Nihongo visual kei 日本語ビジュアル系, by "subculture linguist" AKIZUKI Kōtarō 秋月高太郎, examines relatively recent trends in casual Japanese orthography against the larger history of the written language. So, his discussion of small-tsu as an emphasis/intensity marker (think "あっ" vs "あ") also goes over the history of gemination in Japanese and the various strategies devised to get it on paper.

Akazuki formalizes the rules for what he observes carefully, but there isn't much in the way of statistical analysis or close-range orthographohistoriography: we learn that teenage girls like to use the small version of characters like あ and や, but we don't learn how long this has been going on, who started the trend, if it has a geographical component, or anything else, really, except for some hints that maybe it was the gyaru. (It usually is.)

The book also include at least one completely baffling passage in the introduction. After listing a few examples of mangled Japanese on signs aimed at Japanese tourists outside Japan (mostly drawn from Nihongo de dozuzo), Akizuki writes:

If Japanese people were to write Arabic in Arabic script, they would quite possibly make the same sorts of mistake. We cannot point the finger only at foreigners. However, one thing does strike me: the casual use in public, eye-catching contexts like signs and notices of text that could be mistaken. It seems to me that to Japanese people, or in Japanese culture, to make an error in written text is an extremely embarrassing thing to do. Most Japanese people, if they were to learn that the writing on their sign was wrong, would fix it right away, or take the sign down... (おそらく、日本人がアラビア語をアラビア文字で書いたら、同じような間違いを犯してしまうことはありえるでしょう。外国の方を一方的に責めることはできません。ただ、ちょっと気になるところがあります。それは、間違っているかもしれない文字表記を、看板や注意書きのような、目立つところに、平気で出してしまうという気持ちのもちようです。日本人、あるいは日本文化において、文字を間違えるということは、かなりレベルの高い恥に属する行為ではないでしょうか。日本人は、もし、看板の文字が間違っていることに気づいたら、すぐに訂正したり、その看板をはずしたりする人がほとんどではないでしょうか。)

I understand that his point is that Japanese people care about writing and so it is of interest that so many of them are using this "new orthography." But I live in a Japan where the signage reads "Let's we are enjoying good law-men times" and the t-shirts say "The beautiful girls defintion [sic!] is changed," and no-one seems in the least embarrassed. Not that I think they should be — words as decoration, it's cool, I'm hip — but it's not easy to square this with Akizuki's Gedankenexperiment.

A couple of other interesting observations from the book:

  • On pp253-255, Akizuki observes that the huge gulfs of white space employed in keitai shōsetsu are apparently rendering the period 。 irrelevant in that context, although exclamation and question marks remain at full strength.
  • On p116, he quotes KINDAICHI Kyōsuke 金田一京助 on why the particles は, を and へ retained their non-phonemic spelling. "Ideally," Kindaichi wrote, "Everyone would like to change を to お," i.e. write the particle phonemically. But particles are used so frequently that to modernize them would be "too great and distracting a change" from what people were used to, and the idea was abandoned.

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Leonardo Boiko:

I never know what to do when writing romanized Japanese. Rendering a particle-は as “ha” feels wrong, and as “wa” also feels wrong.


<i>Everyone would like to change を to お</i>

Suuuuure we would. Of course you can argue that it's <i>very unlikely</i> to be confused with the honorific particle due to it's primary position before verbs, but I have an お断わりしたい to that.

It's like people insisting on eliminating kanji in favor of kana all the time. But which is faster to read? 承る or うけたまわる?

(I'm <i>still</i> miffed Korean continues to drop its hanji.)


How old is the 。 in Japanese anyway? I always assumed it was a European import, much like ! and ?.


Leo: In Hepburn and Kunrei-shiki, you write "wa", "o", and "e", and ignore your feelings. But I do know exactly what you mean.

MMS: It's hard to say, though, because the issue isn't "is it quicker to use the visual abbreviations/disambiguation code you spent years absorbing, or to write everything out in full" but rather "over the course of a lifetime and across the whole society, is the code a net benefit"? Intuitively, I think the answer is yes, but then again intuitively heavy things look like they should fall faster than light ones. I don't know how you could even run a fair test of this barring some incredible simulacrum of Japan, except with a logical writing system, into which you insert infants and observe their progress.

Avery: People argue about this and it's not my speciality, but as far as I can tell it was convergent evolution (from, in Japan's case, similar symbols used for similar purposes in kanbun) followed by conscious mimicry (beginning in Bakumatsu->Meiji times).

Paul D.:

Leonardo: I'm a fan of romanizing Japanese on a purely phonetic basis, taking the target readership into account.

Speaking of punctuation, who else thinks Korean and Chinese would look so much nicer if they used Japanese-style periods and commas?

Leonardo Boiko:

Oh, I’m very curious about the history of punctuation but it’s so difficult to find stuff to read on this topic. In our Classics classes Greek and Latin materials are simply presented with modern punctuation as if it was present from the dawn of time, and no one raises an eyebrow… And let’s not even talk about English-language information on Asian punctuation and their possible Western origin. I suppose I should just improve my Japanese to increase the pool of available sources.

IMveryHO it would be difficult to do away with kanji without even including pitches in the written language. Such words as 垣/柿 or 橋/箸 are differentiated in speech by tones and in kanji by the kanji itself, but in all current Japanese phonetic ortographies (hiragana, katakana, hepburn, kunrei) they collapse to homographes. The lack of pitch marks compounds even more the already large homophone problem… (Yes, I’m aware dialectal pitch variation complicates matters, but still.)

