27 July 2012


As loofahs are often used for washing in a similar manner as a sponge, many people don't release that in fact it's a vegetable. They can be eaten, but after ripening the fruit can be boiled to remove the flesh, leaving the familiar wiry form. In Japan, the source of loofahs is well known. However, the origins of the Japanese name are rather convoluted.

The fruit first arrived in Japan during the Edo period, and due to it's fibrous nature it was known as 糸瓜: thread gourd. いとうり became shortened to とうり, and this name was current for a while. The modern word is へちま, which is derived from the older form.

In order to explain how, we have to take a bit of a diversion.

In modern Japanese, the kana is ordered in あいうえお order. It's a nice, straightforward way of systematically ordering the characters. However, formerly a more poetic order was favoured.

The いろは poem uses each kana once, and at the same time including some rather esoteric Buddhist philosophy.

The important part is in the first two lines of this poem.

A loofah is とうり, a ' gourd'. is between and in いろは order. means 'space' or 'between', so へちま means between へ and ち. Therefore (?) うり is へちま. This probably started life as a riddle, but for some reason it caught on as the actual name for a loofah, to the point where とうり isn't even a word for it any more. But the original name lives on: へちま is still written in kanji as 糸瓜.

18 July 2012

Regular vowel movements

Previously, I mentioned how there is a pattern in the way numbers are formed in Japanese, with only changes in vowels between related numbers. However, although it is unusual to find such a relation in numbers, the phenomenon is very common in natural languages.

Just to recap, one hito and two huta, share a common root in h_t_. Three and six are both m_, and four and eight are both y_. Change the vowel to double the number. In modern Japanese such vowel changes are rare, but their former importance in the language is still very clearly evident.

Transitive verbs and intransitive verbs often show this relation, although there is no regular pattern for all verbs. I'll talk about these in more detail another time.
あげる ageru (to raise) : あがる agaru (to rise)
しめる shimeru (to close something) : しまる shimaru (to close by itself)

There are some common nouns that change in a few compounds. Many of the compounds have been absorbed to the point that they are considered as words in their own right.

  • mabuta = me + futa
  • 手綱 tazuna = te + tsuna
  • sakazuki = sake + つき tsuki
  • 風見鶏 kazamidori = kaze + mi + tori
  • 爪楊枝 tsumayōji = tsume + 楊枝 yōji
  • 木陰 kokage = ki + kage
  • honoo = hi + + ho

These seem quite random at first, but closer inspection reveals two groups.
A final e mutates into an a, and a final i mutates into an o.

me ⇒ ma
te ⇒ ta
sake ⇒ saka
kaze ⇒ kaza
tsume ⇒ tsuma

hi ⇒ ho
ki ⇒ ko

Clearly it isn't a random change, but it's far from universal. ke never forms compounds as ka*, chi never mutates to to, and take is never taka. The rule that determined how vowels alter in compounds is dead, but its spirit lives on in daily vocabulary.

Once the change has become established, it is then only a small step for the modified form to take on a new meaning. For example 魚, now normally read as さかな. The common reading used to be うお, and さかな was written 酒菜 (sake + vegetables) meaning something eaten with sake. Now the original meaning has been lost completely, a process which was made all the easier by the change in the vowel.

By way of comparison, Proto-Indoeuropean, the language from which most European languages originated, modified words through vowel mutation, and relics of this system are still found in English as so-called irregular plurals and verbs.

So, for plurals:
mouse ⇒ mice (both have the form m_s)
foot ⇒ feet (both have the form f_t)

and verb tenses:
sing ⇒ sang ⇒ sung (a common s_ng root)

Also, there are related words that come from a common source: sit, seat, set. All have the common s_t root.

Now the pattern in the Japanese numbers doesn't seem quite so strange. In both modern English and modern Japanese, new words are usually made by adding a suffix or prefix. The lack of living examples of vowel mutation means that it is not obvious how the process took place, so we shove the words that have resisted the new rules into a category we call 'irregular', forgetting that these were once the regular forms.

In the same way, the rule that determined the significance of the vowel changes in the numbers 1-10 died hundreds, possibly thousands of years ago, but its been passed on through the generations as a hidden message from ancient history.

11 July 2012

Fun fun fun

The kanji 楽, fun, easy, was originally written 樂 and is supposed to be derived from a pictograph of some bells hanging from a tree. It was borrowed for its sound for the modern meaning, and it appears in a few other kanji. See if you can guess what these characters mean.

