21 June 2016

Months of the Year

When first learning how to say the date in Japanese it can seem strange that the months of the year are just given numbers. In English we do that for years and days of the month, but for some reason feel that months should have their own special names, even though we often use numbers as an abbreviation. In Japanese the number is the official name so August is simply 8月 (hachi-gatsu).

However, when the Chinese lunar calendar was used in Japan each of the months had its own special name as well as the number. Most of the names are quite poetic and fit in well with the four seasons, but have dropped out of use. As the lunar calendar begins in the middle of February, they're often a month or so out of synch with the weather in the solar calendar, although a few survive in idioms and as alternatives to the more standard numbering system.

睦月 むつき Mutsuki 1月 January
There are a couple of possible explanations for this name. 睦 means 'harmonious' or 'friendly', so it was the month to be friendly, greeting people as part of the New Year. Alternatively it could be from 元月 もとつき (mototsuki, origin/base month) as it is the first month of the year, and the pronunciation changed over time from mototsuki to mutsuki.

如月 きさらぎ Kisaragi 2月 February
February is a cold month, so you need to wear another layer of clothes, hence the name 衣更着. 衣 ki(nu) is clothes or cloth, 更 sara means 'even more' and 着  is the ki of kimono, literally 'a thing for wearing'. So 'clothes and even more clothes'.

弥生 やよい Yayoi 3月 March
The month when the grass at last 弥 ya grows 生 oi again. The Yayoi period, between approximately the third century B.C. to the third century A.D., is named after an area in Tokyo called Yayoi where an earthenware pot from the era was discovered in 1884.

卯月 うづき Uzuki 4月 April
The month when 卯の花 unohana blooms.

Deutzia crenata 01.jpg

皐月 さつき Satsuki 5月 May
Satsuki is still quite widely used in idioms, although usually written as 五月.
五月晴れ Satsuki-bare Fine weather in May
五月雨 Satsuki-ame Rain in early summer
五月闇 Satsuki-yami Gloomy weather during the rainy season

This is because, as the lunar year starts a month later, 皐月 was the month of the rainy season. However, as its association with being the 5th month of the year haven't been lost, the words are often used to refer to the weather in May. The month isn't names after the rains, though, and sa is an old word for ploughing, or is short for 早苗 sanae 'early shoots'. Clearly agriculture was more of a concern than the weather!

In the film となりのトトロ (Tonari no Totoro), the two girls are called Satsuki and Mei, both named after this month.

水無月 みなづき Minazuki 6月 June
The kanji mean no water (水 + 無), but the na was originally no, so it was 'the month of water' rather than 'no water month'. The kanji for 'not' was just used for its sound. This doesn't mean rainwater, as the rainy season was the previous month in the lunar calendar. Instead, this is referring to the filling of paddy fields.

There is an alternative theory that it refers to the fact that this is the month after the rainy season in the lunar calendar, so it really is (relatively) 'without water', but given that the name of previous month isn't related to rain, as explanations go, it doesn't hold much water.

文月 ふみづき Fumizuki 7月 July
Fumi means letter or writings, and one likely explanation is that this is the month of Tanabata when people write their wishes or poems on strips of paper.

葉月 はづき Hazuki 8月 August
The month of leaves (葉 ha), as it's the start of Autumn

長月 ながつき Nagatsuki 9月 September
One explanation is that this is the month when the nights start getting longer 長.

神無月 かんなづき Kannazuki 10月 October
The kanji means no gods (神 + 無). There is a folk etymology that all the gods of Japan would go to Izumo in Shimane prefecture during October, so there would be no gods anywhere else. However, as with Minazuki, the na is probably no, giving 'the gods' month'; the harvest is in so this is the month for celebration, with parades and giving thanks to the gods.

霜月 しもつき Shimozuki 11月 November
The month of frost (霜 shimo).

師走 しわす Shiwasu 12月 December
The kanji mean 師 teacher and 走 run. The end of the year is very busy for Buddhist priests. A likely origin could be 師馳す shi +hasu. Hasu or haseru in modern Japanese, means to run or hurry.

