Dialectology of Japanese reflexive exclamations

« previous post | next post »

Fascinating episode of a Japanese TV program called Detective Knight Scoop (Tantei Knight Scoop):

A viewer writes in to the program and says that in the village in Miyazaki prefecture where she lives, people spontaneously exclaim "wi!" if they are unexpectedly splashed with water.  She also relates that she has heard that people in a particular place in Nagasaki prefecture exclaim "api!" when unexpectedly splashed with water.  The viewer is skeptical that people in that Nagasaki village actually say "api!", since "wi!" seems to be the natural, right thing to say in such a circumstance.

The hosts of the show are curious and decide to send out their investigator to check out what the real situation is on the ground.  So he takes a road trip from Miyazaki on the east coast to Nagasaki on the west coast, a total of 410 km distance.  On the way, he stops off at other places to see what the local people exclaim when unexpectedly splashed with water.  The results are nothing short of amazing (and lots of fun!).

The investigator finds that the people of each village he stops at have a different spontaneous exclamation to express their feeling when they are unexpectedly splashed with water.  Moreover, they all think that what they say is the natural exclamation that just "pops out" and expresses perfectly their feeling at that instant.  In addition, they all aver that this is something they have been saying since the time when they were in kindergarten or other very young age.

A stop in Kumamoto prefecture yields some even more finely grained detail.  The general exclamation for being unexpectedly splashed by water is "echa!".  To express the same emotion with greater intensity, one would say "echa-su!".  If the water is hot, one says "accha!".  If the water is hot and your response is stronger than usual, you would say "accha-su!".

At Saga they say "arittsu!".  When asked what the meaning of "arittsu!", one very tall fellow from Saga said that it means "arittsu!".

The individuals interviewed believed that, not only was what they said natural, it was also "standard".  The locals thought that people elsewhere throughout the nation would all say the same thing.

The investigator did determine that the people in the particular Nagasaki prefecture village did in fact say "api" (or more accurately "appi!") when unexpectedly splashed with water.  Further investigation, however, revealed that other nearby villages in Nagasaki didn't say "ap[p]i", but something else, and this was confirmed by one of the hosts (a woman) who came from another village in Nagasaki, and she stated that the people in her village did indeed use another exclamation when unexpectedly splashed with water.

The episode is only 13:24 and the subtitles are adequate for understanding what is going on.  I watched the entire episode twice with rapt attention.  If you're interested in dialectology, especially field investigations comparing comparable expressions in different locations, I recommend it highly.

All of the places visited are within Kyushu province, while the hosts, most of whom are from provinces other than Kyushu, can't offhand think of comparable expressions in their dialects.

[h.t. Tim Clifford]


  1. Ralph Hickok said,

    January 8, 2017 @ 8:23 pm

    I really enjoyed watching that. What's the show all about? Do they always investigate language usages?

  2. Sniffnoy said,

    January 9, 2017 @ 1:22 am

    Huh. The idea of a specific exclamation for being unexpectedly splashed with water would not have even occurred to me. Do such terms exist outside of Japan, or in languages other than Japanese, does anyone know?

  3. Andreas Johansson said,

    January 9, 2017 @ 2:38 am

    Acc'd an anecdote I was told by a Greek friend, all women are supposed to scream [i:::::::::::] when splashed with cold water. Otherwise I can't recall hearing that there's supposed to be a particular exclamation you make in the circumstance: certainly I don't have one I'd expect myself to make in the circumstance. If I'd make any sound at all it'd probably be an inarticulate expression of pain.

  4. Max said,

    January 9, 2017 @ 3:02 am

    I think my reaction to being sprayed by a stranger with an unknown fluid would be to punch him and threaten to call the police, or maybe break his squirt gun in half and brandish the broken halves as weapons.

    I hope this guy doesn't go out on the town to film people's reactions to kanchō

  5. jf said,

    January 9, 2017 @ 5:48 am

    It's probably one of the best Japanese TV shows around, and it's been around for a long time. Basically each week they go out and research something or try to answer the audience's question. You can find a whole bunch of episodes on nyaa.se. The embedded video is taken from the 2008-01-11 episode (2nd story). Other linguistically interesting episodes are:

    2013-11-15 (1st story: a man claims to be able to count the number of syllables in any spoken sentence)
    2012-02-10 (3rd story: there's a little village in western Shikoku where people say tu and du instead of tsu and (d)zu)
    2009-07-10 (1st story: people in Miyazaki call a hassaku orange "kyakkyorokkyo")
    2002-11-08 (1st story: a grandpa wants to try kanji kentei level 1)
    2002-05-10 (3rd story: about hentaigana)

    These are more about acoustics but interesting anyway: 2009-10-30 1st story: a melody that can be heard in two different ways – and 2006-08-04 2nd story: "tottanokayo" sounds like "ee ai ai" to some people when played from a cellphone speaker.

