aizuchi: non-verbal, non-committal, and so fun!
September 22, 2010 § 2 Comments
Please don’t be alarmed if, at various intervals in conversation with me, I respond to questions or statements with hyperbolic and usually drawn-out non-verbal interjections such as, “uuuuuuunn,” “mmmmmm,” “ooooooooh,” “hmmmmm” or “eeeeeeeeh?”. Ever since I started studying Japanese, I’ve noticed an alarming increase in my use of unintelligible sounds to express sympathy, agreement, disagreement, understanding, misunderstanding, delight, and generally all manner of conversational affectations in between. I think I can attribute this upsurge in using copious amounts of non-verbal additives to the similar and much more formally recognized pattern of conversation interjections in Japanese speech: あいづち, or in Roman characters, Aizuchi.
This term refers to specific sounds inserted frequently into conversation to indicate the listener’s attention, interest, and comprehension of the speaker. My friends–bless them for all their patience in listening to my excited outbursts and ramblings on inconsequential trivialities of language study–have all mastered the most basic and all-purpose phrase, the non-committal “Aaah, soo des-ka,” which has the English approximate, “Oh, I see.” And truly, it is about as utilitarian as phrases get because you can add any inflection you want and get a colorful range of meanings. Let’s take a look at just how much you can say with this wonderful expression:
“Ah! Sooooo des-ka!!!” Oh, of COURSE!!! I see!!
“Soo des-ka…….[awkward pause]” Um, okay….
“Soo, soo” Mmm, yes, yes
“So-ka….[blank face]” Uh-huh….[completely and entirely confused]
Really, I think it’s the same in English, in the way you could say “Oh, okay” in a wide-range of inflections, speeds and tones to indicate agreement, understanding, disbelief, or hesitation. Similarly, the non-verbal phrases provide just as much content in a conversation: things like “Uh-huh,” “hmm,” “Nuh-uh,” “Uhhh,” and “Umm” to name a few. They appear most frequently, I think, when the speaker is hesitating or coming up with a response to a question. It’s amazing to me how much of our daily conversation relies on these small but important exchanges of sounds to indicate our assent or dissent. Like when you’re on the phone, for example, telling your friend this amazing story of how this one time you and your family went whale-watching (uh-huh…) when you were visiting your brother in Boston (Oh?) and there was supposed to be this hurricane (What???) but they still took the boat out into the harbor (yeah…) and the waves were really huge (Oh cool!) and going up and down felt like a roller coaster (haha) but then you noticed that there was this weird silence (uh-huh) and you looked around the rest of the boat and every single other person was doubled over puking their brains out (Oh my God!!!! That’s awful!!) and you and your sister were the only ones feeling perfectly fine, watching in horror at the chaos and massive outbreak of sea-sickness…(Wow, that’s crazy…)
True story, by the way.
In any case, our little sound-bytes of interjections comprise a significant and critical role in our conversations and ability to follow and connect speech. And as weird as it is to learn another language’s equivalent of “What??????????” (which, in Japanese, is “Heeeeeeeeeh????”), it’s a necessary and fun part of the process!