14 June 2016

It’s alive! Power over life and death with aru and iru

Aru and iru are two of the first words that students of Japanese learn. Aru is for inanimate things and iru is for animate things.
テーブルの上にペンがある。tēburu no ue ni pen ga aru There is a pen on the table.
庭にワニがいる。niwa ni wani ga iru There is a crocodile in the garden.
The pen is inanimate, so we use aru. The crocodile is animate, so we use iru.
Aru can be used with people, and in old Japanese there only was aru for everything. Even today it is perfectly acceptable grammatically to say:
あの人は子供がある。ano hito wa kodomo ga aru That person has children.
However, this is just ticking the ‘has child’ box, rather than conjure up images of living breathing children. In this case, iru is preferable, and as a non-native speaker if you use aru it may sound like a mistake. The distinction between iru and aru gets more interesting, though, when you consider what it means to be ‘animate’.

Live fish for sale in a supermarket, would use aru. They may be alive, and animate, but they’re food, first and foremost. Live bait is the same.
sūpā ni katsugyo ga aru
There are live fish (for sale) at the supermarket.
wani no ikiesa toshite tsukau usage ga kono kago no naka ni aru
The rabbits that we'll use for the crocodile's live bait are in this cage.
Lice and fleas as well can be distinguished in this way. Iru and you’re talking about a creature, aru and you’re talking about an infestation. The use of aru depersonalises them; they’re condemned.
kata no ue ni nomi ga ippki iru
There is a flea on (your) shoulder.
kono harinezumi wa nomi ga aru
This hedgehog has fleas.
On the other hand, you can use iru to give life to inanimate objects.
isoideiru toki ni kagitte, takushī ga inai
There's never a taxi when you're in a hurry.
The taxi moves about under it’s own power, so you use iru. They move around freely and independently. Trains don’t get the same treatment, though. You can’t use iru with a train, because they’re stuck to a track and a timetable. There’s no free will. In fact, just having a person associated with the car can warrant the use of iru. If you see a police car outside your house:
パトカーがいる patokā ga iru
Because you know that there’s a policeman nearby, possibly in your house and asking too many questions. But if it was parked outside a police station
パトカーがある patokā ga aru
It’s just a car.

Cuddly toys in a shop for sale would be aru. Who cares about them?
But a child’s favourite toy would be iru, because of the personal relationship between the toy and the child. In Toy story, Andy would use iru with Woody, even without seeing him move. Because to Andy, Woody is alive! In Toy Story 3, he might use aru, though. Poor Woody.
ウッディとバズがベッドの上にいる Uddi to Bazu ga beddo no ue ni iru Woody and Buzz are on the bed.
ウッディとバズがゴミ箱の中にある Uddi to Bazu ga gomibako no naka ni aru Woody and Buzz are in the bin.

The distinction is very much at the discretion of the speaker, and given the right context, almost anything could use either.

NHK has a remit to provide television that commercial channels don’t, and produce quite astounding concepts such as panel shows about washers. I don’t mean anything related to cleaning, but the small disk that goes on a bolt to help the nut stay on. As I say, NHK take their remit very seriously. The fact I was watching such a programme says more about the quality of commercial television in Japan than it does about my interest in washers. Anyway, after various explanations about the importance of washers, they wheeled on a rusty old bicycle. Do you think we can unscrew this bolt? They asked, showing just how rusted and manky the nut was. A quick spin of the spanner, and off it came. The big reveal: there was a washer there, stopping the nut from rusting to the bolt. In surprise, one of the panellists exclaimed: ワッシャーがいた!Wasshā ga ita! This wasn’t just a simple ring of metal: it was the hero of the day. By using iru, she’d granted the washer a soul.

9 June 2016

Stop thinking in English! Active, passive and causative

Japanese verb conjugations are often said to be easy, due to having so few irregular verbs. However, that doesn’t mean that they are easy to use. The causative, despite being a fairly elementary bit of Japanese, is really hard to master. It’s not used as much as other verb endings, and it feels so different from English equivalent that it doesn’t come naturally. I’m not going to cover how it’s formed; there are plenty of other places on the internet with that information.

What do I want to explain is how it logically fits in with way of thinking behind Japanese.

Let’s take a simple situation. We’ve got a queen, a crocodile and the seven dwarfs. The queen, alloyed that the dwarfs helped Snow White, sets the crocodile on them. Things don’t end well for the seven dwarfs.

There are three participants in this incident, and we can describe what it happening with each of them as the subject.

The queen makes the crocodile eat the seven dwarfs.
This sentence has two objects: the crocodile and the dwarfs. Japanese doesn’t like having two を in one sentence, so the actor, the crocodile, is marked with a ‘ni’. Now, what does the queen do? In Japanese we can drop the objects and it’s still a grammatical sentence.
She caused it, so the verb is in the causative.