  • 薬 grass + fun
  • 擽 hand + fun
  • 轢 car + fun

薬 drugs, medicine
This is a fairly basic kanji, and it's easy to remember the meaning for some reason. The other two characters are quite rare.
薬 くすり drugs, medicine

擽 to tickle
As far as I can tell, the 樂 part is only there as a phonetic guide, but the constituent parts fit the meaning so well I'm surprised this character isn't better known.
擽る くすぐ・る to tickle

轢 to run over
Car fun! Joy riding? Well, one of the words this kanji is used in is  轢死. Car fun death? In the world of kanji, the most fun you can have in your car is to run somebody over. How macabre.
轢く ひ・く to run over

4 July 2012

Any old iron

Iron is a common element, and the kanji for iron 鉄 is taught in the third year of the Japanese education system. The modern form is actually a simplification of the far more complicated original:

Whilst it's fortunate that a 21 stroke character has been reduced to a mere 13 strokes, the new form is less than lucky.

It was first used as a military abbreviation and appeared in a list of approved kanji for weapon names in 1940. Two years later, the abbreviated form was included in a list of government approved common kanji, but with the old form after it in brackets. On 5 November 1946 the approved list of tōyō kanji, the precursor to today's jōyō kanji, was released and included both characters as alternatives. However, the very next week, the old form was removed; 鉄 would be the only approved form. The final nail in the coffin for 鐵 came in 1948, when parents were limited to the 1850 kanji in the tōyō list for naming their children. As 鉄 was the approved form, 鐵 was not permitted.

What this also meant is that company names also had to use 鉄. This wouldn't be a problem, but the new character is made up of 金 (metal or money) and 失 (to lose). お金失う?!! That's not particularly auspicious for a company that hopes to make a profit.

So, what you often find in company logos is an alternative, completely non-standard form. JR East, the railway company that serves Eastern Japan, writes its logo like this:

It's looks normal at first glance, but the 鉄 in 鉄道 is rendered as 金+矢 instead of 金+失. 矢 means arrow; apart from its resemblance to 失 it is entirely unrelated, but at least it can't be construed as having a negative meaning.

Now, JR and other companies with 鉄 in their names aren't paranoid about using the character, and will only use the non-standard form when practical. Their web site isn't filled with lots of tiny image files at every occurrence of the offending kanji.

This demonstrates two interesting features of kanji: the potential for hidden meanings, and the ease with which new forms can be made up. It's particularly ironic when the made up form only became necessary when the original was made obsolete.Kanji is a very serious word game!

The history of the character 鉄 is taken from here:

27 June 2012

Is there no such thing as a Hawaiian thermometer?

Human beings like to find common patterns, and it's a good strategy when facing a new problem to see if you can apply existing knowledge when trying to tackle it. However, when learning languages, especially one as different from English as Japanese, it's very easy to fall into the trap of making some badly informed conclusions based on a tiny sample of information.

Without a serious attempt to learn a foreign language, a common mistake is to assume that your own language is infinitely flexible, whereas the target language is bogged down with set phrases, dodgy grammar and a limited vocabulary, without realising that it's only your limited perception. I have heard both Japanese speakers say this about English and English speakers say this about Japanese.

The most egregious of these is a book that I would actually really recommend. It's a little bit dated now, but and the author has a witty and easy to follow style. It definitely falls under the category of popular linguistics. However... as I read it, every time he brings up English, I found myself thinking 'oh, here we go', because it was usually to point out how superior Japanese is.

The book is called Nihongo by Haruhiko Kindaichi. It was first published in 1957, so it's held up well, considering that it's still being published. The man knows his Japanese, and was a respected scholar of the Japanese language, but, even by his own admission, didn't know English very well, although he doesn't let that get in his way of making sweeping generalisations. As an example of his misconceptions, he relates the following anecdote to demonstrate the superiority of using kanji as a writing system.

(日本語 金田一春彦, 新版 上, ISBN-4004300029, p 80)

I have spent half a year living in Hawaii, and as I had arrived in the middle of winter, at first I really enjoyed the warm weather, but as the temperature was almost the same every day, in the end I really wanted to know what the temperature was. I hadn't seen a thermometer, but as Hawaii was that sort of place, there wasn't much need for one, and they weren't generally on sale. I went to a department store but when I asked if they had a 'thermometer', the shop assistant had no idea what this word meant. If it had been a Japanese person, seeing the characters 寒暖計 surely they would be able to guess that it was a device for measuring (計) cold (寒) and heat (暖).
The point he's making about kanji is valid, but that's no reason to suggest that Hawaiians are not familiar with the concept of measuring temperature. There are any number of reasons why he didn't get what he wanted, but to assume that the other person is the ignorant one is not the wisest of conclusions. Yet, he was confident enough to publish this in a book.

Never be too quick to judge a language or the people that speak it. Mutual unintelligibility is no indication of a lack of knowledge on either side.

