Click here to fill out our survey for the 2024/25 essay competition!

A diachronic study of /p/ in Japanese mimetics

The Japanese language features an extensive range of mimetic, or sound symbolic, vocabulary. These
are words whose sound shape in some way emulates the phenomenon they represent, for example, fuwa-fuwa describes something soft and fluffy, while pika-pika describes the appearance of something shiny or sparkling. These mimetic words are phonologically distinct with the modern Japanese lexicon, in part because they feature /p-/ in word-initial position, something which is otherwise restricted to loanwords. The sound changes affecting initial /p/ represent one of the key phonological changes to take place within the history of the language. It is generally agreed that Old Japanese (OJ) initial /p/ changed to Late Middle Japanese (LMJ) /f-/ and then to Modern Japanese (NJ) /h-/. However, among mimetic words /p-/ is still the most prevalent initial sound today, accounting for a sixth of all mimetics (Hamano, 1998a). Considering the history of /p-/ within Japanese, it would initially appear that mimetic initial /p/ is a direct and continuous reflex from OJ, and the sound symbolic value of the sound enabled it to resist the /p-/ > /f-/ > /h-/ sound change. However, LMJ sources written using the Roman alphabet, such as the 1603 Japanese-Portuguese dictionary known as Vocabulario, contains many f-initial mimetic words, suggesting mimetic words underwent the /p-/ >/f-/change in the same way as non-mimetic words. Yet, this dictionary also lists several p-initial mimetic words which indicates this sound change was not total. Furthermore, many of these f-initial mimetic words have h- and/or p-initial reflexes in contemporary Japanese e.g., fica-fica > pika-pika. It is therefore unclear whether NJ mimetic /p-/ is a continuous reflex from OJ /p-/, or whether it has been readopted among mimetic words at some point during the language’s history. Although there have been several diachronic accounts of mimetic words (Yamaguchi 1973, 2012, Suzuki 1965, 2007) they primarily concerned overarching changes in word shape and sound structure, with no study focused on the issue of initial /p/. Hamano (1998b) looks at the distribution of p- and f- initial mimetics in Vocabulario but her analysis is restricted to disyllabic mimetic roots. This paper examines the history of p-initial mimetics with a view to gaining a better understanding of the origins of mimetic initial /p/. The paper uses empirical analysis of the distribution of p- and f-initial mimetics in Vocabulario, and an examination of the distribution and history of p-initial mimetics words used in contemporary Japanese in order to investigate their historical phonology. This analysis leads to a new suggestion that the origins of mimetic initial /p/ differ between monosyllabic and disyllabic mimetics. It is proposed that monosyllabic mimetic roots, which are more iconic i.e., have greater sound symbolism, often retained initial /p/ even after the sound change to /f/, whereas in the more lexical disyllabic mimetic roots, initial /p/ was largely no longer productive after EMJ but remained in older mimetic words which had existed prior to the sound change. This would suggest that iconicity played a key role in the impact of ongoing phonological changes within the Japanese language on mimetic words and has significance for the diachronic phonology of Japanese as a whole.

Hamano, S. (1998a). The Sound-symbolic system of Japanese (Studies in Japanese Linguistics, 10). Stanford: CSLI; Tokyo: Kurosio.
Hamano, S. (1998b). Sound symbolism and sound change: Weakening of labials. In D. J. Silva (ed.) Japanese and Korean Linguistics 8. (pp. 277-288). Stanford: CSLI.
Suzuki, M. (1965). Mukashi no giseigo gitaigo. Gengo Seikatsu 171, 60-65.
Suzuki, M. (2007). Kaisetsu: giseigo hensen to sono hirogari. In M. Ono (ed.), Giongo gitaigo 4500: nihongono onomatope jiten. (pp. 577-648). Tokyo: Shôgakukan.
Yamaguchi, N. (1973). Chûko shôchôshi no go’on ketsugô: seidaku ni mondai no aru gorei o chûshin ni.
Kokugogaku 93, 17-47.
Yamaguchi, N. (2012). Nara jidai no giongo giseigo. Meiji Daigaku Kokusai Nihongaku Kenkyû 4 (1), 1-20.