Laughter Onomatopoeia as Role Language: A Comparative Analysis of Japanese and Chinese Comics

Authors: Yihui Xia (Tohoku University, Japan)
Speakers: Yihui Xia
Strand: Language Socialization
Session Type: General Session


Yakuwarigo, or “role language,” is a concept coined by Kinsui Satoshi (2000) that describes the use of stereotypical language associated with particular character types in comics. This includes spoken language features and phonetic characteristics that immediately allow readers to identify the type of role. For instance, Sumita (2019) states that laughter onomatopoeia (LO) with voiced sound, such as “gahaha,” is typically associated with the laughter of an outgoing male personality. Xia (2019) notes that Japanese LO tends to use the vowel /u/, whereas Chinese LO employs the vowel /i/ to imitate female laughter. Numerous studies have attempted to explore the similarities and differences between the sound symbolism of Chinese and Japanese LO. However, the unique nature of Chinese characters as ideograms for imitating sounds has often been overlooked. For instance, the Chinese LO ‘xi’, represented by the character ‘嘻’, is composed of the characters ‘口’ (mouth) and ‘喜’ (joy), which connotes a type of joyful laughter. This underscores the significance of investigating the patterns of Chinese and Japanese LO to achieve a more thorough comprehension of their application.

The main research objectives of this study are twofold. Firstly, to examine the linguistic properties of Chinese characters used in Chinese LO, including their part of speech, radical, and semantic meaning, from a philological perspective. Secondly, to conduct a phonological comparison of the phonetic features and sound symbolism of Chinese and Japanese LO.

A total of 93 types of Japanese LO and 44 types of Chinese LO were collected from three popular Japanese comics and their Chinese translations for analysis. The findings indicate that the initial syllable of Chinese LO can consist of characters with adjectival, verbal, and noun uses, which significantly impact the meaning conveyed by the LO. Similar-sounding Chinese and Japanese LO may invoke different images due to the semantic influence of the initial syllable. For example, while the Japanese /kuhaha/ is typically used to depict a character with malicious intentions, the negative connotations of Chinese /ku/, which represented by the characters ‘哭’ (cry), ‘苦’ (bitter), and ‘酷’ (cool) could lead Chinese readers to view it as unsuitable for imitation as laughter. Conversely, the Chinese character for ‘贼’ (‘zei,’ meaning robber, crafty, etc.) evokes a similar image of Japanese ‘ゼ'(ze). This study highlights the importance of examining the initial syllable’s semantic influence in Chinese and Japanese LO to gain a comprehensive understanding of their usage and interpretation.

Keywords: Role Language, Laughter Onomatopoeia, Chinese character, Sound symbolism, Phonetic Features