July 21, 2004

"Ho ho ho", she laughed in a refined feminine way

In reply to my question about lexical extensions in non-English-language comics, Ray Girvan emailed several helpful links.

(link) "Japanese sound effects and what they mean"
(link) Michaela Schnetzer, "Problems in the translation of comics and cartoons"

The Schnetzer paper has a number of other useful links in its bibliography, especially

(link) Gergana Ivanova. “On the Relation between Sound, Word Structure and Meaning in Japanese Mimetic Words”.

A couple of interesting odds and ends about Japanese, comics and otherwise:

In Japanese manga, (according to the first link above), "masculine laughter" is "ha ha ha" or "ahahaha", whereas "refined feminine laughter" is "ho ho ho". This seems to be the opposite phonetic direction from English, where stereotypically feminine laughter is usually represented as something like "teeheehee", and "ho ho ho" is what Santa Claus does. In manga, apparently "a strange laugh" is "hu hu hu" or "fu fu fu". This would be strange in English as well, too strange to use, I think. The English convention for diabolical laughter is more like "bwahaha".

In (ordinary, non-manga) Japanese ideophones (according to the Ivanova paper)--

the pattern /(Ne+CV)2/ means something like "stickiness", "tenacity"; e.g. NEba-NEba (sticky, greasy), NEchi-NEchi (sticky, persistent);

the pattern /(NO+CV)2/ means something like "slow action", "lack of stress/ anxiety/uneasiness"; e.g. NObi-NObi (feel at ease, be relaxed/relieved), NOko-NOko (nonchalantly), NOro-NOro (drag oneself, walk slowly).

I'm not clear about whether manga use ideophones in the normal way, or if there are special manga conventions or extensions.

It's worth trying to clarify what we're talking about here. We have to start by distinguishing among several categories of sounds:

1. Sounds not made by humans at all (like things falling, machines working, punches landing)
2. Biologically constrained human sounds (like sneezes, cries of pain, laughter, breathing)
3. Filled pauses and other hesitation sounds (like English uh, um, er)
2. Non-lexical vocal gestures (like clucking the tongue or English "sh+" or "aw+"
3. The wider class of conventionalized interjections (like English whoa or d'oh)
4. Non-phonological onomatopoeic sounds, whether imitations of natural sounds or non-representative evocative noises
5. Ideophonic words and systems of ideophonic vocabulary, fully embedded in a language's phonological system

These categories blend into one another in many cases, but the distinctions are still worth making.

Cross-cutting these distinctions, we need to distinguish between the way that such sounds are performed (or happen naturally), and the way that they're represented orthographically. The orthographic conventions can in turn influence the way that some people perform the sounds, as in the case of "tsk tsk", which starts as a way to represent clucking the tongue, but is often pronounced as if it were a phrase spelled "tisk tisk".

Within the realm of human performance of these sounds, there are some that are completely adopted into the phonological system, and others that are completely outside it, and everything in between. The English word tinkle might be a case of phonetic symbolism, but it's also just an English word, like tanker or pickle. At the other end, there are expressive noises that are completely outside the phonology. Clucking the tongue is a good example, but there are plenty of others -- kissing, spitting or slurping noises, for example, or naturalistic imitations of animal sounds. Such expressive noises are not entirely universal, though, either in their inventory or their modes of performance. And there's a sort of continuum of degrees of phonologization, for instance from a completely naturalistic imitation of a cat's meow to the English word meow, perhaps pronounced in a somewhat cat-like way.

English has a lot of ideophonic words, but it doesn't really seem to have an ideophonic system of the kind that Japanese or Korean or Yoruba have. One of the things that comes close, I think, is the emergent culture of comics sound spelling, which differs in being initially written rather than spoken, but otherwise might lend itself to the kind of analysis performed in the Ivanova paper.


Posted by Mark Liberman at July 21, 2004 05:02 PM