Recently I was co-teaching a class of 8 and 9 year olds, and wanted them to be able to ask “Can you ~?”
After discussing the idea with the school’s staff, we decided to use the kanji names of various animals and plants.
Some background here.
Early Japan did not have a unified indigenous writing system, and from the 6th century the Chinese ideographic script (known as kanji in Japanese) was used. Now, Japanese is linguistically not related to Chinese, and this led to problems. Sometimes an approximate reading of the characters was used, ignoring the actual meaning of the ideograms. Sometimes the meaning, and therefore the ideogram, was used, but the Chinese-based reading ignored in favour of the indigenous Japanese word. Eventually phonetic scripts were developed and came to be used alongside the Chinese characters, often replacing non-standard readings in everyday texts. But a number of the older written forms have survived into the present, and are an interesting field of study.
A simple example is dolphin. The Japanese name is iruka, and today it is usually written in the katakana script (イルカ). It may, however be written in kanji as 海豚 – literally “sea pig”, which would be read [hǎitún] in modern Mandarin Chinese, or [kaiton] if one was to use the standard Japanese readings – only no such word exists. Incidentally, the root word of the English “porpoise” comes from Latin and also means “sea hog”.
Another animal containing the character for pig is the puffer fish, globe fish or blow fish – depending which dictionary you’re using. In Japanese, it is known as fugu (河豚), where the characters mean “river pig”.
One that is easier to imagine is uni, when it is rendered 海栗, literally “sea chestnut”. (The other way of writing it is 海胆 – “sea gall”) Think of a spiny chestnut husk in the sea, and you’ll probably come up with a sea urchin. Interestingly, the English word “urchin” derives from a Latin word meaning “hedgehog”
While we’re on the subject of sea creatures, let’s try kurage (海月). By now you’ve probably worked out that the first character means sea. The second one represents the word “moon”.
If you haven’t guessed, it is a jellyfish.
Let’s get out of the water for a moment and look at one of the easiest to understand – mukade (百足). The first character means “hundred”, and the second means “leg” or “foot”. You shouldn’t need me to tell you it is a centipede… which literally means “hundred legs”…
If we return to the chestnut and combine it with a mouse or rat (鼠), we end up with risu (栗鼠). If you can imagine a rat that likes chestnuts… or something resembling chestnuts… [Hint: if you’re a follower of this blog, you may remember that the word for acorn, donguri, is written 団栗.]
If you guessed squirrel, you are doing well.
Back into the sea, and we have another very easy one – hitode (海星). The combination of “sea” and “star” should be a dead giveaway, especially to those in parts of the world that call this creature a sea star and not a starfish.
On the other hand, you are doing incredibly well if you guessed namako (海鼠) – literally “sea mouse”. Most of the kids I was teaching that day had little idea what the creature in question was, but got a clearer picture when I explained the English name was “sea” plus “cucumber”.
I said that most of these animal names are native Japanese pronunciation, but sometimes the phonetic name is derived from other language sources too.
Rakko, for example, comes from an Ainu word. The most common kanji form is 海獺 (猟虎 or “hunting tiger” is also sometimes used). By now you should be able to recognise “sea”. The other character means “otter”. I’m sure you can guess the rest.
Another word of Ainu derivation is shishamo (柳葉魚). This is a case where the characters were chosen to match the Ainu meaning – “willow leaf fish”. According to Ainu legend, a compassionate god transformed some floating willow leaves into fish to feed the starving people.
Grilled or deep fried with the roe intact, this is one of only two items on the school lunch menu that I won’t eat. Luckily, it only appears once or twice a year.
I’ve collected over a dozen of these words. Many native speakers of Japanese can’t read them, so they are a great challenge for my workmates. Not to mention what I learned from checking the etymology of the English word too.