2015-02-23

Sheepsfoot

After reading Victor Mair's post about the Year of the Ovicaprid, naturally the first thing I did was check to see if shoats, in the form of the character 羊, appear in the Man'yōshū. It turns out they do — sort of, in an oblique way.

They appear in two poems, #1857 and #3788. They look like this (via the Oxford Corpus of Old Japanese):

毎年 梅者開友 空蝉之 世人君蹄 春無有来
tosi no pa ni/ ume pa sakedomo/ utusemi no/ yo no pito kimi si/ paru nakarikyeri
"Every year, the plum trees blossom, but as a person in this hollow world, for you there is no spring."

(Many editors prefer to revise kimi to ware, giving the final line "...for me there is no spring.")

無耳之 池蹄恨之 吾妹兒之 來乍潜者 水波將涸
miminasi no/ ike si uramyesi/ wagimokwo ga/ kitutu kadukaba/ midu pa karenamu
"How detestable the lake at Mount Miminashi is. When my beloved came and sank into it, better the water had dried up."

(This is one of a set of three poems allegedly composed by three brothers distraught with grief after their competitive courting of the same woman ended with her throwing herself into a lake.)

In both case, we have not just 羊 but actually 羊蹄, literally "shoat's hoof," and in both cases it represents a single one-mora word, the (somewhat poorly understood, as far as I can see) emphatic particle /si/. Why? Because the plant known in Chinese as 羊蹄 — Rumex japonicus, apparently — was called, in Old Japanese, sinone, presumably literally something like "si root."

I'm honestly not sure whether to call this shakkun 借訓 ("borrowed readings", using kanji for sound alone) or gisho 戯書 ("playful writing", using kanji in a rebus-like or otherwise whimsical fashion). It is interesting that both instances of this usage are in very dark contexts, but I can't find any reference to this plant having ominous or depressing connotations so it's probably just a coincidence.

2015-02-16

Tonkori

This week I read Jack Claar's The Ainu Tonkori: A Manual for Learning and Guide to Performance Practice (which, I thought, does what it says on the tin quite well, especially given that the author was in high school when he wrote it). For my money the most interesting presence in the book was Tomita Tomoko 富田友子, who is mostly quoted saying things that undermine the book's entire raison d'être:

According to Ms. Tomita, people think that they can learn the tonkori instrument by listening on their own. But in reality, if the techniques and proper tunings are not correct, the music will become something entirely different and the performer will lose sight of the original purpose of the music. [...] Tomita says that because tonkori music in its tradition was not written down, and it was very largely based on improvisation, that writing the music out restricts it and is in fact detrimental to the open-ended, improvisational and free nature of this form of music.

It's to Claar's credit that he lets Tomita have her say, but it's a bit frustrating that he doesn't engage with it a little more explicitly. Like, does he just plain disagree, and that's why he's publishing the book? Does he agree but think of books like his as a necessary evil, given the low density of tonkori players to learn from? Or is his book a compromise — is the fact that he only gives pieces as very short patterns, with only minimal comments on variation and improvisation, actually a way to avoid freezing the music in amber (as it were)?

Anyway, I found a transcript of a presentation and Q&A session by Tomita about the tonkori (in Japanese) for those who want to hear more from her. Hurried translation of one part:

Because connecting songs was itself enjoyable, when the three of us [from context I assume this means Tomita herself, her main teacher Nishihira Ume 西平ウメ, and her fellow researcher Satō Kyōjirō 佐藤鏡二郎] played together, she [again, I assume this refers to Nishihira] would not stop. Once we started playing, that was it; she didn't even want lunch. We would marvel at how long she could keep going as we did our best to keep up our accompaniment. If I suggested that we take a break, she would say, "If you're tired, let's play lying down," and then she would do just that.

Metal.

2015-02-12

Dereliction of duty

Mister Donut, the US doughnut chain that emigrated to Japan leaving only Dunkin' Donuts to hold down the fort in the old country, is currently going through a Brooklyn thing. Their latest poster says:

この食感を表現する日本語が
まだありません。

ブルックリンD&D

Roughly speaking, "The Japanese [words] to express this mouthfeel don't exist yet: Brooklyn D&D." "D&D" stands for "Doughnut and Danish," not "Dungeons and Dragons" (I won't fall for that one again).

Technically this only describes the mouthfeel of the D&D, but I think that the name comes into play here: it goes only by the (English) initials "D&D," because it is impossible to put into (Japanese) words. To non-Brooklynites, it is literally beyond words, something which has never been experienced before. Reverse Sapir-Whorf marketing, if you like.

(Since both dōnatsu and dēnisshu are in fact fairly respectable loan words in Japanese — and both appear on Mister Donut's menu, at that — I assume that the real reason for using "D&D" was simple length considerations. But "The Japanese to express this mouthfeel is cumbersome yet entirely commonplace" would not have been a successful advertising slogan.)

2015-02-09

The Hen na Hotel

The internet is very lightly abuzz with stories about a robot-staffed hotel in Nagasaki set to open its doors in July, and most of the stories, presumably quoting the same press release, have something to say about the name, the preferred romanization of which is apparently "Henn na hotel".

