Birdsong considered harmful

I am really enjoying CHIRI Mashiho's Ainugo nyūmon: toku ni chimei kenkyūsha no tame ni ("An introduction to the Ainu language: particularly for scholars of the etymology of place names"). As you can probably imagine, Ainu place names have long been an irresistable lure to a certain type of etymologist, but given the limited understanding of the Ainu language (and, to be fair, the limited opportunities to actually learn it, especially a century ago when you couldn't just hop on a plane to do some fieldwork for a couple of weeks), the results of their efforts have been patchy at best. And, of course, in a field like etymology, mistakes that seem authoritative enough are repeated endlessly.

Chiri wrote this book in the 50s an attempt to set things back on the right track, and his writing is truly a delight: playful, but precise; never unkind to amateur enthusiasts, but always ready to zing those who should know better. (He'd be right at home at Language Log.) Here's one of my favorite parts so far, a short aside from a footnote:


What always fills me with admiration is the way that when one travels with archaeologists to some remote rural area and they are shown some unfathomable object, they always reply with such consummate self-possession. "Ah, this? Well, I don't know precisely, but I imagine it must have had some religious function." If they don't know precisely, how can they be so sure it had a religious function? The locals out there in the countryside don't press the issue that far, and so archaeologists are always serene and secure. So, let's think: are there any ways for Ainu place name etymologists to find the same serenity? And, indeed there are! There are! There most certainly are! The first is to say something like "Long ago, there was a rock of that shape in that location, and so it was given that name," or "There was a pattern of that shape on that cliff, and so people started calling it by that name", and dodge the issue. When using this method, though, one must never forget one thing: [...] to add a note saying "However, that rock has since crumbled away and no longer exists," and so destroy the evidence. The other way to handle a place name that defies understanding, if it is short, [...] is to turn it into birdsong. "Sensei, if I may ask, what is the etymology of 'Sapporo'?" "Ah, that? Well, long ago, a god turned into a bird there and flew overhead crying sapporo! sapporo!, and so it became that place's name. An old man in Tokachi, another old man in Kitami, and even the Harutori Ainu Elders say so; there can be no mistake!"

(The seemingly random dig at old folks in Kitami and Tokachi is a reference to an earlier scene in which an amateur etymologist complains about Chiri's dismissal of his analysis of the place name siruskina, insisting that he based his work on real live informants from those places. Chiri says that "Old men from Tokachi and Kitami can stand behind you glaring at me all they want -- that explanation will not fly," and uses it as an example of how even native speakers don't always know what they're talking about when it comes to etymology.)

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Wonderful! That's one of those things that makes me wish I'd learned Japanese when I was living there.


Hey Matt, this is random and not entirely connected to this entry, but would you happen to know the etymology of the word "ルビ" as in the process of adding furigana next to kanji?


Well, you see, it all dates back to when an editor turned into a bird and flew around the print shop crying "rubi! rubi!"... nah, seriously, it was the name of a (small) font size, IIRC. The very size they used to set furigana, hence the name.

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