Tag Archives: language

A Stroke of Genius…?

28 Jan

Hi blog.

Sometimes I say to myself, “Andrew, you’re a genius.”  And very occasionally, I prove it.

I sometimes get requests for information about various topics, or “Can you identify this?”  Well, I recently received an e-mail from all-round good guy Ian G. “Goat” Fraser:

Okay... maybe.

Okay… maybe.

I instantly recognised the large character at the bottom, kai (界), usually meaning “world”.  I wondered if it was some kind of Buddhist term – one would expect such things on a pilgrim route.  Although on a marker like this the smaller characters would be read top-down, right-to-left, I decided to tackle the three on the left first, simply because I recognised them straight away.  Well, recognised them individually, which is of little help when trying to read unusual vocabulary.

Google to the rescue.  I entered the characters individually – actually, the 々 symbol is like a ditto mark, meaning the previous character is repeated.  As it turns out, 久百々 is read “Kumomo” – a phonetic combination that it hardly likely to be a native Japanese speaker’s first choice.  It is the name of a district within the city of Tosashimizu, Kochi Prefecture.

The set on the right turned out to be more challenging.  First, I used a stroke count application to get the reading for the second character, 岐, ki.  The angle of the photo and the particular writing style made it difficult to pick out straight away.  The first character looked like 六, so I tried searching under the reading “Rokki”, but to no avail.   However, when I tried the search term in conjunction with Kumomo, I got links to Oki no hama.  The first character was actually 大, not 六!!  (A Japanese friend said that she agreed with me as to how the character appeared due to the style of the engraving)

“Of course it says 大岐 久百々 界  What did you think it said?”

A search for Oki gave location just south of Kumomo.  That was when inspiration struck – I recalled the word kyokai (境界) meaning “boundary” or “border” – and tried a map and then street view search of the border between Kumomo and Oki.

From Google street view.  That bluff looks familiar...

From Google street view.  That bluff looks familiar…

Bingo!

Bingo!

As it turns out, 界 by itself can also mean the same.

So Ian’s mysterious marker was marking the boundary between the old villages of Kumomo and Oki, which were incorporated into the city of Tosashimizu in 1889.

OK, hardly anything to get excited by – not marking a battle or shipwreck, but I’m nevertheless congratulating myself on a job well done.

Radically Fishy – An Adventure in Ideograms

12 Jun

Hi blog.

The rainy season has arrived, so be prepared to put up with me ranting about the locals’ inability to cope with the heat and humidity.

Recent news has been dominated with the story of Yamato Tonooka, whose parents left him in the forest for a few minutes as punishment, only to have him disappear and not be found for nearly a week.  The media have been tripping over themselves to bring us the exclusive reports, which now include close-up shots of the tap he drank from…

This post comes from an idea floating around inside my head for a few years but was crystallised by a school lunch, of all things.

Lunch included Japanese Spanish mackerel (“So is it Japanese or Spanish?  Make up your mind!”), which is known in the vernacular as sawara and written 鰆.  Astute readers might recognise the radical as the character for fish (魚) combined with the character for spring (春).  This fish always seems a little dry, and I quipped that since we are now in summer, it is out of season.

Time to look at some characters with the fish radical.  Let’s keep this simple and go by stroke number.

The modern character for fish.

The first one combines fish with the element for fortune telling (占) to make 鮎.  Avid readers may recognise it as ayu or sweetfish, although it originally referred to the catfish – namazu – now written 鯰.

Next is one you might be able to guess.  If we combine fish with an older version of the character for flat (平) – which I can’t reproduce here due to unicode issues – we get 鮃, read as hirame.  Hmm, a flat fish…  I hope you’re not floundering for an answer.  The answer is, of course, the olive flounder, bastard halibut or Japanese halibut.

The fish with the package (包) is a little confusing.  I’m pretty good with the fish characters – more than a match for a typical Japanese adult – but 鮑 had me stumped.  One reason is because it is not a fish at all – it is abalone!  The locals know it as awabi.

