The Japanese language has a special group of words which repeat mostly two syllable word like pera pera, para para, don don, suku suku, that are used adverbially for examples;

Pera pera eigowo hanasu– speak English fluently.

Iki Iki shiteiru – look vivid (fresh)

Don don iku – go fast

Para para furu – rain drizzlingly

Muka muka suru – feel sick (angry)

Pera pera mekuru – turn the page at random

Zuki zuki itamu – ache acutely

Suka suka tooru - pass smoothly

They look like onomatopoeias, but they are not. They don’t reflect any sound, and they are all used adverbially, not as interjections.

I don’t know whether such usage is special to Japanese language or not. Are there a lot of similar form of refrains of nonsensical (on their own) two - (sometimes one) syllable words in separation (unlike the type of crisscross, dillydally, riffraff which are single word) used exclusively adverbially except onomatopoeia (which is not my concern) in English and other languages. If there is, I'm curious to know how we call such a group of words or usages.

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    As answerers say, it is reduplication. It is not uncommon in languages around the world, sometimes used to change verb aspect, for emphasis, for diminutives, for all sorts of things. It is unclear from your examples (my not knowing what the constituent Japanese lexemes mean) what exactly the process is in Japanese. That particular use may be specific to Japanese, but reduplication for any reason is not.
    – Mitch
    Jan 10, 2016 at 22:33
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    English does not do anything like this, or at least it's not in any grammar books. As @WS2 notes, it is common in babytalk/onomatopoiea. Lately it is slang to use reduplication to connote ... authenticity. "You say you can cliff dive, but can you dive dive or are you just jumping in?" 'dive dive' meaning to really dive and not just halfway or badly do it or fake it.
    – Mitch
    Jan 10, 2016 at 22:36
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    I'd like to help but my command of English is only so so, I am a dum-dum, and I am tired -- so night night.
    – alfreema
    Jan 11, 2016 at 4:22
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    The phenomenon @Mitch is describing ("dive dive") is called "contrastive focus reduplication". The phenomenon OP describes seems to generally be called "mimetic reduplication" when talking about Japanese, and "onomatopoeic reduplication" when talking about other languages (e.g. the examples cited in JEL's answer). This contrasts in Japanese with pluralizing reduplication as in Japanese 人々 hitobito <person person> "people".
    – senshin
    Jan 11, 2016 at 4:35
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    Answered here. Jan 11, 2016 at 10:21

6 Answers 6


The general English term in linguistics for such repetitions is 'reduplication':

re·du·pli·ca·tion n.
3. Linguistics
a. A word formed by or containing a reduplicated element.
b. The added element in a word form that is reduplicated.

[reduplication. (n.d.) American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fifth Edition. (2011). Retrieved January 10 2016 from http://www.thefreedictionary.com/reduplication .]

In English, I was able to uncover approximately 75 exact (that is, the repetition is of the entire word, rather than of parts of the word) reduplicative verbs and nouns. Here are some examples:

  • boo-boo, n.
  • jaw-jaw, n. and v.
  • ju-ju, n.
  • la-la, v.
  • no-no, n. and adj.
  • tum-tum, n.
  • yé-yé or yeah-yeah, adj. or n.
  • yum-yum, n.

Exact reduplicative adverbs were fewer:

  • flaunt-a-flaunt, adv. (also quasi-n.; obsolete; said to be onomatopoeic)
  • chop-chop, adv. (and int.)
  • now-now, adv.
  • one-one, adv.
  • piano piano, adv. (also as one word)
  • pop-pop, adv.
  • pretty-pretty, adv.
  • so-so, adv. (and adj.)

Most of these exact reduplicative adverbs would not be well described as onomatopoeic.

'Reduplication' also describes phonetic duplication of parts of words, as in hubble-bubble.

With the exceptions of 'piano piano' and 'pretty-pretty', as far as I've been able to ascertain, the exact English examples are one-syllable words, like your Japanese example "don don".

