Andou Shoueki: Spiritual Linguist

ANDOU Shoueki is another Edo thinker I have been reading lately. His Toudou shinden (『統道真伝』, "A Truthful Account of Everything", maybe) is a series of interlocked and opinionated mini-essays on everything from climate to marriage, all viewed through Shoueki's idiosyncratic philosophy of Everything. This is the kind of thing I enjoy in any case -- ah, for the heady days when "science" meant "drawing wild conclusions from 500-year-old books and cursory examination of the flora and fauna in your backyard" -- but what I most enjoy about it is Shoueki's approach to language, which at times borders on the mystical.

This is apparent from the very first few pages, in which he outlines his Unified Theory of Climate, using the curious word 転定. Intended to be pronounced tenti, it is apparently his way of writing 天地 ("heaven and earth"): the sounds are the same, and if you squint you can see the meanings too (the heavens are always in motion (転), while the earth is fixed (定)). The notes by Iwanami-edition editor NARAMOTO Tatsuya (奈良本辰也) hypothesize that Shoueki was consciously avoiding the character 天 because he felt it was too reminiscent of words such as 天皇, "Emperor", and the hierarchical ideas they reinforce.

Later in the work, he rhapsodizes about the Japanese language in general, picking out word-pairs like 男・女 (wonoko, wonago, "man, woman") 有り・無し (ari, nasi, "exist, not exist"), and 楽・悲 (tanosimi, kanasimi, "pleasure, sadness") and concluding that the similarity of sound each pair exhibits, in particular the rhyming, is due to their being two sides of the same coin:

If there were no yosi (good), there would be no asi (evil); if there were no asi, there would be no yosi; the combination of good and bad is nothing less than an expression of sintai (進退, "advance and retreat", kind of like yin and yang).

Shoueki furthermore attributes this quality of Japanese to Japan's being the original Source (of everything, basically), and proceeds to rail against imported Chinese thinking, for denying the essential truth of these dyads and encouraging people to seek joy without suffering, heaven and not hell, which as he has just shown is a logical (and phonemic) impossibility. "We have been led astray by these false teachings of Buddhism, this materialism of Confucianism," he concludes...

... and then moves on to his next topic, which is about the unity of all languages.

The Ainu say hiruko for "man" and menokosi for "woman": these [words] fall within the fifty sounds [of Japanese, i.e. the syllabary extended to its hypothetical limits]... the Chinese say inshu for drinking liquor (飲酒), and kouin (好婬) for relations between men and women: these too are within [the fifty sounds of Japanese].

Obviously, it is already cheating to claim that every language can be pronounced using the sounds of Japanese and offer as proof fully katakanified versions of these languages, but he doesn't stop with humans:

Beasts -- which word (kemono) derives from the phrase "thing that grows hair" (ke naru mono) -- say wan-wan [dogs], ii [donkeys?], meiwe [sheep?], nyan-nyan [cats], woho [wolves], and kon-kon [kitsune]; these too are within the fifty sounds.

Talk about anthropomorphization. He also goes through the sounds of birds, insects, fish, and even plants! (While unable to speak themselves, he notes, when blown by the wind they make sounds like soyo-soyo and saa-saa.)

Ah, how logical! Nature, the union of heaven and earth, people and things, is a harmonious, unceasing system, thus producing the fifty sounds; and so is it, therefore, that no speech of man or thing falls without these sounds.

It would have been humbling enough to learn that my pronunciation of English, incorporating as it does phonemes and clusters forbidden in Japanese, goes against nature to such an extent. But to further discover that all this time dogs and chickens and even the grass have been outdoing me... I'm completely mortified.

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That is totally sweet. I love the circularity of the 'Onamotapoeia in our language is in our language! Duh!'Maybe 'ii' is horses?It is sort of entertaining how cool he was with giving animals (and plants, gosh) 'language', when that sure is not okay nowadays. Even with some pretty decent proof, or at least steps toward same.

Mark S.:

After reading that, The Structures of Letters and Symbols throughout Human History Are Selected to Match Those Found in Objects in Natural Scenes no longer seems as weird.


I love his choices of examples for Chinese words, too--drinkin' and chicks.


He was very big on equality and "nature", so it makes sense that he would want to put animals and stuff up there with humans in that sense...

Amida: Yeah, I know. His example for Dutch was "mui" (meaning "meat") iirc. Who knows what he'd been reading before all this.


Who knows what he'd been reading before all this.

Laozi, for one?

English goes against Japanese nature...I'm surprised the opponents of foreign language education haven't found and latched onto this guy. (Or have they?)


"Everything comes from Greek.""Okay, grandpa, what about kimono?""Eh..."

--My big fat Greek Wedding

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