Mimetic bootstrapping

Yesterday I went to an interesting talk on Japanese mimetic words, which are onomatopoeia (擬声語 giseigo / 擬音語 giongo) or words connected to actions, emotions or states (擬態語 gitaigo). For example, くすくす (kusu kusu) – to giggle,ぐずぐず[する] (guzu guzu [suru]) – to procrastinate or dawdle.

Researchers in Japan have found that Japanese mothers use a much higher proportion of mimetic words with young children (60%) than with adults (10%), and their experiments found that children find mimetic verbs (those that use sound symbolism) easier to learn than non-mimetic verbs. They call this process mimetic bootstrapping. They also tested English-speaking children and adults using Japanese mimetic verbs and found that they were able to guess their meanings above the level of chance.

They also mentioned that mimetic words are not just found in Japanese – they are in fact found in the form similar to gitaigo in many of the worlds languages, though are rare in Indo-European languages.

5 thoughts on “Mimetic bootstrapping

  1. hmm “…and their experiments found that children find mimetic verbs (those that use sound symbolism) than non-mimetic verbs.”

    is there a missing word here? or am I just not understanding.

    Just curious because I’ve always found those words interesting, the Japanese have so much broader a system of mimetic words than any other language I’ve encountered. It confused me at first when words like that appeared as verbs in places like Manga. Used by characters in instances were it’ s fairly clear it’ s not meant to be baby talk or cute. Things like わくわく してた etc.

    So i’m curious about their actual use, manga not being generally fictional and all heh.

  2. Andy – you spotted my deliberate mistake (now corrected).

    Mimetic words are used most in children’s books and manga. They’re not used as much elsewhere, I think, but I’ll check.

  3. Interesting, you couldn’t by any chance link us to an article so that we could read more, could you?

  4. – Farrioth, yes, Tamil is a language which also appears to exhibit a fairly high degree of mimetic vocabulary (‘iraTTai-k-kiLavi’). Indeed, I believe there was some academic paper (Balambal?) that compared this linguistic phenomenon as evident in both Tamil and Japanese. The following are a few examples from Tamil (although the list could be endless!):

    kara kara = roughness, courseness, as in: ‘toNDai kara kara engiRadu’ (‘I’ve got a hoarse throat/frog in my throat’)
    sala sala = ‘taNNir sala sala-v-ena ODugiRadu’ (‘the water trickles past gently’)
    nama nama = ‘tOL nama nama-v-ena valikkiRadu!’ (‘there’s a nagging pain in my shoulder!’)
    maDa maDa = quickly: ‘maDa maDa-v-ena kAryam sey!’ (‘be quick with your chores!’)
    giDu giDu = ‘avan giDu giDu-v-ena ODi-p-pOiviTTAn!’ (‘he ran off quickly!’)

    etc. etc…

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