Splitting hairs? An adventure in Cross-Linguistic Naming

6 Nov

One of the interesting aspects of doing any anything nature-related in Japan is the difference in nomenclature between the English and Japanese languages.

Most non-linguists tend to think in very absolute terms – generally along the lines that their language’s interpretation of the world is the only one.  They are usually also guilty of believing that every word has an exact counterpart in other languages.

 

Let’s take a simple example, like “caterpillar”.

Simple, right?

Wrong.

Are you talking about a smooth-skinned caterpillar (further divided into “green” and “not green”!), a not-green looper or inchworm, or a hairy larval form of a moth or butterfly?  The Japanese language makes distinctions between all of these.

The smooth-skinned caterpillars come under the term “imomushi” (芋虫).  This group has two more sub-divisions: loopers or inchworms, called “shakutorimushi” (尺取り虫) – “measuring insect”, and the green-coloured varieties or “aomushi” (青虫) – “green insect”.

It’s green! The caterpillar of the swallowtail on a mandarin tree.

It bears mentioning here that the Japanese word “mushi”, while often translated as “insect”, is closer in meaning to the American generic “bug”, or the “creepy-crawly” of my childhood.  Thus, insects, spiders, centipedes, snails and worms can all come under the vernacular “mushi”

And if that’s not confusing enough, “ao” is usually translated as “blue”, but in reality covers a whole range of colours from blue to the light greens.  Green vegetables are “blue vegetables”, the green traffic light is also “blue”.  Translation work sometimes leaves me feeling blue (or is that green?)

 

The other group of caterpillars is the one whose members possess hair or spines as defensive mechanisms.  These are collectively known as “kemushi” (毛虫) – “hair insects”.  Most of these are the larval forms of moths, but some butterfly larvae are also in this group.

 

To complicate the issue further, there are also common names given to specific caterpillars.  An example of this is the moth Monema flavescens, known locally as iraga (刺蛾), although at least a dozen regional names also exist.  The larval form is called iramushi (刺虫), and loves persimmon leaves.  I can tell you from personal experience, you DON’T want to touch one of these!!  Just brushing against it produced more pain than a bee sting, and a rash which lasted all day.

 

Twenty milimetres of pain – the larval form of the iraga moth. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

I’ve just mentioned regional names, and these can cause confusion too.  Freshwater fish often have several different regional names, making it difficult to be sure which fish is being discussed.  Furthermore, the regional name for one fish may be the same as another regional name for a different fish.

Another example of identity crisis of is the raccoon dog, or tanuki (), with the badger, or anaguma (穴熊).  Both these animals are superficially similar, but are not closely related at all.  In some parts of the country, a dish known as tanukijiru (“tanuki soup”) is known, but it more likely contains the meat of the badger – assuming it contains meat at all.  Another dish bearing the same name is a vegetarian dish, the meat being substituted with konyaku.

Confusion arises because both these animals have been known as mujina () in different areas.  The soup in question was often known as mujinajiru.  Ascertaining which animal “mujina” refers to is difficult at best.

 

Spot the differences. Tanuki (top) and Japanese badger (bottom). Photos courtesy of Wikipedia.

The tanuki is a fascinating animal and deserves its own blog entry.

 

Now to the flipside – distinctions made in the English language but not in Japanese.

 

I recently learned that there are no rabbits on mainland Japan.  Japan’s only true rabbit is the Amami rabbit, Amamikurousagi (奄美黒兎) of Amamioshima and Tokunoshima islands.  The “rabbit” of Japanese folk tales is actually a hare – Nihon nousagi (日本野兎) or just nousagi (野兎).  The generic word usagi in Japanese can be either a rabbit or a hare – the language doesn’t make the distinction.  (It doesn’t split hares?)

 

A translation of “Kachi-Kachi Yama”. The hare has been translated as “rabbit”, and the tanuki described as “a kind of badger” – it’s actually a member of the dog family. Scanned from “Once Upon a Time in Japan”, Kodansha, 1985

Another generic word is hachi ().  Most Japanese (and their Japanese-English dictionaries) translate this word as “bee”.  In fact, the insect in question is more likely to be a wasp or hornet.  There are specific names for different bees and wasps, but the bee/wasp distinction is not made.

 

Bees and wasps. Clocwise from top left: Japanese hornet, Japanese honey bee, large carpenter bee, paper wasp. All “hachi” in Japanese.  Images courtesy of Wikipedia.

And finally, turtles and tortoises.

Growing up in Australia in the 1980’s, we (or rather, herpetologists) had three turtle/tortoise distinctions – turtles (specifically flippered sea animals), tortoises (club-footed or clawed animals that spend most of their time on land) and freshwater tortoises (animals with webbed feet and living in lakes and rivers) – also known as terrapins in the UK.  In the ‘90s, this changed to just turtles (aquatic or marine animals) and tortoises (terrestrial animals).

In Japanese, these animals are known collectively as kame ().  But then, the Japanese language has a separate word for soft-shelled turtles – suppon ().

 

This is just a small selection of some of the challenges of cross-linguistic wildlife watching.  There is no “right” or “superior” language for dealing with nature – one needs only an open and inquisitive mind.

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5 Responses to “Splitting hairs? An adventure in Cross-Linguistic Naming”

  1. yyt Wednesday, May 13, 2015 at 8:23 pm #

    Generically they just say “worm” if they don’t know the exact type of caterpillar… Or if you don’t…

    • wildinjapan Thursday, May 14, 2015 at 4:40 am #

      LoL, but an internet search for “mushi” will probably result in millions of useless results.

  2. GOAT 山羊 Sunday, November 6, 2011 at 9:19 pm #

    Fascinating, thorough and very informative as always. I’d always wondered about what, exactly, a “mushi” was (or wasn’t).

    But you made one glaring omission: WHAT HAPPENS NEXT IN THE BUNNY STORY?!

    • wildinjapan Monday, November 7, 2011 at 4:49 am #

      What a “mushi” is and isn’t… I guess in the broad sense, any invertebrate could qualify as “mushi”, although it is a distinction made in folklore and not biology.
      Curiously enough, the character 虫 is found as a radical in many insects, arthropods, worms, reptiles and amphibians. For example:
      spider (蜘蛛), frog or toad (蛙), leech (蛭), mamushi (蝮).

      And as for what happens next in the bunny story – if my comment on your blog about warning signs wasn’t hint enough, you’ll either have to get the book, or wait until I blog a piece on tanukis!

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. The Very Huge Caterpillar | Wild in Japan - Saturday, August 24, 2013

    […] search term.  Unfortunately, I wasn’t sure which Japanese word for caterpillar I should use – there is no generic word for “caterpillar” – and was successful only on my second choice (and that was dumb luck – the third option was […]

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