Exercises in madness

Remember last year when I posted that incredibly bad Japanese translation of Hamlet's soliloquy? The mystery has been solved!

Well, kind of. According to ASHIZU Kaori's What's Hamlet to Japan?*,

[a]lthough some scholars have supposed that the cartoon referred to an actual production of Hamlet, Masao Tanaka has shown that it was designed to make fun of Hoffman Atkinson's Exercises in the Yokohama Dialect (1873).

And, since Atrus the Otaku has scanned the entirety of the Exercises and put them online, you can confirm Tanaka's scholarship for yourself. And I strongly recommend that you do.

Normally, I would want to add some illuminating linguistic commentary when linking to a book like Atkinson's Exercises, but in this case that would be gilding a pre-gilded gilt-edged lily. If you speak even a little Japanese, this will be one of the funniest books about the language you have ever seen.

It isn't just that it uses a non-standard orthography to be more accessible to English-speaking readers -- that's not a crime, although it does rocket-boost the humor. It's the fact that Atkinson, or his source, had almost no grasp of Japanese grammar or syntax at all, and even his vocabulary was iffy. Any poor innocents who followed its advice would have been walking around shouting the equivalent of "You! Bring boat! This me money!", like ill-mannered Incredible Hulks.

(Another possibility: Yokohama Japanese in the 19th century was different from all other forms of the language on record, and closely resembled a recently arrived foreigner's first fumbling attempts at what is recorded everywhere else. I find this very unlikely, but since I wasn't there, I suppose I can't quite rule it out.)

A sample:

EnglishAtkinson's JapaneseObservations
Have you none in variegated colors; these are too plain?Kuroy, shiroy, ah kye arimasen?"Black, white, no red?"
LaundrySin turkeysentaku
Would you like to see some old Satsuma screens of wonderful variety and strong pattern?Die job screen high kin arimas?"Sturdy screen look have?"
One, twoStoats, stats/hi/, /hu/ → /s/. Yokohama accent, or simple mishearing? You decide
You must make less disturbance driving nails into the wall, or I shall be obliged to punish youOh my pompom bobbery wa tarkshee pumgutzI surrender
* Which includes some marvellous illustrations of Japanese Hamlet characters.

Popularity factor: 15


But it was revised and corrected by the Bishop of Homoco!

Also, um, twenty-second thousandth what?


"Non-standard orthography" is something of an understatement. I particularly liked cocoanuts for "nine".

Seriously, though, is it possible he's actually describing a Japanese-based pidgin used by foreigners in Yokohama? (Even if he doesn't realise it.)

Kuroy, shiroy, ah kye arimasen?
aba akaki kOrOmObO kOnOmibumu.


"Oh my pompom bobbery wa tarkshee pumgutz"

Oh my pompom bobbery indeed. I believe I burst my pompom bobbery laughing -- this is awesome. Early ghetto cracker orthographies of Chinese mostly pale in comparison.


LH: You've got me there.

Tim: I guess that's possible too, although I've never known Japanese people to drop the possessive "no", no matter how much they simplify their speech. Maybe he's satirizing clumsy foreigners. Maybe he really was bad at Japanese, but the real point of the book was to mock rude natives -- it's hard to believe that the elaborate and polite English sentences towards the back are sincere...

(Note that on page 21 he takes time out to blast "pidgeon English" as "a low and ungrammatical dialect, void of syntax, spoken between foreigners and Chinese".)

Brendan: if you have such orthographies, they must be produced!


I think I accidentally learned something! Not about Japanese, of course, but about British English, which is a bastardization of English spoken chiefly in England. I didn't know that "pram" for baby carriage was a shortening of perambulator.

If you'll pardon me, I think I'll perambulate outside for some fresh air.


Tried Googling this and it appears, as Tim says, that the dictionary is seen as recording the pidgin used in the foreigners' settlement in Yokohama.

See, for example, http://nobunsha.jp/melma/no8.html (scroll down a bit) and http://homepage2.nifty.com/k-sekirei/others/mononoke_04.html


I googled "Bishop of Homoco" and discovered that (according to this page) it's just Atkinson in disguise.


This Google, it vibrates? Seriously, blogging without googling is a terrible blog faux pas, isn't it? My apologies to all.

And, I stand corrected: it is, apparently, considered a record (the only record!) of the Yokohama pidgin of the mid-late 1800s. The question, then, is whether the Bishop of Homoco knew it was a pidgin. He does draw a distinction between what he discusses and "samurai Japanese" that hardly anyone knows (paraphrasing), but did he know that there was a commoner Japanese that everyone (except some foreigners in Yokohama, I guess) DID know? And was his attack on words like "bobbery" and Chinese-foreigner communication meant ironically? Was the bad Shakespeare really making fun of him, or was it laughing WITH him? Clearly, we need a time machine.

Mark S.:

Brendan: Early ghetto cracker orthographies of Chinese mostly pale in comparison.
Matt: if you have such orthographies, they must be produced!

Herbert Giles (of Wade-Giles fame) wrote an early Mandarin phrasebook that contains a few oddities. This was also an era in which people apparently often said things like "Is there good mutton to be had?"

And more than a century later, when there was no longer any excuse for such strange systems, the folks at Lonely Planet decided that Pinyin would be just too hard for the clueless traveller and so removed all Pinyin from its phrasebook and substituted a "system" of its own creation. The resulting phrasebook reads at best like a bad parody of someone with a heavy Beijing accent.


I think it is safe to surmise that the book gives little indication of Atkinson's actual knowledge of Japanese, and tells rather more about the time and money he was willing to spend on elaborate in-jokes.

Unless, of course, the obvious `clues' (“Naru Hodo Shinbun”, p. 10, “Ghosts of departed cattle [...] purely a legal technicality”, p.19, the dedication to an eminent dialectologist, the bishop-bobbery) are additions by a later editor, republishing the book as a parody!

On a side note, it seems indeed quite plausible that the Yokohama pidgin needed only slight alteration in order to reach maximum silliness potential.


what the hell can piggy be? it just bugs me. Also "dog: come here".
hilarous though.


Looking at the meanings he ascribes to "piggy", I can only assume that the source was /hiki/ (引き), which does turn in to /biki/ and /piki/ under the right circumstances, and depending on your perception of aspiration could easily be perceived as having a /g/ instead of a /k/.

"come here" for "dog" is harder. My guess is that it's either /kamu/ (bite) + ... something I can't guess, or the English words "come here". (We refer to animals by the noises they make, so why not by the noises we make when talking to them?


Oh! or maybe something related to "canine", via the Portuguese presence?

Lameen Souag:

"Oh my pompom bobbery wa tarkshee pumgutz": I guess "Oh my" = omae, "wa tarkshee" = watakushi. Any idea about the rest?


"pompom" sounds like mimesis.. there's a word /panpan/ which refers to something banging (hammering, a gun, whatever). "bobbery" he identifies himself as noise or commotion, probably mimetic too (sounds English). "pumgutz" is a mystery to me. He also has "pumpgutz" elsewhere in the book. There's a kanji pronounced /katsu/ (maybe /gatsu/ if voiced) which means shout or scold.. there's a very common kanji pronounced /batsu/ which means punishment. It could be either of those. I have no idea about the "pum(p)" part, though.

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