(By the way, a medical thermometer is 体温計)

18 June 2012

Special birthdays

There are some birthdays that have special names in Japanese, although the significance is more often word play (or kanji play) than a significant milestone.

還暦 かんれき is 60 years old. 還 means 'to return' and 暦 means 'calendar'. The Chinese system of naming years after twelve animals is well known, but there is a lesser known cycle of ten 'heavenly stems'. The detail of this is for a different post, but the two systems combine together to create a 60 year cycle. Therefore, after 60 years you have lived through a full cycle, and the calendar returns back to the beginning again.

古希 こき is 70 years old. 古 means 'old', but not an old person, and here means 'long ago'. 希 means 'wish' usually, but it can mean 'rare' which it does here. The original way of writing the kanji with this meaning was 稀, but 稀 is now usually abbreviated to 希. The word comes from a poem: 
酒債は尋常行く処に有り 人生七十なり
Everywhere I go, a bar tab is common thing for there to be; a man who lives to 70 is a rare thing since long ago.

喜寿 きじゅ is 77. 寿 means '(long) life'. 喜 means 'delight', and in Japan has an abbreviate form that looks like 七十七 (7, 10 and 7: 77) arranged as one character.

傘寿 さんじゅ is 80. 傘 umbrella may seem like a strange choice, but the character can be abbreviated to 仐, which is 八 (8) and 十 (10), hence 80.

米寿 べいじゅ is 88. Why 米, rice? Again it's the character's form. The top two dashes form an inverted 八, the cross is 十 and the bottom two strokes form a second 八. 88!

卒寿 is 90. そつじゅ It's a bit late for graduating, but 卒 (most commonly seen in 卒業) can be abbreviated to 卆, which is 九 (9) and 十 (10).

白寿 はくじゅ is 99. 白, white, isn't abbreviated to anything resembling kanji numbers. If 百 is 100 and 一 is 1, removing 1 from 100 leaves 99; removing 一 from 百 leaves 白. Therefore, 白 means 99. Clearly.

There are special names for other ages as well, but these are the most common ones. One thing to remember is that the ages are normally based on the old method of counting years: a newborn baby is one at birth, and you add a year at the new year. So you're actually 米寿 at 87.

8 June 2012

Open sesame!

The tale of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves is world famous, so it's no surprise that it's just as well known in Japan. What did surprise me, for some reason, is the translation of 'Open Sesame!'.
開けゴマ (ひらけごま)
Literally, 'Open! Sesame'. Perhaps because it's a magic word, it hadn't occurred to me that 'sesame' would be literally translated as the nutty-flavoured seed.

However, ごま lends itself to some other Japanese phrases that don't translate quite as literally.

Literally 'navel sesame', an interesting way of describing belly-button fluff. Perhaps I'm weird, but it doesn't remind me much of sesame.

Sesame and salt noise: black and white noise. A common condiment is ground black sesame with salt, and it does look quite like static noise on a television, albeit more static than static noise, which, ironically, isn't actually static. The katakana word ノイズ means specifically 'random noise' rather than loud sounds in general.

ごますり or ごまをする
Grinding sesame: idle flattery. The verb here is する 'to grind; to rub'. Not to be confused with する 'to do', it conjugates normally, so the polite form is すります, not します. The grinding is specifically with a mortar and pestle, and the ground sesame sticks to everything it comes into contact with. Therefore, and this is a stretch, it means trying to 'stick' to everybody, hence flatter. This has led to a gesture for flattery: rubbing one hand against the other as though grinding sesame.

ごまふ (胡麻斑)
'sesame freckled' is used in the names of flora and fauna to mean black spotted or speckled. The spotted seal is 胡麻斑海豹 ごまふあざらし, the kanji meaning a sesame spotted sea leopard.

To deceive. Actually, this may or may not be sesame related. When written in kanji, these days it's usually written as 誤魔化す misunderstand + magic + -ise (verb forming ending, as in socialise), but this is 'ateji', with kanji used only for their sounds. One theory is that it comes from 護摩 ごま, a Buddhist cedar stick burning ceremony, with a verb ending かす. The ashes from this would be sold, but often you'd be more likely to be getting burnt garden waste from the not-so-devout ash salesman. So 'are you cedar-sticking me?' came to mean 'deceive'. The other explanation does involve sesame. 護摩菓子 (ごまかし), is sesame flavoured sweets, in this case referring particularly to an Edo period (1603-1868) cake called 胡麻胴乱 (ごまどうらん). This was hollow inside, so looked considerably much more substantial than reality. Therefore, 'sesame-caking' was outright deception.

The more interesting etymologies have come from http://gogen-allguide.com/.