In Samuel E. Martin's "A Reference Grammar of Japanese", in a section (Chapter 23, p. 1041) on putative etymologies for some Japanese interjections like さあ or まあ, he asserts:

Although others [other interjections] seem like little more than grunts or shouts — aa, yaa, yoo — they may have originated as shortenings of more legitimate etyma; oo 'yea' is, after all, a Chinese loanword.

Really? If so, a loan from which Chinese word?

  • 4
    I'm not convinced that this is true. If it was, it would probably be from 哦 (pronounced 'o') though, which is the chinese equivalent. I'm just not a believer that interjections are 1) words 2) are even loaned from other languages that often 3) aren't generally just coincidentally the same amongst all languages because that's the way people are. I'd try find another source for the claim that it's a loanword before I'd be willing to believe it.
    – sqrtbottle
    Commented May 16, 2015 at 23:34
  • 1
    Exactly, that's why it didn't pass muster for me. But he asserts it as if it were a well known fact, so I decided to put it to the community.
    – jogloran
    Commented May 16, 2015 at 23:35
  • 2
    This character is definitely non-Joyo, despite being a common Chinese hanzi. But, the Japanese only has one listed on'yomi: が. Its kun'yomi are うたう, and よむ [kanji.quus.net/kakijyun/3561.htm] [en.wiktionary.org/wiki/%E5%93%A6]. From this, it doesn't appear that Japan has ever seen its phonetic value as お, something not likely for a loanword. Without a historical work showing its pronunciation as お (or おう), this is a difficult claim to back up, and no current listed works show it as bearing this pronunciation in Japanese.
    – sqrtbottle
    Commented May 17, 2015 at 0:19
  • 2
    A quick dictionary lookup gives this as a candidate 【嗚嗚】オオ 声をはりあげるさま。歌うとき、泣くときなどに用いる。「賢兄小姑哭嗚嗚=賢兄小姑哭して嗚嗚たり」〔李賀・箜篌引〕 李賀 is apparently a Chinese author, but I can only find the Mandarin and Cantonese pronunciation wu1 for 嗚 -- perhaps an older pronuciation was different or wu sounds similar to お? Also, this still needs some sources that it was actually used in Japan, and I'm not sure how its meaning matches with yea...
    – blutorange
    Commented May 17, 2015 at 6:27
  • 1
    @blutorange Interesting idea. 嗚's middle chinese pronunciation was in fact /?o/, so phonologically it makes sense. But, 嗚嗚 is used for crying sounds, and not so much similar in usage to おう, so the meaning doesn't match at all. The only compound with 嗚 in Japanese is 嗚咽{おえつ}, meaning to wimper. I just don't think the sound alone is a strong argument, especially when so much of Chinese is homophones...
    – sqrtbottle
    Commented May 17, 2015 at 7:14

2 Answers 2


I think Martin has 応 (old form 應) in mind. This was not uncommonly used to write ō, especially in Edo times. A famous haiku by Kyorai:

ō ō to / iedo tataku ya / yuki no kado
"All right, all right!" / I say, but the knocking doesn't stop / at the gate in the snow

However, I agree with the commenters that ō is unlikely to have been borrowed from Chinese at all -- not least because it appears in the Nihon Shoki as 越々, i.e. /wowo/ (which incidentally isn't easy to reconcile with any Chinese pronunciation of 応/應), and only got attached to 応/應 later.


I'm astounded to see a series of the answers and comments to this question. Most of them are misguiding and confusing the O.P. They lack even a beginner's knowledge of Chinese language about how to read it and what it means.

None of “応、鳴、唯, 越々, and 応々” corresponds to the pronunciation equivalent to “おう” – "oh" or "ou." They are pronounced respectively as "ying," "ming," "wei," "yue-yue" and "ying-ying" in Chinese. And all suggested words are pointless and utterly wrong. If you have just an elementary knowledge of Chinese language, you wouldn't make such a primitive and laughable mistake.

They are absolutely different beasts from “さあ,” “まあ” and “おう" either phonetically or semantically. If you have any objections, please contend with me to make your case. I'm waiting for your rebuttal.

Both “応" and "鳴" are verbs each meaning "respond" and "sing, chirp, twitter." "唯” is an adjective meaning "only, sole" in both Japanese and Chinese, ”越々” is an adverbial phrase meaning "the more ... the more," all irrelevant to “さあ,” “まあ,” and “おう" which are interjections.

The connection of "応々" in 去来's haiku with Chinese word is comically farfetched. There's no Chinese word spelt or vocalized like 応々, and if it should happen to be by chance, it must be read "ying-ying," not "ō, ō" as an answerer suggested.

I think @sqrtbottle is right. And only he was right.

If Japanese, “さあ” and “まあ” is a loan word from Chinese word or character that sounds “oo” as Samuel Martin says, it may be “哦” which is pronounced as "o" or "oh."

A Chinese language dictionary at hand, “多功用常用字典” - published by 新華出版社 in Beijing - defines “哦” as a "感嘆詞.表示懐疑或吃惊. 哦! 是这么回事. – [Exclamation] indicates a suspicion or surprise. Example. Oh, my God! What is this all about! "

However, I’m not sure whether “さあ” and “まあ” are really a loanword from Chinese language.

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .