Here's one from the annals of self-deprecating quasi-pronouns, found in a 1690 letter from Matsuo Bashō to his student/disciple Kameda Shōshun 亀田小春:

何処持参之芳翰落手、御無事之旨珍重ニ存候。類火之難御のがれ候よし、是又御仕合難申盡候。残生いまだ漂白やまず、湖水のほとりに夏をいとひ候 [...]
I received your letter from Kasho [another disciple] and am delighted to hear that you are well. The news that you escaped harm in the recent fire, too, is a happiness inexpressible in words. As for my aged self, I am taking refuge from the summer on the shores of the lake [...]

Zansei 残生: literally "remaining life," and apparently originally used that way, before its meaning expanded to also include "old person" ("life have-just-a-little-bit-left-of-er"?), which was then available to refer to the self.

(Letter to Shōshun found on pp116-117 of Bashō Zenshū vol. 8 (ed. Hagino Kiyoshi and Kon Eizō, Tokyo: Kadokawa Shoten, 1964)



According to the Mainichi Shinbun, an object dug up in Hanyu, Saitama in 2012 and identified as some sort of equestrian equipment turns out to actually have been a jaw harp (and I use the past tense advisedly -- it ain't gonna be byonging out anytime soon).

Reading between the lines, it seems to have been initially misidentified because similar instruments that were found previously were (a) significantly smaller — the Asahi Shinbun says that it's 14.8 cm long — and (b) not found near a shrine, so the traditional explanation of ritual use looks a bit shakier than usual. (Not at all ruled out, of course.)

It's interesting to note that there is an Ainu mouth harp called a mukkuri, although I've never heard of a metal mukkuri and there's no reason to posit a direct relationship here. (Indirect relationship, shared NE Asian heritage of shamanism? Maybe.)

The instrument has been dated to the first half of the 10th century, which makes it the oldest ever dug up in Japan, and according to the Japan Jew's Harp Association (because of course there is one) press release, the oldest dug up anywhere in the world. This is surprising, but I see no real reason to doubt them.

Finally, the Asahi Shinbun article quoted above also mentions that the jaw harp was known by the name biyabon during the Edo period (and was popular for a brief while). The Nihon Kokugo Daijiten confirms; their first citation is from ca 1825, in one of the publications of the Toen-kai (a society apparently founded by Bakin devoted to sharing weird stories and objects they'd come across):


The biwabue, mispronounced biyabon by children, was an Edo-wide fad starting from the first third of the tenth month of Bunsei 7 [1824].

So they're arguing it was originally called the "biwa-flute" and biyabon is a mispronunciation of that? I don't believe that for a second. Biyabon might be the most onomatopoeic word I've ever seen. (And I have never wanted to romanize /N/ as <ng> so much.)

Other pronunciations/names listed by the NKD and its citations: biwabon, kiyakon, Tsugaru-bue.


Contra Thorkelin

Did you know that the fourth edition of Electronic Beowulf put everything online? No downloads required, just browse through the manuscript like a philosopher-king. Amazing.

It also led me to electronic versions of two parts of Kevin Kiernan's The Thorkelin Transcripts of Beowulf: "Part One: Thorkelin's Discovery of Beowulf" and "Part Three: The Reliability of the Transcripts". I'd gotten the vague idea that Thorkelin A was basically useless except as a last resort because its copyist didn't understand what he was writing, while Thorkelin B had been copied by Thorkelin himself, who did understand the content, and was therefore more reliable. Turns out I had it exactly wrong:

Though B in most cases does not make the same mistakes many times over, while A in some cases does, B makes more mistakes, and a greater variety of them, than A. Moreover, B's departures from the manuscript readings are very often emendations and restorations. A, on the other hand, makes a few errors many times over, but with such predictability that they can be confidently corrected even without access to the manuscript [...]

According to Kiernan, most of A's mistakes are attributable to problems reading the script (deciphering strings of minims into <im> vs <nn>; telling the difference between <p>, <þ>, and <ƿ>, etc.), and are therefore easy to understand and correct. Thorkelin B, on the other hand, is in some ways more of an edition than a transcript, with Thorkelin adjusting and amending words on the fly as seemed best to him — but, as my next link will explore in excruciating detail, Thorkelin did not really have the chops as an editor or linguist to pull that off. But first, one more Thorkelin anecdote from Kiernan:

At the British Museum Thorkelin's general method was to study all the manuscripts he had listed in his Cotton Notebook to see if they did indeed contain material relevant to Danish history. [...] In his Cotton Notebook, if a manuscript had something worth transcribing he would write "NB" in the margin, as he did for Cotton Julius A. xi; if a manuscript proved to be of no value to him, he would write "nothing" in the margin, as he did for Julius E. vi, also on the first page of his notebook. After reading Wulfstan's Sermo Lupi ad Anglos contra Danos in Nero A. i, he wrote "Nihil" in the margin (fol. 3v), betraying some forgiveable bias in his selection of relevant material.

