Chō vs sugoi

Yesterday I read another book by Yamaguchi Nakami 山口仲美: Wakamono-kotoba ni mimi wo sumaseba 若者言葉に耳をすませば, literally "If you listen to the language of young people," but more enjoyably "(Listen to the) flower people." The book alternates between free-form discussion between Yamaguchi and representative groups of youths and fogies, and fairly freewheeling elaborations on the topics arising therein.

I learned a few good old puns with which to repel and disappoint, like "atarimaeda no cracker." This is an old advertising slogan combining atarimae da ["Of course!" "What else would you expect?" etc.] and Maeda Crackers — so old it's new again, or was in 2007, according to Yamaguchi's presumably quite nerdy informants. But the single most interesting argument Yamaguchi made, to my mind, was about the evolution of chō.

Chō is an intensifier, deriving from the Sino-Japanese lexeme chō 超, "super-" (as in "Nietzschean superman"), used before adjectives (chō tanoshii, "sooo fun"), verbs (chō iku, "[I'm] sooo going"), nouns (chō uso, "sooo a lie"), adverbs (chō hayaku, "sooo early"), and who knows what-all else. Chō's big boom was in the 1980s, and it was iconic of young, female urbanites for a long time. Probably still is now, among stale comedians, the same way most people can still recognize valley girl talk.

But now, Yamaguchi argues, it is dying away, being replaced by variations on sugoi (etymologically "dreadful, awesome" but now idiomatically "awesome" and distinguished from its parent adjective by the lack of conjugation, i.e. without changing to sugoku for the adverbial form etc.) and, in particular, me(t)cha, originally Kansai dialect. She also claims that whereas chō used to be written most often in katakana (チョー), it is now more often written in kanji (超), reflecting an increased awareness of the etymology of the term. (I would be wary of this claim, though, since even if she is correct about the facts, the big difference between 1990 and 2010 in terms of representing Japanese is that today everyone has a cellphone and can introduce kanji into their written conversations effortlessly.)

She doesn't have much to base this on other than a deeply unscientific survey conducted at her own university in Saitama and a few vague claims about the state of affairs in the 1980s, so I wouldn't exactly call this an ironclad case, but I suppose it doesn't conflict with the youth culture of which I am dimly aware when it seeps around the edges of my reading material.

One thing Yamaguchi does not explore in this book, despite raising the issues individually, is the apparent contradiction in Japanese youthspeak between hyperbole and hedging. On one hand, she describes an intensifier treadmill, a tendency to take etymologically quite strong words and use them so indiscriminately that someone who'd missed the gradual evolution would find the results ridiculous: "This shoehorn is awesome!" But Yamaguchi also describes a tendency to favor and even innovate ways to make speech less direct and confrontational — for example, saying things like ikanai kei ["the not-going type"] rather than ikanai ["not going"].

So the mundane becomes epic while anything even remotely controversial gets a few layers of protection. She does talk a bit about how youthspeak has a social function in sustaining group identity, which may be related here, but on the whole she seems rather eager to reach the conclusion that young people secretly admire the speech of and yearn for approval from previous generations. I have my doubts. (Although I do not doubt that the youth of Japan are inheriting the age-old tradition of claiming to want to speak "proper" keigo [formally respectful language] but never seriously trying to learn how.)

Anyway, the book is more anecdotal than scientific, but it did make me want to read something properly researched and organized on the topic, which is a fairly high commendation in and of itself. I wonder if there's anything good about manual keigo; the only books I've ever noticed on the topic are crotchety screeds from old men more interested in complaining about the topic than examining it.

Popularity factor: 11

Leonardo Boiko:

Most importantly, chō is used before aniki. The result is chō awesome. One day I will write some port or variation of Anki (my SRS software of choice for Japanese study), specifically so that I can call it Chō Anki. (If Damien is reading this, feel free to steal the idea!)

