One of the best parts of learning Japanese is the chance it gives you to re-program your brain from the ground up. From strange words to alien grammar structures, everything is different. The constant discovery of new aspects of the language regularly highlights things you had previously taken for granted as universal.
This process extends right down to the subconscious level of gestures and interjections. I’ve always found the sounds people say instinctively when words fail them to be particularly interesting in Japanese because of how phonologically rich they are. While English tends to fill the gaps with flat vowels drawn out in rather dull ways (“uhhhhh”, “whoa”, and so on), Japanese uses a wide variety of consonants and vowels to keep things fresh.
“Etto” has to top the list for the sheer frequency of its use, if nothing else. It’s often described in textbooks as the Japanese counterpart for phrases like “umm”, “well”, and “let me see”. It doesn’t have a lot of meaning and just exists to fill the gap when the speaker is trying to remember something. It might be used while waiting for a word that’s on the tip of the speaker’s tongue (quite useful when speaking a foreign language), trying to recall a memory that won’t quite come to mind, or making time when dodging an awkward question. If you need more time, just draw out the “o” at the end.
A: So, I get the feeling you’ve been avoiding me lately…
This ubiquitous word showing surprise was the first one I picked up after moving to Japan, and the first one my friends and coworkers made fun of me for overusing. You use it to react to something interesting, or surprising in a good way. Think, a great fact or hearing juicy gossip. A few years ago there was a wonderful variety show called “トリビアの泉” (English translation “Fountain of Trivia”), where a panel of five TV personalities would be presented with viewer submitted facts and rate them from 0 to 20 “heeh”s. The person who had sent in the fact got 100 yen per “heeh”.
Ara also shows surprise, but in a negative sense like when something goes unexpectedly wrong. You can repeat the “ra” for added effect.
A: Our plane got moved up an hour!
B: Ara, we’d better leave now.
A: The plane was canceled, and the airline is going on strike. We’ll be stuck in China all week!
B: Ararara, what are we going to do?
Last up is the one that’s hardest to say. “Ittte” presumably comes from itai (痛い), meaning “it hurts”. When you stub your toe, for example, this one takes the place of your favorite four-letter English word. What makes it so impressive, however, is how much harder it is to say than any of the other words. Your tongue has to hammer down on the back of your front teeth at woodpecker speed, all while your mind is blank with the pain of slamming your foot into the doorframe. Truly, a linguistic miracle if ever there was one.
This area of Japanese is especially tricky because it’s hard to re-train yourself and break habits that you’ve practiced unconsciously your whole life. Teaching yourself to reflexively stammer out “ittte” when you accidentally hammer your finger is probably up there with learning to snatch flies out of the air with chopsticks on the scale of life’s dexterous challenges. Dabbling down in the realm of subconscious language is also a little risky, because if you adopt too many Japanese “mannerisms”, it might seem like you’re trying too hard when you speak. It never comes off quite right when people use subconscious sounds in a conscious way. That being said, they have a great ring to them and can make your speech much more natural if you can really master them. Did I miss your favorite Japanese interjection? Share them in the comments!