Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Wishy-Washy Korean Onomatopoeia (의성어) and Mimetic Words (의태어)

I'm no expert in Korean linguistics, but I have noticed something strange about Korean onomatopoeia (의성어) that I'd like to share with you. Aside from being astoundingly creative and multifarious, Korean onomatopoeia is intriguing because it takes the linguistic idea of iconicity and runs far, far away with it. There are thousands of ideophones in the language: onomatopoetic words that describe not just sounds but also certain kinds of sensory perceptions that don't necessarily make a sound.

nomz. Hi, Pusheen!
To begin with, common Korean onomatopoeia include: 냠냠 (nyam-nyam), which is how they write the nomz (eating), 음 (eum), which is their "hm", and 똑똑똑 (ddok-ddok-ddok), for when somebody knocks on the door.

Of course, linguists argue that not all onomatopoeia are iconic. How exactly does 쩌렁쩌렁 (jjeoleong-jjeoleong) sound like a shrill voice? Which sounds more like a heartbeat, lub-dub or 두근두근 (dugeun-dugeun)?

In any case, where Korean (and Japanese, as well) excels at onomatopoeia is their wealth of words that describe sounds that aren't actually sounds. For example, 따끈따끈 (ddaggeun-ddaggeun) is the "sound" of warm, fuzzy feelings. 빤짝빤짝 (bbanjjak-bbanjjak) is their version of twinkle. In Korean, these ideophones are called 의태어 (mimetic words), and their definitions always include the word 모양 (moyang), which means "shape" or "form".

Well, this is where things get confusing, because Korean 의태어 tend to be quite fickle. It seems that not everybody has been able to agree on just how to say -- or, more accurately, write -- the sound of a shimmering star, for example. This particular onomatopoeia is cited equally often as 빤짝 (bbanjjak) and 반짝 (banjjak), the difference contained in the first letter: ㅂ or ㅃ. The sounds are very similar, of course, as the second is simply a tense version of the first, but they are still considered separate phonemes.

As for meaning, some say that 빤짝 is a stronger shininess than regular old 반짝, due in part to the tensed phoneme. But what I see is a simple lack of standardization in these onomatopoeia. As in English, we may wonder if the sound of a train is really "choo-choo" or "toot-toot". Does a dog say, "woof," "ruff," or "arf"?

Another Korean example can be found in the aforementioned heartbeat: not only 두근두근 (dugeun-dugeun) but also 두글두글 (dugeul-dugeul).

When I first began noticing these rather murky boundaries surrounding onomatopoeia, it reminded me of a Korean adage my co-teacher taught me. It goes like this: "아 다르고 어 다르다." It roughly translates to "ah is different from oh," meaning that you must pay careful attention to how you say things. You wouldn't want to meet a cool guy (멋있다/meoshitda) and tell him you think it's he's tasty (맛있다/mashitda).

But how this figures into the difficulty I have in learning Korean onomatopoeia is that it seems that the rules for altering them are quite arbitrary: sometimes the vowels can be shifted, sometimes not. Sometimes it's unclear if the way someone pronounces a word is due to their regional dialect or if they're just saying it wrong.

Take a look at the sound of drizzle, which I learned as 보슬보슬 (boseul-boseul). I must take care not to accidently say 버슬버슬 (beoseul-beoseul), because according to the dictionary, that's the texture of crumbly pastries. So is 바슬바슬 (baseul-baseul). What I can say, though, is 부슬부슬 (buseul-buseul); it appears to be acceptable even though I have literally never heard it before.

For good measure, I just checked out the remaining possible vowels to insert into the first syllable and found that 비슬비슬 (biseul-biseul) means to take tottering steps, 배슬배슬 (baeseul-baeseul) and 베슬베슬 (beseul-beseul) mean to do something weakly and passively, or to shirk, and 뱌슬뱌슬 (byaseul-byaseul) is yet another variant of this. 브슬브슬 (beuseul-beuseul) was not in the dictionary, but I can't help but wonder, "Well, why couldn't this just be another way to describe mizzle or goldbricking?"

(One more: 벼슬하다 (byeoseul) is, in fact, not one of these 의태어, but it means to take up a public office.)

At lunch the other day, a teacher was trying to describe a former student whose face I was having trouble bringing up. "He was short and skinny, didn't wear glasses..." he struggled to use a descriptor that didn't apply to roughly half of our school's population. Finally, he said, "Well, he was 반질반질 (banjil-banjil)," and at that the teachers around us laughed and nodded in agreement.

My co-teacher tried her best to explain. 반질반질 is a word (an 의태어, in fact) used to describe the smooth or slick surface of a stone, but when applied to people, it paints a picture of someone who never wants to work and can think of a hundred ways to avoid responsibility without taking the blame. They're shirkers, charmers, and, well, now that I think about it, they're also 배슬배슬. That can't be a coincidence, can it?

반질 as a baby's bottom.
I offered the translation of "slippery" or "cunning", and also mentioned Ferris Bueller.

Anyway, as my co-teacher went on, another teacher offered that 반질반질 was the same as 밴질밴질 (baenjil-baenjil). When I looked this up in the dictionary, I discovered that 빤질빤질 (bbanjil-bbanjil) was also an option. So were 번질번질 (beonjil-beonjil) and 뻔질뻔질 (bbeonjil-bbeonjil). All of these words mean greasy, glossy, sleek, or smooth. And at that point, my search history on Naver dictionary looked ridiculous.

The common definition among all of these words happened to include another word unfamiliar to me: 빤빤하다 (bban-bban), which means "brazen". Unsurprisingly, 뻔뻔하다 (bbeon-bbeon) and 뺀뺀하다 (bbaen-bbaen) are acceptable variants. But don't get too far ahead of yourself: 반반하다 (ban-ban) means to be good-looking, and 번번하다 (beon-beon) means to have a fair complexion or to be... smooth.

Sometimes I feel like the dictionary is taunting me by sending me in circles.

It played one last trick on my co-teacher and me by telling me that "brazen" meant someone who had no 염치 (yeom-chi). When I asked my co-teacher what that was, she told me that there must have been a mistake: the word they should have used was 얌치 (yam-chi). As it turns out, 염치 and 얌치 have the same meaning, only my co-teacher had never heard of the former.

아 다르고 어 다르다! Does a small difference in pronunciation actually matter? If you look at Korean onomatopoeia, you might think that it's not important at all!

- - -

P.S. I found this fun list of cross-linguistic onomatopoeia during my "research".
P.P.S. Talented graphic designers Dom and Hyo made a infographic of some common Korean onomatopoeia, which I've reproduced below. Have fun studying!


  1. Great article!
    P.s Another way to say 부슬부슬 is 부실부실 which is what I grew up saying :')

  2. https://koreanly.com/korean-onomatopoeia-sounds-and-mimetic-words/

  3. sauna water bucket and ladle

    WAJA sauna is specialist manufacturer of top quality sauna products. Products include sauna rooms, steam rooms, barrel saunas, wooden hot tubs, and all kinds of sauna accessories.