A minor boss in Chrono Trigger has a quite impressive special attack: 『超破壊必殺魔法~!』 (It fails.)

Anedoctally, 超 seems alive and well in twitter.


There's a case to be made for translating 超- as "trans-" since it's linked to 超える "to cross" and 超越 "transcend". Even the example of "superman" is a translation of "übermensch" which can just as well be translated as "over-man” or "trans-human."

A fun over-translation of 超可愛い might be "surpassingly pitiable" or something like it.


Sure, you can make that case. But not for instances like 超大形台風.

(Considering this year's new/slang word, what would 超ゲゲゲ be like?)

Leonardo Boiko:

I like chō as “sooo”, because then I picture a cute American preteen with a lisp saying e.g. “choooo cute”.


Don't hear too much of ちょ〜〜〜 lately. Here in Shizuoka they use バカ instead sometimes.
バカすげー or バカ寒い... took a bit of getting used to at first. Not sure how new it is though.


Variety shows in Japan seem to speak youth language, and you definitely see more headache-inducing sugonyms like "sugosugiru" than "chou". Meccha and baka are in style, too. To contribute another meaning for the word, 超-心理学 = para-psychology.

On the more general subject of the celebration of the mundane and shying away from the dangerous, haven't you noticed English is doing the same thing? Oh man, Internet memes are awesome. Yeah, Cracked.com owns. That's the funniest thing ever. Awesome. Epic. Where do you want to go for lunch? Hmm... I don't know. ビミョウ~。


Actually, now I'm reminded that my Swiss German teacher (of High German, at least officially) told me that when he was growing up in Bern, the intensifier of choice was huere, or "whore."

I think I remember him saying that it wasn't something you wanted to say in front of your grandmother. Until she said that over there was a whore-good shirt, and you should think about wearing something nice for a change.


The relative newcomer, and arguably 超's successor in the schoolgirl subcultural prefix wars, is surely 鬼, as in 鬼かわいい, is it not? I somehow doubt it'll take off like 超 did, but you never know.

My sense was that the rise of すごい instead of すごく more or less paralleled that of 超 (from the early 90s-ish?) and that the two are now about as evenly distributed, in that large numbers of people aged up to their early-to-mid 40s will use both informally and without affectation. Claiming that すごい is replacing 超 is a bit tenuous, imho. It might be valid to say that it's outlived 超, however.

行かない系 reminded me of the currently popular Twitterism ~件, about which this chap has thought far harder than necessary: http://www.accent.co.jp/agawa/20100823/diary_2232.html


Today I read a Slate.com breakdown on the etymology of OK, which didn't tell me anything I didn't already know, but did remind me that OK originated as an "intertubes"-like dumb meme joke in the 19th century. (The meme was dumb abbreviations for misspelled words, and OK meant "oll korrect.")

And now it's a part of the language of Sei Shonagon. いとおかしい.


Re oni/baka/etc. -- Yeah, she mentions others too. Here, too, you hunger for a proper survey, broken down by age/gender/place of upbringing/place of residence/education level/etc...

Re translation of 超 - indeed, when words containing it are translated into English, it appears in many forms. Maybe because it sort of means "beyond, excessively" rather than specifically "above" or "large" etc.

Avery: I had that thought too, but wasn't sure if I could develop it right (e.g., it seems intuitive that uptalk? is also a sign of approval-seeking? but actually it is encountered in other situations as well, e.g. someone quite confident of their position and seeking to maintain control over the conversation-- at least if Language Log's occasional posts on the topic are correct).

But the watering-down of superlatives, absolutely (there's one right there). This might be universal. Easy enough to imagine a mechanism: someone creative brings in an extreme word for comic/dramatic effect, other people like the effect and mimic the use, gradually the effect fades and the word is used normally.


Japanese also has the phenomenon of words like "Lord" and "Servant" coming to mean "you (intimate)" and "me (male)." To say nothing of 貴様 and 己.

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