    Oh, and they also did a survey of the relative frequencies of aho/baka throughout Japan. Look for アホ・バカ分布図の検証.

    There are probably many others that I've forgotten about.

  6. Scott Mauldin said,

    January 9, 2017 @ 8:22 am

    Thoughts on all of these terms being descended from a root like "arrechu"?

  7. Andrew Usher said,

    January 9, 2017 @ 8:55 am

    Is there _any_ comparable phenomenon in English? If I made any non-lexical sound after being surprised like this, it would surely be a back rounded monophthong, which would be represented 'oh' or 'oo'. I imagine if English speakers differ, it's idiosyncratic and not dialectal.

    k_over_hbarc at yahoo.com

  8. Victor Mair said,

    January 9, 2017 @ 9:32 am

    We do have some such designated exclamations in English. The most common sound uttered when someone sees a mouse is "eek!".

    Since we used to have a mouse problem in Williams Hall (after great effort to eliminate the little critters, it has almost been cleared up now), I had ample opportunity to witness the reaction of people in the building when they unexpectedly encountered a mouse: the overwhelming utterance was "EEEEEEK!"

    There's even a Jamaican reggae musician who calls himself "Eek-A-Mouse".

  9. Victor Mair said,

    January 9, 2017 @ 10:31 am

    Of all the languages I know, Japanese is particularly rich in onomatapoeia. Here are some references (I am intentionally leaving the URLs unembedded, since they are transparent in indicating the contents of the various sites):







    And there are many other useful online resources, including for exclamations per se.

  10. Victor Mair said,

    January 9, 2017 @ 10:33 am

    I am the proud owner of all seventy issues of Mangajin (1988-1997). One of the things I loved most about this adorable magazine for learning Japanese was its extensive use of onomatopoetic words and explanations for them.

    Some of the happiest years of my life were when I regularly received Mangajin and read them avidly from cover to cover. Mangajin was a work of pedagogical genius.

    The founder of Mangajin was Vaughan P. Simmons, whom I met at conferences and with whom I corresponded. A distinctive feature of the magazine created by Simmons was its "'four-line-format' which shows the actual text as found in a Japanese manga, a romanization for pronunciation, a literal translation showing the structure of the expression, and an idiomatic English equivalent." (last sentence of the Wikipedia article on Mangajin)


    Oh, if we only had such materials for learning Mandarin, Cantonese, Taiwanese, and all other languages!

  11. jf said,

    January 9, 2017 @ 10:34 am

    Actually this reminded me of one Japanese peculiarity which is that natives tend to exclaim something like "bikkurishita!" (I got spooked!) almost reflexively when somebody or something surprises them – whereas westerners would just gasp or something. Or when something unexpected comes out – "nanka detekita!". Or when they're hurt, "itai". I mean sure, "ow" "ouch" are quite reflexive for English speakers but it kind of feels like "itai" is more of a complete word than "ouch".

  12. A Tarento with a Watergun said,

    January 9, 2017 @ 1:17 pm

    jf, you're probably already aware of this, but 痛い itai in fact is an adjective, or at least the Japanese equivalent of one.

    I hope I'm not putting words into your mouth here, but your comment and the video both agree with the impression I've been getting from various Japanese speakers, namely that the responses to certain situations are unusually heavily codified, to the degree that you can find one phrase – and it's usually just the one – for just about any situation.

    Although I guess this could all just be the L2 learner's tendency to look for and exaggerate any seemingly unique quirks of their target language. If a kind of "standardization of exclamations" isn't altogether too vague or crackpot a concept to consider, I'd really appreciate more learned perspectives.

  13. Ethan said,

    January 9, 2017 @ 3:49 pm

    The studio panel on the show seemed in agreement that there was no expectation for a uniform response in other parts of Japan to a spritz with cold water. But they made no comment on the fact that one of the interviewees volunteered that if it were hot water then the response would be "accha" (あっちゃ). It is my impression that the exclamation "accha!" is a widespread response in other parts of Japan to something unexpected (though not to hot water in particular).
    Curiously, the first definition jdict gives for an English equivalent to "あっちゃ" is "stone the crows". As a native English speaker, I for one have never heard this expression. So now I start to wonder if indeed there are idolect-specific English interjections analogous to the ones tracked down by the Tantei Knight Scoop team.