Moving along to another season, let’s look at the fish with winter (冬), read as konoshiro.  Actually, this character – one of several used for the fish – is misleading.  The answer is the dotted gizzard shad, konoshiro gizzard shad, or spotted sardine, which is actually in season in autumn.

The fish with the rock (石) makes sense.  The adults of this family of fish – known locally as kajika (鮖) – apparently lack swim bladders, and so sink when they stop swimming.  It is the sculpin, a large family of fish which inhabit a variety of freshwater and marine environments.  Interestingly enough, another character is also used for this fish.  This character uses fish combined with autumn (秋) to make 鰍, although in the original Chinese it referred to the weather loach.  The weather loach or weatherfish  – dojo in Japanese –  is now typically written as 鰌.

Sometimes the meanings of the parts of the characters is not immediately clear.  The next two are prime examples of this.  The first combines fish with the character for “to be” (有), but in this case it is to represent a fish that swims freely.  The Japanese name for the fish is said to be a corruption of meguro (“black eyes”) and is pronounced maguro (鮪).  The fish in question is the tuna.  Curiously, the Japanese have taken to using the word tsuna (a corruption of the English tuna) to refer to canned tuna…

My other example is fish combined with a character referring to a jade tablet (圭), but taken to mean a triangular shape, or possibly a good shape.  The resulting character is (鮭), referring to salmon.  The Japanese name for the fish is sake, which may have its roots in the Ainu language.  Closely related fish, which may be known as either salmon or trout in English are sold under the name saamon, a corruption of the English salmon.

How about a fish that includes the element for switch, cross over, or interact with (交)?  The resulting character becomes 鮫, and should be somewhat familiar to regular followers.  That’s right, it’s same, meaning shark.  Apparently, the shark’s twisting movements give rise to that character.  The Japanese name same may be of Ainu origin.

Our next fish has the character for village, and also for an old measure of distance (里).  I imagined that the right side referred to the fishes’ length or possibly the distance they swam, but it turns out that it is also a reference to sinews.  The resulting 鯉 is read koi, meaning carp.

We’ve already had one example of the fish radical meaning something other than a fish, so let’s finish off with three more.

The fish radical combined with 京, which typically means capital city but also has the meaning one quintillion or 1×1016 – that’s 10,000,000,000,000,000 – to make the character 鯨.  The ridiculously high number refers to the creature’s size.  That’s right, the character is kujira, and means whale.

Next, let’s combine the fish with a tiger (虎).  This one (鯱) shouldn’t be too hard to guess if I told you to think of a sea creature with the ferocity of a tiger.  The name is shachi, and it refers to the killer whale.  The same characters may also refer to the fanciful creature found on the roofs of castles, often known as shachihoko.

Shachihoko on the roof of Nagoya Castle. Photo taken from Wikipedia.

Shachihoko from the Wakansansaizue. Here it is actually written as 魚虎 and not 鯱. Interestingly, it is the second-last entry under “scaly marine fish. Mermaid is last!

Our final ideogram for this post is fish with a character meaning to surprise (咢).  In this case, however, the surprise element is similar to the character for chin or jaw.  Again, followers of this blog might recognise the resulting character as 鰐, wani.  Originally meaning certain kinds of sharks, it has been changed to mean reptiles of the order crocodilia.

I hope you enjoyed this post, because there are more interesting fish-based kanji characters out there.

Original bone oracle script.

Bronze script character. You can clearly see the fish here.

Large seal script. It’s beginning to take shape. I can’t see the fish any more.

Small seal script. It only takes a little imagination to understand what character this is, but it looks almost nothing like the original.

Further Adventures in Cross-Linguistic Nomeclature – Ideograph This!

10 Mar

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”

 

“Sea” + “chestnut” = “sea urchin”. Pictograms can be so simple.

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 (), 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.

 

The original ideogram for “sea” – it is now written 海

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.

 

Shishamo “willow leaf fish” – If I caught anything that small I’d throw it back!!  (Not to mention I HATE fish eggs…)

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.

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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