me here, but as far as I can tell, it is hard to find a root word for most 擬態語, and it seems like many of them are, in fact, sound impressions that have been subjectively attached to non-auditory phenomena (such as light or feelings).


Curiously enough, it turns out that いらいら might be one of these 擬態語 that actually originate in a word: いら (written 刺 or 苛) appears in Classical Japanese in the meaning of a thorn (the same as とげ in modern language, apparently), and it probably also includes small toxic hairs as those on the Japanese Nettle (イラクサ). So いらいら obviously comes from the irritated (See the similarity? That's a nice one too :)) skin you get after being stung by a thorn or a nettle.

As for きらきら, we'll probably never know. This ideophone is almost as old as you can get with Japanese: it already appears in 宇津保物語 (Utsubo Monogatari) as part of the verb きらめく, which maintained the same meaning to this very day.

  • Oops, I got that backwards. I was hoping they had some origin words that would help demystify them to me. Jun 19 '11 at 15:06
  • 1
    @Louis: tracing the origin of such words (ideophones) is quite difficult, no matter the language. It's a prominent problem in Japanese just because Japanese has lots of them. But take an apparent English ideophone like swing, where does it comes from? Maybe it comes from the sound of a swinging blade. And what about shine or shimmer? They're sometimes linked to an Indo-European root which means essentially the same, but where does that root come from?
    – Boaz Yaniv
    Jun 19 '11 at 16:09
  • I didn't even realize those were ideophones. Same thing after looking up a few more. Yet they all evoke the senses. I guess I just have to trust that gitaigo do the same for native Japanese speakers. Jun 19 '11 at 16:32
  • I wouldn't exactly define ideaphones as evoking senses, but more like sound patterns that can evoke a rather wide variety of ideas. The key here is that these are sound patterns (not words), and they can be modified like sound patterns. e.g. さわさわ usually describes a smoother noise (such as rustle) while ざわざわ is usually harsher, and much more unpleasant. ぱらぱら is separated into tiny parts (= sprinkled), while ばらばら is separated into larger parts (= scattered).
    – Boaz Yaniv
    Jun 19 '11 at 16:55
  • 1
    It's interesting to note that in most languages (at least those I know), vowels are mainly used to strengthen or weaken onomatopoeia and ideophones, but in Japanese it's usually the voicing of the first syllable.
    – Boaz Yaniv
    Jun 19 '11 at 16:56

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.