Okay. So while exploring this line of inquiry I eventually stumbled upon Magnús Fjalldal's "To Fall by Ambition—Grímur Thorkelín and his Beowulf Edition" which, well...

Thorkelín was essentially a fraud as a scholar, a fact not lost on many of his contemporaries, and much of his advancement had been through ingratiation rather than scholarly achievement. Thorkelín was well aware that he might not have the ability to produce an edition from his transcripts, and for nearly 30 years he vacillated between caution and ambition. [...] The edition, when at long last it appeared in 1815, was a predictable disaster which exposed the editor for what he was and brought him misery rather than scholarly fame.

And that's just the abstract! According to Fjalldal, Thorkelin was a sycophant, a snob, a whiner, a moocher, a braggart, and a poor Latinist, so disagreeable that he was still remembered unfondly at his place of employment "decades after his death". Apparently there's even scholarly suspicion that he faked the loss of his manuscript in the 1807 bombardment of Copenhagen to buy himself more time before publication. Seriously, you have to read this article.

What does all this have to do with Japanese? Well... the business about Thorkelin A and B reminded me of something in Thomas Kasulis's book Shinto:

According to [Motoori] Norinaga, when scribes recopy texts over the generations, they often add or subtract a little something, especially in those places where the text does not seem to make sense as written. For Norinaga, a virtue of the Kojiki text was precisely that it was so unreadable. If the copyists could not read the text, there would be no chance of their intentionally rewriting parts to give it more sense.

I never did find a specific source for this in Norinaga's writings, but it sounds like something he'd say. (That's the Thorkelin method at work!)



Here's a verbed loanword I hadn't seen before:

kebarazu ni

Kebaru de gozaru: not really reducible to a single idiomatic English translation, but maybe "Kebab thee well" would be one good angle on it. You've got the verb kebaru < kebabu < E. kebab plus the "[plain form] + de gozaru" samurai "role language" (which I suspect was used at least in part because kebaru and gozaru rhyme, mind you).

Surprisingly, this was only one of two posters that the kebab place in question had put up advertising its wares. The other:

kebarazu ni

"Huh? You're going to get on the bus without kebabbing?!"

Reader, I did.


Fair and unfair language

No time to write something today, so here's another link to academia.edu: "Fair and unfair language games in Chan/Zen", by Bernard Faure. From the conclusion (spoilers!):

Despite (or because of) its denial of language, Chan appears first of all as a new "art of speaking."

Certainly in my case I had (and if I am honest, probably still have) more interest in the rhetoric of Zen than, you know, the other stuff.


Ten no tsukai

In the scene in the Taketori Monogatari where the Dainagon ("Great Councillor," Princess Kaguya's third suitor) is ordering his servants to go and get him the five-hued jewel from the dragon's head, there's an interesting textual problem. One of the servants meekly points out that trying to steal part of a dragon might be dangerous, and the Dainagon says something that is usually translated something like this (this is Dickins' translation, because it's available and free):

If ye call yourselves the servants of your lord, even at the peril of your lives are ye bound to do his bidding.

Most Japanese editions of the text will look something like this (this particular one is from the University of Virginia's Japanese Text Initiative):


Dickins' translation seems fairly reasonable, although the original says that a servant should want want to do his lord's bidding. The interesting bit is the first part, though: kimi no tsukai, "servant of [your] lord." The Iwanami Bunko edition of the TM (1970, ed. Sakakura Atsuyoshi 阪倉篤義) actually has a different version of the text:

てんの使といはんものは、命を捨ゝても、をのが君の仰ごとをば叶へんとこそ思ふべけれ。 (p29)

The key difference there is that the first part is not kimi no tsukai but ten no tsukai ("servant of heaven[?]"). There's an endnote about this:

『竹取物語解』は、「てん」を「君」の字の草体から来た誤写として改めるが、「天」をキミと訓むことは、例えば書紀の古訓などにも見えるから、もと「きみの使」の意味で「天の使」と書いたものかもしれない。 (p63)
[Tanaka Ōhide's commentary] Taketori Monogatari Kai argues that ten てん is a mistranscription caused by misreading the cursive form of kimi 君 and corrects the text accordingly, but the reading kimi can be found assigned to the character 天 [usually ten] in older reading traditions for the Nihon shoki and so on, and so it may be that the text was originally 天の使 with the intended meaning kimi no tsukai. (My translation.)

In other words, it may be that a very early scribe wrote 天の使 and intended it to be pronounced kimi no tsukai (modulo 9th-century phonology), but when the tradition of pronouncing 天 kimi died out, we were left with something that looked like it should be pronounced ten no tsukai, the ten of which then came to be written in kana.

It seems to me that this theory is a bit problematic, though; I don't know exactly what part of the Nihon Shoki is being referred to but I strongly suspect that the 天 (literally "heaven") to be read kimi "lord" refers to an Emperor. I doubt that a mere Grand Councillor would dare use 天 to refer to himself, and so it seems unlikely that someone writing this story would put that character in his mouth, so to speak.