  14. maidhc said,

    January 9, 2017 @ 4:57 pm

    I'm surprised that no one has yet mentioned the Monty Python sketch:

    Man: Hello, I want to… Ooooh!

    Spreaders: (Terry Jones) No, no, no. Hold your head like this, then go Waaah. Try it again. (hits him on the head again)

    Man: uuuwwhh!!

    Spreaders: Better, Better, but Waah, Waah! Hold your hands here.

    Man: No.

    Spreaders: Now..

    Man: Waaaaah!!!

    Spreaders: Good, Good! That's it.

    Man: Stop hitting me!!

    Spreaders: What?

    Man: Stop hitting me!!

    Spreaders: Stop hitting you?

    Man: Yes!

    Spreaders: What did you come in here for?

    Man: I came here to complain.

    Spreaders: Oh no, that's next door. It's being-hit-on-the-head lessons in here.

  15. Max said,

    January 9, 2017 @ 5:35 pm

    Is it just me (perhaps my ears are not tuned to Japanese sounds) or did many of the interviewees not say what they said they said? For example: "A!" – "what did you say?" – "Echa!" and the same with the girls at the end. Only the tall guy really clearly exclaimed Arittsu

  16. Chris Davis said,

    January 9, 2017 @ 5:40 pm

    Huh, I made the subtitles for this about ten years ago while I was still in grad school. Weird to see it popping up on language log.

  17. krogerfoot said,

    January 9, 2017 @ 7:17 pm

    jf, the literality of these kinds of expressions is a huge boon to the Japanese learner in Japan. If you forget the word for "dark," just turn out the lights, and everyone will immediately exclaim kurai!.

  18. Matt said,

    January 10, 2017 @ 12:16 am

    Or when something unexpected comes out – "nanka detekita!". Or when they're hurt, "itai". I mean sure, "ow" "ouch" are quite reflexive for English speakers but it kind of feels like "itai" is more of a complete word than "ouch".

    This is actually something I have a personal connection to. If I'm in Japanese mode, I'll say "itai!" (actually, more often "ita!") instead of "ouch"–I've gotten that far. But I also reflexively exclaim "itai" when I touch something so hot it burns. My wife finds this hilarious because of course it's bizarre to say "itai" then; you're supposed to say "atsu(i)!" (literally, "[it's] hot!") instead.

    (I wonder if "accha" is also somehow related to "atsui", and for that matter if "appi", "echa", etc. can also be linked to "real" words somehow.)

  19. jf said,

    January 10, 2017 @ 2:14 am

    Practicing interjections like this (so that they come out almost like a reflex) goes a long way into tricking people that you're fluent. A lot of Japanese teachers will be highly impressed if you are able to use okagesamade, otsukaresama(desu), (osakini) shitsureishimasu etc. in a situationally appropriate manner. Itai/atsui are the same. Then there are things that are not even words – search for "How to speak fluent Japanese without saying a word PART 2" on YouTube. Yes, it's made with a tongue in cheek but there is some truth to what they're portraying.

  20. Natalie Solent said,

    January 10, 2017 @ 7:28 am

    At 8:05 the young man who has just been squirted says that one of the circumstances in which he would say "arittsu" is "if someone sneezes when it flies on to you". That made me think that maybe "arittsu" originated as an onomatopoeia for the sound of a sneeze, as it is very like the word for the sound of a sneeze that I grew up with, "atishoo".

    On the other hand English sneeze-words do not vary nearly as much as the Japanese terms for being hit by cold water. At least, I don't think they do.

  21. Jonathan said,

    January 10, 2017 @ 1:23 pm

    Isn't the American version of this "Hey!"? It's not fascinatingly particular to being sprayed with water, like the Japanese, but I'm pretty sure it's what I'd say.

  22. Ran Ari-Gur said,

    January 15, 2017 @ 1:52 am

    @Max: I think they each say the word that they say that they say, but not necessarily "reflexively"; most of them seem to yelp ("AH!") before saying the word. (Likewise, English speakers often yelp when suddenly hurt, and only afterward say "ow". But if you were to ask us afterwards what we'd said, we'd probably just repeat the "ow" part, not the yelp.)

  23. Heinrich R. Blutvergießen said,

    January 17, 2017 @ 7:19 pm

    Slightly related:
    Episodes of the French–German TV series Karambolage (sites.arte.tv/karambolage) feature(d?) a very short segment in which an onomatopoeia is "spoken" first by different speakers of one language and then of the other.

    Also of interest to LL readers may be another segment of the same show, "le mot / das Wort".

RSS feed for comments on this post