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Out of sheer curiosity I was wondering why 瞬く is read as またたく but 瞬き is read as まばたき.

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    No, 瞬く also can be read まばたく and 瞬き also またたき. – broccoli forest May 2 '17 at 14:02
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    Correct me if I'm wrong but according to my Japanese teacher it's more common to read those two words as described above. Which brings me back to the original question of why is that? – BluNova897 May 2 '17 at 14:04
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    Um... purely frequency-wise, your teacher is probably right, though. – broccoli forest May 2 '17 at 14:14
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  1. (A)まばたくー (B)まばたき
  2. (A)またたくー (B)またたき

where (A) is a verb and (B) is a noun.

I think that the use of these words depends on the generation and the dialect very much, therefore what is written from now on is my personal opinion.

Generally group 1 is used to describe the blink of eyes, on the other hand group 2 is used to describe the fluctuation of emitted light from objects such as stars, fishing boat equipped with fishing lamps, candles, etc.

As the Japanese word for the set phrase "in a very short time", またたくまに is used but まばたくまに is not.

As for しばたく/しばたたく and しばたき/しばたたき which are described in broccoli forest's answer, I have rarely said or heard them said; a very little use frequency of them is also written in the follow-up survey in the answer.

The etymology

The verb matataku (瞬{またた}く) is made of ma and tataku (叩{たた}く) where ma means eye (目{め}) and tataku (叩{たた}く) means to strike, so matataku (瞬{またた}く) literally means to strike eyes (with eyelids), then matataku (瞬{またた}く) means to blink eyes. As for mabataku (瞬{まばた}く), ma means me (目{め}), and bataku is an euphonic change from hataku (叩{はた}く) which means strike. Therefore matataku (瞬{またた}く) and mabataku (瞬{まばた}く) have the almost same origin derived from the same motion of blinking eyes.

On the other hand, shibataku (しばたく) has different etymology; it is derived from shiba (しば) and tataku (叩{たた}く). shiba (しば) is abbreviated from shibashiba (屡/屢{しばしば}) which is an adverb meaning often or many times. Hence the whole meaning of shibatataku (しばたたく) is to strike often. Originally shibatataku (しばたたく) was used as the phrase "me wo sibashiba tatataku (目{め}をしばしば叩{たた}く)" which means to strike eyes often (with eyelids).

So if we trace the word, we found out that the original phrase gradually turned to the present form as:
"me wo shibashiba tataku" → "shibashiba tataku" → "shiba tataku" → "shibataku" → (it becomes nearly an obsolete word now.)


I'll show you the intonations of the words in the following illustration. Before that the rules of accent or intonation of a Japanese word are like:

1) Accent is relative emphasis or prominence given to a certain syllable in a word.
2) Intonation is a pattern of rise and fall in the level/pitch of the voice.
3) Emphasis is produced through pitch alone, so it is called pitch accent.
4) Largely, words are divided into two groups whether there is an accent or not.
5) The accent given to the emphasized syllable is called an accent nucleus.
6) Pitch falls after the accent nucleus.
7) Unless the first syllable is an accent nucleus, there is a rise of pitch after the first syllable of a word.

I'll show you how the intonation lines written in red in the illustration are decided by the rules.
As for まばたく, we give an accent to た which is called an accent nucleus by the rule 5), so by the rule 6) the pitch becomes to fall from た to く, then the intonation around たく becomes like まば[たく]{HL}. And by the rule 7) the intonation around まば becomes like [まば]{LH}たく, so the whole intonation becomes [まばたく]{LHHL}.  

