Irregular Weekly Four 17: 唯々諾々

All about doubling! And obedience.

i i daku daku
only (ditto) yessir (ditto)

The second and fourth characters there are "repeat" signs. I've never seen them in a Chinese context, so unless a reader can correct me here (note: someone did) I'm going to suggest that they're a Japanese invention (nope). There are a few of them:

  • 々 - repeat preceding kanji (国国 → 国々)
  • ゝ - repeat preceding hiragana (こころ → こゝろ)
  • ゞ - repeat preceding hiragana, except voiced (すず子 → すゞ子)
  • ヽ - repeat preceding katakana (ココア → コヽア)
  • ヾ - repeat preceding katakana, except voiced (スズ子 → スヾ子)

If you want to repeat two kana, there's a sort of long wave that doesn't have a Unicode equivalent (maybe because it's two characters long) but (I lied. See comments.) is usually electronically rendered as /\, or /″\ if it's a voiced repetition (like, say, ひとびと → ひと/″\). And if you want to repeat a two-kanji sequence, you just use two 々s, like this: 次第次第 → 次第々々.

Using these metacharacters instead of just writing the real characters twice is entirely optional, I believe (except in proper nouns which require them), and indeed becoming less common, especially the kana ones. And all of them are referred to as kurikaeshi ("repeat"), if you were looking to input them into your computer.

Finally, there are also 〃 and 仝, which I think are used mainly to indicate repetition in lists (like English ditto marks).

So, having got that out of the way, we can see that this four-character compound is really a pair of two-character phrases, both of which use doubling as an emphatic technique. 唯 means "only" or "just", and 唯々 means the same thing only more emphatically: "absolutely nothing but...". 諾 means "yessir", "understood", etc., so 諾々 represents a more vigorous obedience.

The whole compound, 唯々諾々, therefore means "to follow someone's orders blindly without considering whether they are good or bad". And since a lot of smack gets talked about the "samurai code" and so forth, I should mention that I've never come across it used in a positive sense. Indeed, my kanji dictionary entry for 諾 makes a point of including this quotation from an old Chinese history:

A thousand people's "yessir, yessir" is not worth a single superior man's "but what about..."
You can read it in context here.

Popularity factor: 13


Huh, I didn't know about the katakana repetition mark. And have you seen the double-kana mark in horizontal text? I think I've only seen it vertically, but I don't get out much.


I see the hiragana mark used to repeat katakana a lot too... I think the distinction is being blurred.

And that's a good point, I've never seen the double-kana mark used horizontally (except the internet-friendly imitation I mentioned -- and only then in online versions of old texts). I wonder if there even IS a horizontal version, strictly speaking..


I just checked my trusty and long-suffering copy of Kanji & Kana, and it claims that "[t]he repetition symbol for two syllables is used only in vertical writing." I wonder if the web has inspired a new horizontal usage.


I guess the electronic texts it appears in technically don't specify an orientation -- it's just that the vast majority of people have a computer setup which will output them horizontally by default.

I looked through (the relevant parts of) Unicode a while ago and was surprised to see that although they had separate-character variants of 『 etc. for vertical text (﹃), the different in-character positioning of the full stop and comma is apparently supposed to be handled by software. It's very unfair.

Hey! And while looking that up to confirm it just now, I found that Unicode DOES include the two-character repetition mark! Voiceless at 3031 and voiced at 3032. But my browser can't display them, and the notes say "to be represented by a combination of the following characters.." then give 〳, 〴 and 〵.


I've not seen the single character repeat graph in printed Chinese, but it is used quite often in handwriting.

仝 is a variant of 同, "same", but when used as Chinese surnames the two are distinct characters.


Thanks, zhwj. Just out of curiosity,do you have any idea why 々 isn't used in printed Chinese? Was it ever?


Hey! And while looking that up to confirm it just now, I found that Unicode DOES include the two-character repetition mark! Voiceless at 3031 and voiced at 3032. But my browser can't display them, and the notes say "to be represented by a combination of the following characters.." then give 〳, 〴 and 〵.

I could display 〱(U+3032 VERTICAL KANA REPEAT MARK) and〲(U+3032 VERTICAL KANA REPEAT WITH VOICED SOUND MARK) if my browser had adequate font substitution. U+3032 has the note "• the preceding two semantic characters are preferred to the following three glyphic forms", meaning 〳,〴 and 〵 (U+3033 VERTICAL KANA REPEAT MARK UPPER HALF, U+3034 VERTICAL KANA REPEAT WITH VOICED SOUND MARK UPPER HALF and U+3035 VERTICAL KANA REPEAT MARK LOWER HALF respectively). Unless you had a very sophisticated vertical font, though, the single forms are likely to look too much like く and ぐ, though, I guess.

There's a lot of cool stuff in this range (CJK Symbols and Punctuation) I don't recognize. What's 〆 (U+3006 IDEOGRAPHIC CLOSING MARK) for? Going by the name, 〻 (U+303B VERTICAL IDEOGRAPHIC ITERATION MARK) ought to be the vertical equivalent of 々. And the notes say 〽(U+303D PART ALTERNATION MARK) "marks the start of a song part in Japanese".

-- Tim May


I'd guess that just as simplified characters were long used both decoratively and as time-savers when writing, the 々 served a similar purpose. Both were regularized to standard characters when printed. I know that there are questions regarding the use of ditto marks in the various manuscript editions of 红楼梦, when, for example, two marks in a row got interpreted in different ways (repeat the last two characters, or repeat the last character twice?) when printed copies were made.

There are probably cheap woodblock editions of bad Ming fiction that use the 々 mark; I'll see if I can find any examples the next time I browse through the library. And now that I think about it, I'm pretty sure I've seen propoganda posters or banners with the iteration mark, something like 好々学习,天々向上.

On the Chinese language internet these days, it seems 々 is used as kind of a "lightning bolt" surrounding text to emphasize it.


Wow, I've NEVER seen that vertical ideographic repeater.

〆 is pronounced "shime". I can only remember seeing it in the context of deadlines and things (〆切).

And, yeah, you see the "part alternation mark" at the beginning of a song part (like a stanza) in Japanese, especially to indicate that a character in a story (including comics) begins to sing. Although sometimes if they sing a western-style pop song you just see ♪ instead.

I opened up a real can of worms with this one, clearly. There must be someone out there with a Style Guide or something who can lay down the law for us all.


Huh, are there really that many situations in Chinese where character sequences ABBB and ABAB seem equally plausible? That's interesting. If you can find any more information I'd like to hear it.

Re the lightning bolt thing: yeah, the Japanese kana repeat marks seem mostly to be used as part of emoticons these days too..


Here's a discussion of one instance, in which "一龙九种,々々各别" is widely interpreted to mean "种种各别", although there is a similar folk saying that says "一娘生九子,九子不一样". From this and other internal evidence, one might expect "九种各别". True, I can't see this happening all that often, and even in this case it doesn't really change the meaning all that much.


Huh! That's even more interesting because as far as I know you can't use the repeat marks across word boundaries in Japanese.


Yeesh, Blogger, I'm trying to post a comment, not crack the human genome.

I've seen 〆 written on envelope flaps as a kind of tamper-evident seal.

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