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I recently came upon a number of adjectives ending in 「〜やか」that can be paired up with other adjectives:

  • 「緩い」 and 「緩やか
  • 「涼しい」 and 「涼やか
  • 「軽い」 and 「軽やか

What is the meaning of this 「〜やか」and where does it come from? According to the dictionary, the paired adjectives have the same meaning. Is there a difference in tone between the adjectives?

  • There are also such adjectives, which cannot be paired any longer, but once were a pair, such as 穏い【おだい】 and 穏やか. (This appears to be true for practically all of these adjectives ending in ~やか, presumably from ~い + か.) – Earthliŋ Jan 22 '17 at 23:27
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First, -い versions are i-adjectives but -やか versions are na-adjectives. Second, I feel -やか versions have slightly different primary meanings.

  • 緩い【ゆるい】: loose, easy

    緩く引っ張る: to pull weakly

  • 緩やか【ゆるやか】: gradual, slow

    緩やかに引っ張る: to pull slowly

  • 軽い【かるい】: light (weight), light (mood), casual, easy, shallow (mind)

    軽く走る: to run for a short time, to run casually

  • 軽やか【かろやか】: light (footstep), cheerful

    軽やかに走る: to run cheerfully, to run with light steps

I chose these examples to illustrate the difference, but there are times when they are interchangeable. 涼やか【すずやか】 is rare and I'm not sure how it's used.

I think やか is just another suffix used to make an adjective, and I doubt it has its own noteworthy meaning. It's no longer productive (i.e., new words using -やか are unlikely to be coined any more). As Earthliŋ mentioned, many (most?) -やか adjectives do not have their -い counterparts at least in modern Japanese (e.g., はなやか, みやびやか, ひそやか, しとやか).

When you encounter both -い and -やか versions, I think you should just remember them as different words. Just as you should distinguish numeric and numerous, or temporary and temporal, as two different words with different meanings.

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