Kana-only writing would also be much aided by, you know, _spaces_.


Akizuki's point about signage is scuppered not only by the mistakes in decorative bits of pseudo-English, which are, after all, the equivalent of the lace antimacassar that completes the Toyota Crown headrest. It's also common to see shops get the core descriptive parts of their signs wrong: restaurants that misspell "bistro", cleaners that can't get "cleaning" right, etc. And I'm not necessarily talking about mistakes in an English version that supplements more prominent Japanese text; the bistro in question had a sign written entirely in roman characters, for example. Although Akizuki leaves himself a get-out clause (看板の文字が間違っていることに気づいたら) -- presumably the mistakes remain because they've gone unnoticed -- he is, as you adumbrate, full of crap on that one.


Matt: There has been linguistic experimental work on kanji benefit (I remember a poster with reaction time charts) although I'm a long, long way out of that scene. Sure, it's for natives, and probably doesn't cover why you need 分かる/解る or 亘る/渡る/渉る distinctions, which are easy to mess up, even for natives. 思う/憶う/想う/念う....

There are a huge pile of authors who like to kanji one thing and rubii another who'd also be a bit put out, I suspect.

I'm trying to remember the first woodblock printed text I've seen with the 。(and that only--or maybe it was 、?) as punctuation. I have a feeling that Ming or Qing texts might have it? But I couldn't find an example online, and I tend to deal with manuscripts (which don't use 'em; of course, my manuscripts are usually from 1200-800 years ago) or books published in the modern era.


Wow, I pop up after grading tests for a couple weeks, and you guys are way ahead of me. A couple of observations:

1. The "gyaru" habit of writing little a and ya characters isn't particularly unique. I stumbled into a little research into girls handwriting (the new gyarumoji) and I found something interesting. There's a new 0.18mm ballpoint pen (I reviewed it on my blog) that is favored by young girls. They use it to write notes to each other with incredibly tiny characters, so their elder, eyeglass wearing teachers can't read it. I practically had to wear magnifying lenses just to try writing with the pen.

2. "Engrish" misspellings, of course, are a long debated subject but the only interesting take I found was from sociolinguist Haru Yamada. She said the English content was irrelevant, correct spelling, grammar, etc. were irrelevant. The only purpose English serves is to make Japanese characters look more "natural" to the Japanese. In a Japanese language context, Roman characters' very exotic nature makes kanji/kana look more Japanese. Engrish is not decoration, it is a signifier of alien-ness that makes the Japanese orthography seem more comfortable.

OK, back to grading tests for me. I was supposed to be done last week, but they keep sending more test forms to grade. Tomorrow might be the last day. They keep telling me that, but it is always a lie.


Charles, I believe the reference is to ゃ and ぁ rather than just small handwriting. Eg. writing かなぁ instead of just かな.


To be super-specific, stuff like "ょろしくネ☆" and "ぃろんなことを ぃっぱぃ話したぃ". I think this is pretty unique to young girls and women young enough to have been young girls when it started, but who knows?

Yamada's thesis sounds interesting but I'm not sure I buy it. Or at least, I'm not sure how you would distinguish "makes people feel better about Japanese writing" from straight-up decoration, especially when the two don't appear at once, and Occam's Razor and all. But I'd be interested in reading her whole argument; is there anything you'd recommend that's online?


Carl: yeah, I know, I'm just noting that girls like diminutive script generally.

Matt: I've been unable to locate anything by Yamada on the web. This romaji argument is in her book "Different Games, Different Rules" and is pretty much the best Japanese sociolinguistics book I've ever seen.
Ooh I wish I could afford her $125 (or more) technical linguistics books.


Interesting blog, if head-hurting at times.

Some related questions:

Why is the period mark in Japanese hollow rather than a dot and do any other cultures use same? A risk of confusion between a dot-period and comma when using a brush to write?

My wife once said I should remove the question marks from my Japanese business emails as it was bad form. Thoughts on this?

Did the minimized hiragana at the end of words really start in the keitai generation and not in manga? I can't recall seeing this done at the beginning of words as in the ょろしく example above. Interesting.


I was taught that since the か contains all the required question information you leave off the question mark. (Presumably, keeping it in the casual の question ending, or in such cases as げんき? Is therefore to reduce ambiguity.)

As you can see at http://zh.wikipedia.org/zh/Wikipedia:首页 , Chinese also uses the hollow dot. Who came up with it first? Eh... dunno. It was probably a few hundred years after my time.

I don't know that I've ever seen a Hangul text with the 。...


Sorry for the delay, tallnose. Re the hollow dot, like MMS I'm not quite sure -- just worked out that way. Maybe because when you're writing with a brush, it's easier to draw a little circle than try to invent another type of dot. (Compare to the appearance of punctuation in European texts, which I believe did not involve much brushwork.)

Also like MMS says, yeah, if your sentence ends in か you don't need the question mark and you will seem more "professional" without it. よろしいでしょうか。 rather than よろしいでしょうか? You should leave them in after ambiguous stuff like そうなの? but you probably aren't writing that in business e-mails.

Minimized hiragana: yeah, I think it happened with the keitai generation -- or perhaps it would be better to say that since keitai offered a binary choice between small ゃ and big や, one of the choices became marked "cute" -- whereas in handwriting it would be more of a spectrum where every letter was cutified to a certain degree in some way or another.

Charles: Thanks! I'll be sure to check this out with a recommendation that strong.

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