As for accent nucleus, ば in まばたき and the second た in またたく become the accent nucleus of each word, and またたき has not it. And after applying the rule 6) and the rule 7) to these words, each intonation becomes like this respectively.
[まばたき]{LHLL}, [またたく]{LHHL} and [またたき]{LHHH}

enter image description here

  • Thank you for this very interesting explanation of the origins of both words! – BluNova897 May 3 '17 at 10:46
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    表にあるピッチアクセントについてなんですが、Weblio(大辞林) によると、「[またたく]{LHHL}」(3)「[まばたく]{LHHL}」(3) 「[またたき]{LHHH}」(0)(4)、「[まばたき]{LHLL}」(2)、 となっているようなのですが。。 – Chocolate May 3 '17 at 14:10
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    大辞林凡例には一応「共通語では、1拍目と2拍目との間に必ず音の高低の変化がある。」と書いてありますが、実際には1・2拍目の 「[〇〇]{LH}」は「[〇〇]{HH}」になることも多くて、「[〇〇〇〇]{LHHH}」「 [〇〇〇〇]{HHHH} 」の両方が使われていると聞きます。他のパターンでも同じで、「 [〇〇〇〇]{LHHL}」も、「[〇〇〇〇]{HHHL}」になることが多いと聞きます。 – Chocolate May 3 '17 at 15:17
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    そおなんですよね・・・「高と低だけで表すのは無理」「(だから)HLの方式キライ」っていう人も結構多い気がします。。ところでさきほどから「@」を使っていらっしゃるので、タグ付けされず、notificationが来ておりません。こちらを使ってくださるとよろしいかと→「@」 – Chocolate May 3 '17 at 15:51
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    @mackygoo さんが「高い」と判断しているところは恐らく下がり核の位置だと思います。それは音声学的に正しいことで、東京式アクセントは実際は下がり核に向かって段々上がっていき、そこをピークにガクッと下がるという形になります。しかしこの方式でそのように表記すると誤りになります。mackygoo さんのやり方でやるなら、NHKアクセント新辞典のように「まばた\く」「またたき ̄」などとするのが誤解がないと思います。 – broccoli forest May 3 '17 at 22:05
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瞬く is read as またたく but 瞬き is read as まばたき

is an over-simplification.

瞬く has three (or four) possible kun'yomi.

  • またたく: [eyes] blink (once); [light sources] turn on and off or pulsate (e.g. blink, twinkle, flicker...)
  • まばたく: [eyes] blink (once)
  • しばたたく: [eyes] blink (rapidly in a row); blink (in surprise) at
  • しばたく: variant of しばたたく

Thus, the nominalized form 瞬き also has as many readings.

  • またたき
  • まばたき
  • しばたたき
  • しばたき

The interesting fact is that, noun forms are ranked by frequency as:

まばたき > またたき > しばたき >= しばたたく

while verb forms are:

またたく > まばたく > しばたく >= しばたたく

Why this happens? Undoubtedly まばたき is the most common word for "eye blink", but the verb まばたく is not a very useful word in modern Japanese, because it means "an eye blinks" (see above) rather than "a person blinks (their eyes)". For the latter meaning we say まばたき(を)する, and this is a fairly common phrase.

In this sense, you might expect 瞬く more likely to be read またたく, and 瞬き more likely まばたき, but they are by no means the only reading of the each.

星の瞬(またた)き twinkling of stars


Follow-up

Below is the frequencies each word form appears in the BCCWJ corpus.

  • nouns

    • またたき: ≥ 38*
    • まばたき: ≤ 384*
    • しばたたき + しばたき: ≥ 0
      * The raw results of まばたき was 398, but contains at least 14 obvious mistagging for またたき or perhaps しばたたき (due to homography).
  • dictionary forms

    • またたく: ≥ 350 (an idiom 瞬【またた】く間【ま】に takes up around 80%)
    • まばたく: ≥ 4
    • しばたたく + しばたく: ≤ 8
      † The raw results of しばたたく was 183, but contains at least 174 obvious mistagging for またたく or まばたく and 1 mistokenization.
  • causatives

    • またたかせる: 4 ± 2
    • まばたかせる: 3 ± 2
    • しばたたかせる + しばたかせる: ≤ 54
      ‡ Again, 3 possible mistagging for またたく or まばたく.

So you might also expect 瞬かせる to be read しばた(た)かせる, if you want.

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