Language | BILINGUAL

Listening for the subtle sounds of autumn

by Kaori Shoji

Contributing Writer

If you happen to be weathering the transition from 夏 (natsu, summer) to 秋 (aki, autumn), chances are in much of Japan you’re hoping for cooler temperatures and the カラッと晴れた秋空 (karatto hareta akizora, crisp and clear autumn sky).

Fall officially begins on Sept. 23, which is marked by 秋分の日 (Shūbun no Hi, Autumnal Equinox Day) in Japan, but you’re still likely to hear people complain that it’s まだまだ暑い (mada-mada atsui, still hot). The adverb まだまだ(mada-mada) is used to describe situations that are supposed to change, but show little signs of it: 電車がまだまだ来ない (Densha ga mada-mada konai, The train shows no signs of arriving) or 目的地にまだまだ着かない (mokutekichi ni mada-mada tsukanai, our destination is still a long ways off). You can also shorten your まだまだ to まだ (mada), which has a milder connotation. The same phrases using まだ give the listener hope that the train, destination or cooler weather will arrive fairly soon: まだ暑いけれどもうすぐ秋ですね (Mada atsui keredo mōsugu aki desu ne, It’s still hot but autumn will be here soon).

If you want to push the formality of that sentiment up a notch you can combine まだまだ with そろそろ like so: そろそろ秋の気配を感じますが、まだまだ暑い日が続きます (Soro-soro aki no kehai o kanjimasu ga, mada-mada atsui hi ga tsuzukimasu, I’m gradually starting to feel the presence of autumn but the hot days are with us still). Just writing this out is pretty excruciating, yet it’s still a phrase that you can hear on TV weather reports. Not surprisingly, the 気象庁 (Kishōchō, Japan Meteorological Agency) is renowned for being vague and noncommittal when it comes to the weather.

That formal sentence also introduces us to そろそろ (soro-soro), an adverb that expresses change in terms of degree. Originally meaning a “soft, pattering” noise, そろそろ is designed to be absolutely inoffensive. On the downside, it can be subtle to the point of being annoying: そろそろ秋の気配を感じます (Soro-soro aki no kehai o kanjimasu, It’s starting to feel a bit like autumn) is nice to use in a formal letter, but not so much in casual conversation.

Having said that, the vagueness of そろそろ is very useful in other circumstances, the most common being when it is said on its own at the end of a meal or party to indicate you’d like to wrap things up: “じゃあ、そろそろ… (行こうか)” (“Jaa, soro-soro… [ikō ka],” “Well, shall we [get going]?”) The subtlety of the term neutralizes the potential rudeness of ending the fun early.

そろそろ結婚したいと考えています (Sorosoro kekkon shitai to kangaete-imasu, I think I’d like to get married before too long) is also a phrase you may hear quite often. Here, the そろそろ is paired with a delicate topic and the verb 考える (kangaeru, to consider/think) in its present-progressive form. The structure conveys a certain intention on the part of the speaker, but also makes it clear that there are no immediate plans to act on what has been said. In the same way, there’s そろそろ転職したいと考えています (soro-soro tenshoku shitai to kangaete-imasu, I’m thinking I’d like to change jobs in the near future). Marriage and job changes are major life-altering events, along with a birth or death in the family, so bringing そろそろ into your conversation is a way of maneuvering the plane to a soft landing on the tarmac, so to speak.

Along with そろそろ, there’s the similar だんだん (dan-dan, gradually) though it has a much stronger connotation than a soft pitter-patter. In relation to the recent weather, だんだん can be used when there’s more of a certainty that the heat will fade and chilly mornings and nights are becoming the norm. だんだん秋めいて来ましたね (Dan-dan akimeite-kimashita ne, It’s gradually starting to feel like fall) is a good term to use at the end of September when thoughts turn to 運動会 (undōkai, sports day events) and 紅葉 (kōyō, leaves changing color).

Within the above sentence is the slightly more formal めく (meku, to become or turn into), attached to the end of the seasonal noun 秋. Interestingly, めく is most often paired with autumn and spring, as in 秋めく (akimeku, feeling fall-like) and 春めく (harumeku, feeling spring-like). But 夏 and 冬 (fuyu, winter) are more likely to be paired with らしい (rashii) to mean the same thing: 夏らしい (natsu rashii, summery) and 冬らしい (fuyu rashii, wintry).

Now that we’re clear on the matter, だんだん秋めいてきたので、紅葉狩りの予定をたてませんか (dan-dan akimeite-kita no de, momijigari no yotei o tatemasen ka?, it’s getting to feel like autumn, why don’t we make plans to go look at the fall leaves?).

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