  • But the two-syllable lubbly-jubbly for lovely.
    – WS2
    Jan 10, 2016 at 23:31
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    Cross-linguistic tidbit: "don" is actually two morae in Japanese, which is a lot more significant than syllables in that language. e.g., song timing is based on morae, and the "-n" coda has a tendency to be sung as its own syllable. I'm not fluent, but all the examples Yoichi gave (including "don don") look like a 2-mora word doubled to 4 morae. e.g., I'd group "don" with "pera" as having 2, not with "ju". Conversely, "tum-tum" in English does look like a 1-syllable word doubled to 2 syllables.
    – Soron
    Jan 11, 2016 at 2:12
  • There's also "semi-reduplication", which covers things like "helter skelter" in English and "hitobito" in Japanese.
    – hobbs
    Jan 11, 2016 at 3:10
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    "gaga" is a good example of a very familiar reduplicated word
    – ThomasH
    Jan 11, 2016 at 14:36
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    @jel you should add "no-no" to your list, it's the most common one.
    – P. O.
    Jan 11, 2016 at 17:09

This is called reduplication in English. You might be interested to read Key's 1965 paper on the topic. Here's another on Japanese.

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    The two sources you cited are very helpful. I was under inpression the reduplication like para para, sara sara is unique to Japanese language, but it's universal. Thank you very much. Jan 10, 2016 at 22:32
  • @Yoichi: Yes this is certainly a universal phenomenon (albeit more pronounced in some more than others)!
    – Jimi Oke
    Jan 11, 2016 at 15:37

As others have said, the repetitive structure of these words is described as reduplicative or the result of reduplication. In terms of function, these Japanese words are often called ideophones (see also the Wikipedia article); this refers to words that act a bit like onomatopoeia, but that represent ideas rather than sounds. English doesn't use ideophones much, if at all, but they are present in many other languages. They aren't always reduplicative as in Japanese, but they often are.

  • Is zigzag a non-reduplicative ideophones in English?
    – racetrack
    Jan 11, 2016 at 11:08
  • I have watched anime characters "tta tta" which relates to "it hurts" in Japanese (to my ears). "Iki Iki" relates to "it's alive". Jan 11, 2016 at 14:46

A book that I have on Japanese grammar (I don't recall the name or author) used the following linguistic terms based on what they described.

  • A phonomime is an onomatopoeia, the verbal representation of a sound, like a bark or a meow.
  • A phenomime is the verbal representation of anything perceived with the other five senses, like the twinkling of a star or the touch of a slimy object.
  • A psychomime is the verbal representation of anything internal to the body, particularly psychological or emotional states, such as the pitter-pat of anticipation or the spinning world of someone who's had too much to drink.

sumelic's answer is spot on, and I'd like to expand on it (but can't comment with low rep). These Japanese words are often called mimetics in linguistic research, which is a better classifier, as reduplication refers only to their structure. Although they are not onomatopoeias, these words are still considered instances of sound symbolism. Wikipedia also has a summary.

  • Maybe a mod can make this a comment?
    – AAM111
    Jan 12, 2016 at 0:17
  • Aprel sais that she/he would have made this a comment if she/he had the rep. This seems like a new user who will turn out to be an asset to the site. Let's just let this stand.
    – ab2
    Jan 12, 2016 at 1:01

Somewhat related to Contrastive focus reduplication also. i.e. using a word twice to indicate the prototypical meaning.


"I forgot my charger to my E-book, so I had to read a book-book."

"I got soy milk in my coffe, i was assuming milk-milk was the default"

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    And my favourite one of all: "my English teacher always told me that double negatives are a no-no".
    – Simba
    Jan 11, 2016 at 16:26
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    "I, like, like him, but, like, I don't like-like him, you know?"
    – talrnu
    Jan 11, 2016 at 21:27
  • This has been covered on ELU before. Jan 13, 2016 at 23:48

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