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Saturday, Jan. 22, 2011

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How you twist and shout in Japanese


If you like to twist and shout, you'll love the Japanese language. Even if you don't know any Japanese at all, here are some easy expressions that can launch you into premature scream mode with little effort, with just a tad bit of grunting on the side. Charge on, shall we? Shrills: Kawaii!

The shrill scream of kawaii! (cute!) has been mastered by high school girls who have given the language a major boost in decibel levels. There is even "kawaii fashion" now, to describe the Hello Kittyfied world of mascots, furry animals, bling, girly goods or just an all-round general cutesiness that even males are attracted to.

The execution of the word kawaii, however, is what separates you from the Japanese high school girls. To do it high school girl-perfect, you've got to make it shrill: Kawaaaaaaiiiii! with a rising intonation.

Ehhhhhhhh?! (girls)

Another one high up in the shrill queendom of Japanese done proud by high school girls is this expression used to show disbelief. I'm sure child phychologists would say that the use of this term originated from a feeling of inadequacy.

Animals can bark, meow or moo in a language all their own. But high school girls? They had to invent one of their own. Again, a rising intonation gives it that piercing shrill. C'mon girls, twist and shout! Expression of surprise: Ehhhhhhhh? (boys/adults)

This is a diluted, more monotone version of the above Ehhhhhhhh?, but used by anyone except high school girls. If you want to add variety, you can add a slightly rising intonation. When two people Ehhhh? at the same time, it is true harmony.

The best thing about this word is that it can be shortened or lengthened depending on how bored or surprised you are with someone's comment. If someone says something truly unbelievable — such as, "The boy band SMAP just broke up!" or "The Diet just gave foreigners voting rights!" — those warrant an Ehhhhhhhh?

If it's just a passing fact someone mentions, such as how the temperature is going to drop even further tomorrow, then just a casual Ehhh? will do, as an acknowledgment of the unfairness of it all. If you can roll your "h"s by making a slight gargling sound from the back of your throat, you'll sound more manly. That goes for you too, ladies.

Haaaaaaaa?

I have heard some older people use this to express surprise at new information, as in "I didn't know that." You've gotta put umph into the initial "h" sound though, until it is a mild, wheezing sound with a rising intonation. It can also serve as a milder form of Ehhhhhhhh?

Gyaaaaaaaa!

A universally loved expression of surprise, Gyaaaaaaaa! can really get the heart rate up if said with enough gusto. C'mon, try it: "Gyaaaaaaaa!" C'mon, a little louder now: "Gyaaaaaaaa!" C'mon, c'mon, c'mon baby, twist and shout!

Zaaaaa-zaaaaa!

By the way, this is a great rainy season vocabulary, which specifically describes rain pounding down. It's just fun! Zaaaaa-zaaaaa! Others: Jaaaaaaa-ah

This is a smooth word that sounds light yet authoritative. It is said best with a break in the middle, where the dash is. Use it when you are about to state the resolution of something, as in "Well then . . ."

Let's say you are debating with your friends where to meet for lunch, either the place that serves chicken cartilage or the place that sells raw horse meat. In the end, you might say "Jaaaaa-ah, how about the Whinny Bar and Grill?"

Moooooh!

This does not describe a cow mooing (unfortunately), but someone who is disgruntled. "Moooooh! We eat there all the time! I'll go with you but promise me we can eat chicken cartilage at the Cocka-Doodle-Doo next time."

Adjust the length of Mooooh! to the amount of dissatisfaction you feel. Growl your "o's" if you're absolutely defiant and refuse to even consider the Whinny Bar and Grill. If you want to say "Enough already!" just say "Moooh, ii!"

Maaaaa . . .

If, on the other hand, you've had a hankering for raw horse meat, to the point of having emitted the occasional whinny yourself, but you were too shy to say so, after the decision to go to the Whinny Bar and Grill, you could say "Maaaaa, that sounds OK."

I observed a woman ordering a burger at McDonald's once and when the sales clerk asked the inevitable, "Would you like fries with that?" the woman thought about it, said, "Maaaaa," and agreed to the fries. Grunts: Eh, eh, ehhh . . .

This is confirmation, like the "uh-huh" that you say when listening to someone else, especially on the telephone. This drives non-Japanese speakers mad and they'll often ask you to stop "grunting." Don't listen to them — grunt on!

Now, tell me you don't feel like shouting, screaming and grunting a little more. You know you twist so fine!

Amy Chavez is author of "Japan Funny Side Up."


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