For example, Engadget sez:

Henn-na (Henn means "strange" or "change;" feel free to pick a translation) will also use solar power and implement energy-saving methods to keep costs and room rates low.

The Washington Post sez:

It's worth noting that "Henn" can mean either "change" or "strange" in Japanese. Both interpretations seem fairly apt.

CNN sez:

The hotel will be called Henn-na Hotel, which translates as Strange Hotel.

(It also says "Bleep blorp"; apparently the guy who usually writes headlines for stories about comic book-related IP had some free time that day.)

So let's look at this more closely. In Japanese the name is written 変なホテル. It's true that the character 変 can carry the meaning "strange" or "change" (the word is already polysemous in Kroll's dictionary, so whatever semantic shift was involved took place long before it was borrowed into Japanese), but the only natural way to parse hen na in contemporary Japanese is "strange."

On the third hand, though — the one that emerges from a hidden panel in the rear of the torso to defend against sneak attacks — the proprietors of the hotel go to great lengths to plant the idea that this hen actually also kind of means "change":

先進技術を駆使するならば、もはや「変わり続けること」は、自然のことと捉え、「変わり続けることを約束するホテル」というコンセプトを掲げました。

そして、名付けたホテルの名前は「変なホテル」。
Recognizing that "continuous change" is a natural result of making full use of leading technology, we adopted the concept "a hotel that promises continuous change."

And the name we gave [that] hotel was "Hen na hotel."

This is actually quite restrained; both instances of "change" in that first paragraph are written with 変 in the original, but the second paragraph is refined enough not to come right out and say "so this hen also means, like, 'change,' not just 'weird.'" This is something that any alert reader will pick up.

(The HNH probably wouldn't be able to get away with this without kanji, since the connection between kawar[u] and hen wouldn't be as obvious, but I suppose opinions might differ on whether this should be considered an argument for retaining kanji or for abandoning them at once and moving to a log cabin in some anonymous forest far away.)

2015-02-06

Kagoshima-ben

Sometime when I wasn't looking, the Wikipedia article on Satsugū (or "Kagoshima") dialect of Japanese got really, really good. Although maybe someone can help me out with this:

Additionally, the mid front unrounded vowel /e/ differs from standard Japanese in that it retains the Late Middle Japanese variation between palatalized [ʲe̞] and unpalatalized [e̞].

As I understand it, by LMJ (assuming we're talking about the central, dominant dialect), there may have been allophonic variation between palatalized and unpalatalized versions of /e/, but there was no phonemic distinction. In the Kagoshima dialect, on the other hand, there is (or was) a phonemic distinction, if a murky one. Because I am an aimlessly wandering autodidact, my original introduction to this was Komabashiri Shoji's "The Vowel e in Satsugu Dialect in the Eighteenth Century: Based on Ronichi tangoshu":

Ronichi tangoshu is a Russian-Japanese vocabulary, which is said to be written by Gonza, a man from Satsuma who drifted to Russia by boat in the 18th century. In the vocabulary, two letters were used to represent the vowels which correspond to /e/ in the present-day Satsugu Dialect : 'e' and 'ѣ', for example, <eдa> (eda 'branch'), <ѣкаки> (ekaki 'painter'). In this paper, by examining the use of these two letters in Ronichi tangoshu, the Russian orthographical system at that time and the phonological system in the present-day Satsugu Dialect, I conclude that there were phonological distinctions between /e¹/ and /e²/ in the syllables e (at word-initial position), ke, ge, se, ze, te, de, ne, be and me in the Satsugu Dialect in the 18th century, and one or both of /e¹/ and /e²/ were palatalized. This conclusion is significant for the reconstruction of the history of the Japanese phonological system.

As the paper explains, a lot of the variation can be explained diachronically within Kagoshima dialect (resulting from vowel coalescence and so on), but there are too many exceptions to sweep under the rug.

To summarize, as far as I can tell, (a) whatever variation existed between palatalized and unpalatalized /e/ in LMJ was different from the behavior of /e/ in Kagoshima dialect, and (b) given that, if Kagoshima dialect is retaining anything, it must be from an even earlier stage of Japanese. So I don't know quite what to make of "retains the Late Middle Japanese variation between palatalized [ʲe̞] and unpalatalized [e̞]".

However, I cheerfully admit to knowing less about Kagoshima dialect, and quite probably MJ phonology, than whoever did the work on this article, not to mention many of the people reading this. Can anyone set me straight?

2015-02-05

Kihen

Nerdy haiku of the day, recorded anonymously in the 1633 Enoko shū:

冬ながら木へんに春の花見哉
fuyu nagara/ kihen ni haru no/ hanami kana
"Though it's still winter, tree-radical + spring flower-viewing."

The tree 木 radical + spring 春 is of course 椿 tsubaki, Camellia, which flowers very early.

(Bonus trivia: in Japan, the opera La traviata retains the title of the original story: Tusbaki-hime, which is to say La Dame aux camélias.)