Sound Symbolism and Japanese Monsters

John Beatty

Recently, I have observed that the syllable /ra/ appears in the names of almost all the Japanese film and television monsters: Gojira (in English, Godzilla), Mosura (in English Mothra), Gamera (a giant flying turtle), Dagora (a sky dwelling octopus), Radon (in English, Rodan) and Ghidra. Recently, a children's program Ampanman (A kind of super hero made from jelly bread) has had to confront the evil sweet bean monster, ankora (anko, "sweet bean"). There are hosts of others (Baragon, etc.) but these should suffice. Japanese seems to have developed a specific kind of "sound symbolism" in specific words which properly enough seems non-segmentable, but because almost all the words involved are recent in Japanese, it suggests an on-going process. Interestingly enough, the words all appear in motion pictures dealing with (of all things) monsters of great size.

Japanese is a language rich in sound symbolism. In most instances, sound symbolism in Japanese is made with reduplicated syllables: "shabu-shabu" (splish-splash); "yori-yori" and so on are examples of this process. Although there are some examples containing a phonemic sequence /-ra/, (e.g. /bara bara/ "showering"; /bura bura/ "hanging swinging" /; /chara chara/ "jingle of coins"; /chira chira/ "flutter"; /dara dara/ "dripping with sweat"; /kara kara/ "a ringing laugh" etc.1) these seem to have no common connection with each other or with the monsters of the Japanese films

Japanese also has two actual animal names which contain a "ra" element, and both animals are large: kujira "whale" and "gorira" "gorilla". Kujira "whale", bears a obvious and remarkable resemblance to Gojira (Godzilla). It is interesting to note that the English version of the movie changed the name of the monster to Godzilla which bears a resemblance to the English word "Gorilla". The American version of the film itself was created by inserting American performers into a Japanese film. The original film has no American performers in it at all.

Another possibility is "radium" or "uranium", both of which have /ra/ sequences, and which might be connected with the monsters through radioactivity. It is however, large monsters, and not always those connected with atomic radiation that are marked with /ra/.

Mothra, (Japanese "Mosura" - a giant moth) similarly adds -ra to English "Moth" and then adapts the form to Japanese phonological structure.

Gamera (a giant turtle) adds the -ra to the Japanese word Kame "turtle" and then voices the /k/ to /g/ (another process which seems to operate in creating size). Dagora (a giant sky dwelling octopus) seems constructed linguistically from tako (octopus) and -ra with the initial /t/ being voiced (/d/) in parallel to the above Gamera.

Ghidra, likewise contains the -ra, although ghid- or khid- is unknown in Japanese.

The final monster, Rodan has the "ra" only in the Japanese version as a prefix in "Radon". This form is particularly interesting because "don" is also sound symbolic and is used as the sound of a cannon going off.

It would appear that Japanese operates like Indo-European in showing size by making the most open sounds possible. In fact the contrast between the tapped alveolar /r/ of Japanese and the lowest of the Japanese vowels /a/ is quite large and seems to indicate a process similar to the one described by Jespersen. The voicing of /k/ to /g/ in Gamera and /t/ to /d/ in Dagora may be a similar process and the use of the vocal chords, far down in the vocal tract can be used to increase the idea of size.

The idea of size may be reinforced by the Japanese having a plural marker "ra" which is homophonous to this sound symbolic phonological sequence. Plural indicates a greater amount than the singular or in effect - greater size to the group.

Despite the rather limited area in which this sound symbolism tends to be occurring, it may be worth while to watch future developments to see if the process expands or develops into new areas.

1 See Vaccari, Oreste and Enko Elisa 1960 Brush Up Your Japanese Vaccari's Language Institute, Tokyo for a fairly complete list