28 April 2016

Longest kanji reading

What's the longest word that can be written with a single kanji?

Chinese limits itself to a single syllable per character, but Japanese has no such limitation.

One, two and three kana-readings are fairly common.
There are not many characters that have four-kana readings, not including any okurigana word endings.
紫  むらさき murasaki [purple]
志す こころざ・す kokoroza-su [to aim to be]
快い こころよ・い kokoroyo-i [agreeable, pleasant]
There are only two five-kana readings in the Joyo kanji set.
志 こころざし kokorozashi [will, aspiration]
承る うけたまわ・る uketamawa-ru [to receive, undertake (humble)]

Outside the joyo kanji, and you find that people have got pretty creative with kanji throughout the years. As you can create new characters with new meanings, and as Japanese permits multiple syllables, one character can represent a whole sentence.

One of the longest 'accepted' readings is for the character 砅 もをかかげてみずをわたる mo o kakagete mizu o wataru or いしをふんでみずをわたる ishi o funde mizu o wataru
Which means: crossing water by stepping on stones.
That's a 12 kana reading.

It's a bit of a cheat, really, because it's more descriptive than an actual word, and the 'reading' can be written 藻を掲げて水を渡る which is easier to understand. In fact, the single character is only rolled out as an example of a very long reading.

The character also has the distinction of actually existing in the Unicode character set. Most characters with very long readings only exist in lists of characters with very long readings.

However, the candidate for the longest reading in the JIS character set, at 13 kana long is:
砉 ほねとかわとがはなれるおと hone to kawa to ga hanareru oto
'The sound of skin and bones separating'

Coincidentally, both 砅 and 砉 appear on the same page in my Kanji dictionary (漢辞海). Somewhat disappointingly, it doesn't list these long 'readings', but it shows that when you get to the outer fringes of kanji, pretty much anything goes.
More here (Japanese):

21 April 2016

Big numbers

Japanese has had the good fortune of inheriting the Chinese number system. The way of building higher numbers is so logical that a learner can pick it up very quickly, and it makes arithmetic much easier for children, because they are already well aware of the concepts of hundreds, tens and units by the time they start school.

Powers of ten, however, are not quite as logical. In fact, the usage of the higher powers are not universally agreed on in the kanji using world. There were 下数, using increments of 10; 中数 using increments of 10,000; and 上数 where each number name was the square of the previous. In Japan 中数 became standard in the 17 century, although apparently remnants of the different systems persist elsewhere.

From 1 to 10,000, each multiple of ten has its own name.
いち 1
じゅう 10
ひゃく 100
せん 1,000
まん 10,000

Then the numbers go up in multiples of 10,000.
おく 100,000,000 (108 a hundred million)
ちょう 1,000,000,000,000 (1012 a trillion)
けい 10,000,000,000,000,000 (1016 ten quadrillion)

That's about the limit as far as useful numbers go, but they do go much higher!
Even from 兆 (portent, omen) and 京 (capital city) characters are being reused. There isn't always a clear explanation as to why a particular kanji was chosen, as they are most likely phonetic borrowings.

がい 1020 The character means boundary or limit.
禾予(as one Kanji) じょ 1024 The character for this is so rare that it isn't even in the basic JIS character set. The original kanji was 秭, which means 'piling up'. When writing this, I found that I could paste the kanji in the editor, but it wouldn't display on the published post.
じょう 1028 Lush, abundant.
こう 1032 A ditch or narrow waterway.
かん 1036 A mountain stream. Two water related kanji in a row. Is there a pattern coming up? Sadly, no.
せい 1040 Usually means 'correct', but has a minor meaning of 'long' which could be why it is used.
さい 1044 Load or carry. Nothing could possibly carry anything this big! It also means write down or print, so is more likely to have the meaning 'something so large it cannot be written'.
ごく 1048 Limit, extreme. The absolute highest number ever! Hang on a minute....

After that, Buddhism was clearly a major influence.

恒河沙 ごうがしゃ 1052 恒 is a kanji transcription of the Sanskrit name for the Ganges, 河 is river and 沙 means 'sand', so the whole thing is 'the number of grains of sand on the River Ganges'. Quite poetic, really.
阿僧祇 あそぎ 1056 From the Sanskrit for 'more than can be counted'
那由他 なゆた 1060 From the Sanskrit for 'an extremely high number'
不可思議 ふかしぎ 1064 不可 is 'impossible', 思議 is 'conjecture' or 'guess'. An unimaginably large number!
無量大数 むりょうたいすう 1068 Originally two words, 無量 is 'unmeasurably huge' and 大数 is 'a big number'. So together they make an gigantastically meganormous number.


 Still quite a bit smaller than a googolplexian, and slightly less than the total number of atoms in the universe.

15 April 2016


Japanese has a relatively small number of sounds, which leads to a large number of homophones.

That's four 'niwa's all in a row.

Written in kanji, the sentence is immediately understandable:
In the garden there are two chickens.

Not quite as long, but, crossing off the first ni and the watoriga gives:
The crocodile is in the garden.

In a similar vein, but with a single kana repeated:
Plums and peaches are both types of peach
Which unfortunately isn't actually true.

Taking things a bit further:

モモ モモまた モモ  モモ色々
A peach is 'momo', thighs are also 'momo', and a hundred is also 'momo'; peaches, thighs and hundreds: various 'momo's

Try saying that with a mouth full of marbles. At least it's true, but perhaps a bit contrived!

Reading 百 as 'momo' is from the old Japanese number system, which will be the subject of a future post.

8 April 2016

Peace, harmony and all things Japanese

The character 和 has the meaning 'peace' or 'harmony' such as in words like 平和 and 和音, but it is also used to mean 'Japanese'. Do the Japanese really think of Japan as being that harmonious? Is 和食 a more peaceful cuisine than 洋食? And anybody who's ever used one will tell you that a 和式 toilet does not instil a feeling of one with the world.

In fact, this use of 和 is similar to the use of 英 for English and the UK. 英 can mean 'hero', but the UK 英国 (hero + country) is no more a heroic nation than France 仏国 (Buddha + country) is a Buddhist one. Chinese uses similar sounding characters for transliterating foreign words. So England approximates to 英吉利, and the first character is then used as a form of abbreviation.

Often Japan is represented by the character 日 from 日本. So, the Anglo-Japanese Alliance was 日英同盟, using a single character to represent each country. However, a Japanese English dictionary is usually a 和英辞典.

'Wa' is what China originally called the people of Japan. It was written with the kanji 倭, and there was some controversy over possible hidden meanings. The character consists of 人 (person) with 委 (entrust, give over). 委 provides a phonetic component, but also represents a woman 女 gathering rice or grain 禾, with an extended meaning of 'bent over', as one is when harvesting by hand. In addition, it is very similar to the character 矮, meaning dwarf, and 倭 itself can also mean 'diminutive' when used in names of pygmy animals such as 'pygmy hippo'. It's arguable whether the meaning was originally derogatory, but being ambiguously offensive doesn't really make it any easier to take. So pretty early on, during the 8th century (the Heian period) the homophone 和 supplanted 倭 to mean Japan. 倭 is still used occasionally instead of 和 with no change in meaning, or implication.

The older name for the country, Yamato, became one of the kun readings of 和 and 倭, although it's more usually written as 大和.

Historically, Japan has had as much inner strife as any other country with a reasonably long history, and the use of 和 was not to indicate that Japan was more peaceful. The choice was more to avoid a possible insult, rather than cultural arrogance.