With the crocodile as the subject it becomes:
The crocodile eats the seven dwarfs
What does the crocodile do?
He’s doing the main action, so his verb is in the active voice.

Finally, the poor seven dwarfs.
The seven dwarfs are eaten.
What do the seven dwarfs do?
They are the victims of this heartless attack, so the verb is in the passive.
I believe that linguists normally use the word ‘patient’, but victim is more appropriate, and this very apt for the Japanese passive that tends to have a negative sense.

You can see that the causative, active and passive voices can be used to change the focus of the narrative, even though they’re all describing the same scene.

In English and many, if not all, other Indo-European languages, it is very important to include information on who is the subject; the person, gender and number. Is the subject the person speaking, the listener, or somebody else? Are they alone, or in a group? English has mostly lost the verb inflexions that mark this, but the pronouns live on and it’s still a core part of the way of thinking behind the language.

In contrast, Japanese doesn’t really care about that. The language is far more interested in the role of the subject. Did they cause it? Did they do it? Were they affected by it? This is why Japanese doesn't really have pronouns in the same way English and other European languages do. There is such a wide variety of ways of saying 'I' and 'you' in Japanese because they're not grammatically fundamental to the language and are therefore easier to change.

The meaning translates easily into English, but not without losing the symmetry in the verb forms. Often for any given situation you only hear a single sentence describing it, so the relationship between the causative, active and passive isn’t always obvious, but knowing the relationship between them is key to understanding the internal logic of the Japanese language.

1 June 2016

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:

25 May 2016

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.

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/.

18 May 2016

Unique Japanese

Japanese is not unique. As a human natural language it shares many similarities with every other language in the world, some more than others. But Japanese is unique, as it appears to have no common relatives, sitting as it does in its own language group. There have been various theories as to where it comes from, but none has been conclusive.

Numbers often a good way of determining the origin of a language as their social importance means that they cannot radically change from one generation to the next, and Japanese numbers show some unique properties.

In modern Japanese the Sino-Japanese numbers imported from China have all but replaced the native numbers, but the latter is clinging on for dear life as generic counting words up to ten.


The older forms were:

Believe it or not, there is a hidden pattern.

Going from one (ひとつ) to two (ふたつ): hito→huta
Three (みつ) to six (むつ): mi→mu
Four (よつ) to eight (やつ): yo→ya
Numbers are doubled by changing the internal vowels.
Five (いつつ) to ten (とお) doesn't follow the rule, unless you take the stem of five to be つ, so it would be tu→to.

The first recorded person to notice this was a chap called 荻生徂徠 (1666-1728), so as far as we know, until that point nobody had realised that such a rule existed.

Finding the rule opens up new questions:
  • Why does changing the vowel lead to doubling?
  • Why don't five and ten follow the rule exactly?
  • Is the same rule seen elsewhere in the language? 
  • Are there any other languages that share the phenomenon?

The pattern is too consistent to ignore, but it is not shared by any other language that Japan has historically had ties with. Mysterious....

Actually, as unique as Japanese may be, the answers to some of these questions are more related to how similar the language is to others than how different it is. Similar phenomena can be seen in all natural languages. But it's still quite amazing that the two times table is hidden in the number system, and that hardly anybody notices.

数字とことばの不思議な話 窪薗晴夫 岩田ジュニア新書 (p.2~)
日本語 金田一 岩波新書 (上、p.51~)

11 May 2016

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. 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

As gruesome as kanji gets, nobody really thinks that running somebody over is a barrel of laughs. The kanji 楽 comes from a pictograph of a tree with a lot of chrysalises, which referred to the saw-tooth oak. The chrysalises survived as the 幺 in the old character, today simplified as four dashes. Later an acorn was added, and this now is the most prominent part 白.

Then the character was borrowed for its sound. This is a very common phenomenon in kanji; the original meaning is completely lost, as its used for a more common homonym. In this case, the word for 'pleasure' or 'comfort'. To get the meaning of saw-tooth oak, tree is added to the left side 櫟, to tell the reader 'this is the tree 樂, I'm not using it to mean "fun" here'.

轢 is using 楽 for its sound, as they had similar pronunciations in Chinese, and, by a convoluted word association: a tree with acorns → acorns → small objects → small stones, it had the meaning of crushing small stones as you drive over them.