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I keep seeing these onomatopoeic adverbs popping up with the form: _っ_り. Some examples include ぐっすり、ぴったり、すっきり、etc…. Is there a name for these adverbs, and why are they in this specific form?

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Since no-one else has tried to answer, I'll write up a few thoughts in the hope of attracting a more knowledgeable person, Somebody Is Wrong On The Internet style.

I do not think there is any single, universally accepted name for this form. Sometimes you see the term "ri adverb" (in Japanese, "り副詞"), but this often encompasses 3-mora adverbs too (yahari as well as yappari), so it is not quite what you're after. Maybe "geminated ri adverb" would be it?

As for why they are in this specific form... I don't have an airtight theory on this, but here are some thoughts.

  1. As far as I can tell these adverbs first started appearing in the latter half of the Late Middle Japanese period. (Muromachi period and after.)
  2. The vast majority of these adverbs are clearly related to mimetic roots that are attested much earlier, often in Old Japanese (e.g. nikkori obviously has something to do with OJ nikwoyaka; hissori must be related to OJ pisoka; etc.)
  3. In most cases, geminated forms (e.g. yappari) have earlier or at least roughly contemporaneous attestations than ungeminated forms (e.g. yahari).
  4. On the other hand, doubled forms (e.g. nikoniko) tend to appear a bit earlier, during Early Middle Japanese.
  5. If I recall my Frellesvig correctly, LMJ is exactly the stage when /Q/, the "geminate-the-following-consonant" phoneme became distinct from the phoneme he represents as /C/, which was expressed either as gemination or a moraic nasal depending entirely on context (his example I think was that in EMJ there could be no minimal pair like contemporary Japanese shittai vs shintai).

Basically, it looks like this form of adverb arose during the LMJ period, following the appearance of the doubled forms, as a new way to express mimetic material adverbially using the new-to-Japanese gemination phoneme /Q/.

(Why should a new form have arisen? Was it systematically different in semantics or usage patterns than the doubled forms? I don't know.)

Ungeminated versions apparently appeared shortly afterwards, possibly originally as hypercorrections/backformations based on other word pairs with phonemically similar profiles, e.g. yoppodo and yohodo.

Accounting for the final -ri is harder. It's worth noting that there are also attested forms that don't include this, e.g. nikko [to], ukkara [to], apparently with little to no semantic differentiation, so apparently adding -ri was originally just one ending among several that combined with the gemination.

It makes sense that the variants would be whittled away to one non-zero form, since that helps identify each member of this word class as a member of the class, but as for why -ri should have been (a) a contender in the first place, and (b) the final winner, I have only idle speculation. (e.g., consider repeated usage of /r/ as a sort of "flavorless" consonant throughout the history of Japanese morphology; consider lingering influence of forms like /ari/ and /nari/; etc.)

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To expand on Matt's answer somewhat, I have a dim memory of reading somewhere that the final り in these adverbs is derived from classical あり (modern ある, to be). Digging around in my sources at the moment, I cannot find where I read this. That said, this functions here in many ways nearly identically to the auxiliary verb (助動詞{じょどうし}) り, which is analyzed as an abbreviation of あり (see the Weblio or Kotobank entries; search the page for 助動), and which is used to indicate 1) completion, 2) the result of an action, or 3) an ongoing state. The last sense especially fits semantically for these -り adverbs, which all seem to describe state.

In terms of the historical development of these terms, the basic trend over time appears to be:

  • Two-mora root
    This is often still apparent in other existing words. For instance, the ひそ root in modern ひっそり also appears in ひそか, ひそひそ, ひそむ, ひそまる, ひそめる, and ひそやか.
  • Reduplication
    Many, but not all, of the ‑り adverbs went through a reduplication phase. For root ひそ, that would be ひそひそ.
  • Gemination
    I suspect this initially developed as a kind of fast, informal-speech, clipped abbreviation. ひそひそ, for instance, is sometimes realized as ひそびそ even by some modern speakers. This might have been realized like: /hisobiso/*/hiso̥bi̥so//hisso/
    • In fact, we find that almost all of the -り adverbs that include gemination also have a reduplicated form without the り: ひっそり has ひそひそ, にっこり has にこにこ, うっかり has うかうか. Sometimes the reduplicated version has different voicing: さっぱり has さばさば, しっかり has しかじか.
    • One geminated ‑り adverb that appears to break this mold is やっぱり. However, some digging shows that this apparent outlier does hew to the pattern -- after allowing for some semantic variation. やっぱり is most often used in modern Japanese to mean something like "just as I thought, just as expected". It also has a less-well-known sense of "quietly, steadily, gently". This is much closer to the putative root やは, cognate with the やわ in やわらかい "soft, gentle" and also found in older Japanese as a standalone ‑な adjective meaning "soft, gentle, mild; fragile". The /h/ in modern やは would have been a /p/ in older stages of the language, giving us a possible development like /yapayapa/*/yapyapa//yappa/.
  • Addition of the ‑り
    Again, this seems to be the ‑り that came from あり. The suffix ‑り likely developed first, and then was used for these adverbs. Use of あり itself would usually imply forms like とあり or にあり on the end -- and these are known historically to become たり and なり, which produces adjectives. Also, we cannot find any textual evidence of forms like *ひっそあり, only ひっそり.

If you run across a geminated ‑り adverb, identify the root, and dig around in a good Japanese dictionary to find the related terms. This can be a good way to expand your vocabulary.

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    Nice addition! I would just quibble with the analysis of "ri" as directly from "ari" or "-ri", for two reasons: (1) time frame is suspiciously late for something so OJ-y (why no intermediate forms like /hisohisoari/ or similar?), (2) word class problems - /sika/ is an adverb, good candidate for + /ari/, but on mimetics like /hisohiso/ you would normally expect an n/t copula. I do however think it quite possible that the /ri/ was added by analogy with the forms you list, basically a reanalysis of final /-ri/ as some kind of "adverby" suffix – Matt Jul 15 '16 at 10:06
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    Ah, I realize what I wrote was not as clear as it should have been, and the しかり example was poorly chosen as it clouds what I initially intended: り as a suffix appears to be from あり, and I think it was this suffix that was used to create these adverbs. I agree that あり itself would usually imply forms like とあり or にあり on the end -- and these are known historically to become たり and なり, which produces adjectives. I'll edit the post later to clarify. – Eiríkr Útlendi Jul 15 '16 at 14:49

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