How do you express surprise? Have you ever really thought about it? all those "surprised" sounds we make?
I definitely didn't. And I certainly never considered the sounds I make in shock to be a part of the English language canon. But travelling from America to Japan certainly brings this assumption under scrutiny. Where we English speakers might place interjections like WHOA!, WOW! and NO WAI!, Japanese tend to gravitate towards a drawn out, rising Ehhhhhhhhhhhh! or Hu-ehhhhhh!
The only thing i can compare it to is every 5th graders' instinctive reaction upon hearing a peer's name called over the PA, being summoned to the principal's office. It's exactly that kind of rising pitch, but with a different phoneme.
A quick flip through Japanese news and game show media highlights this phonetic phenomenon. It's one of those things that seemed like probably just a Japanese stereotype, but it turns out to be so entrenched and abusively used as to be almost a satire of itself. Even on news programming, audience members are a must when dolling out new or surprising information because it just doesn't seem so novel without that instant appropriate social reaction. It's like a socially ingrained call-and-response.
As we speak... as i type?... two male teachers are having a conversation across the room. Although the dramatic drawn out Heeee-EEEEH is more girly, men use the interjection too, making it a bit shorter and lower, with a more consistent (opposed to rising) inflection.
It's one of the few things i couldnt help myself from doing while i was in America last week. It's just so important to listening to people when you're trying to speak Japanese.
So yesterday afternoon, i took my lunch home to eat and i had the tv on, perusing my usual buffet of game shows. I stumbled across one where they actually built a game around the interjection:
First they brought out three contestents, each decked out in traditional Japanese garb, ornate kimonos, which elicited a fair amount of "ehhh"s from the audience in and of itself.
Then the host explained...
(haha sorry, more people are doing it right next to me now.)
So the host explained that the contestants would have to make the audience say EHH! as much as possible. He brought out this tiny theatrical stage-and-curtain apparatus, roughly puppet theater size, with a draw-string on the side to pull the curtain up and down. One by one, the contestants would stand behind the curtain, and then a tiny cartoon voice would count down 3--2--1--- and then the host pulls up the curtain and the contestant has to make a true statement about him or herself that will knock the socks off the audience. Something unexpected. Then audience then reacts to its heart's content, and then an LED scoreboard indicates a numerical value corresponding to the amount of "EHH!" that was elicited. After the studio audience finishes shrieking, the host says the Japanese equivalent of "For reals??" and conducts a micro interview with the person, still inside the tiny stage, about their outrageous and true experience.
I will never tire of Japanese television.
Ohh, i just heard a good one