Machi vs chimata

So a while ago Claytonian wondered what the difference between machi 街 and chimata 巷 was, since both can be translated as "the streets" and coupled with no akari to mean "lights of the streets" or "city lights." Let us examine the issue.

Etymologically, chimata comes from /ti/ "road" + /mata/ "fork," thus, a fork in the road, a crossroads. And, just as settlements and commerce tend to build up at crossroads, it eventually came to mean "streets [where people do business]" and, more metaphorically, "society" (e.g. chimata no uwasa, "word on the streets," "the word").

Here's a cool old poem (MYS 11/2506) featuring chimata in a less metaphorical way:

事霊 八十衢 夕占問 占正謂 妹相依
Kotodama no/ yaso no timata ni/ yuhuke tofu/ ura masa ni noru/ imo ha ahiyoramu
I went down to the (eighty-forked) crossroads where the kotodama dwell
And heard the news that the one I love, she loves me back as well
[Something something hoistin' my palanquin since I been gone]

(May have embellished that a bit.)

Machi, on the other hand, has an unclear etymology (maybe /ma/ as in "space" and /ti/ as in "road," or as in "earth"? opinions are divided) but in its earliest attested usage already refers to a division of land — as in, a rice field. This was inevitably expanded to refer also to subsections within palace and mansion grounds, and then to a concept roughly corresponding to "city block."

So a machi is a concrete thing. It is a sub-place, implicitly subordinate to a super-place; an area where things are. A chimata is not so much an area as a point through which things pass. A machi is an object; a chimata is a system. Thus, although the two words do have a synonomic overlap, chimata also covers some abstract, figurative territory which machi cannot reach.

Also, pragmatically speaking, because machi has been repurposed many times over the years to refer to specific configurations of streets and buildings, it has a more down-to-earth feel than chimata, which as far as I know has never been assigned a specific definition. Thus, chimata has a slightly more poetic flavor.

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Can you talk a bit about the nuance of 町 vs. 街 ? The first is way easier to write, so big points in its favor.


You think this distinction manifests in English in the way we have streets named "whatever street" vs. "whatever way" where the first refers (and is named appropriately) to the physical location, while the second refers to what happens there or maybe that it's the way there?


Kevin, I'm not sure about that -- "[somewhere] street/road" regularly means "the way to [somewhere]" in the UK. e.g. London's 'Oxford Street' is so named because it's was part of the old route from London to Oxford, and most towns have a 'London Road' which is on the way to London. This isn't true of every street called "[somewhere] street/road/way". Most often, a "[somewhere] street" in London is named after the country estates of the landowner who had them built. Or just after other bits of the country with satisfying names. So, e.g., Bedford Street, Argyle Street, Tavistock Street, Chester Road, Cumberland Terrace.

And then the road/street/way distinction isn't really held to either-- 'York Way' in north london had its name changed from 'York Road' in the '30s. It doesn't go to York, either-- was apparently named after a street named after the london-york railway (the 'Caledonian road' probably also a ref to the railway to Scotland).

/london history workshop

L.N. Hammer:

Should that <i>kotodama no</i> be read literally or as a pillow-word? Not that you can always tell in Man'yoshu poetry ...


I just had an evil thought of translating "kotodama" as "thus spake" or "words of wisdom" or some butchery like that.


Carl: 町 is, like, a field and a road (or a stake indicating a road or something): subdivided agricultural land. In 街 I think the 行 does mean movement and 圭 indicates a clear (artificial) delineation [of some space]. And yes, 街 is one of those characters that always lays my shocking lack of calligraphic balance bare.

L.N. Hammer: It's hard to say, but I think in this case the reference to divination afterwards means that interpreting it literally makes sense here. (Also, I had to make the crossroads reference.)

Leonardo Boiko:

Henshall thinks 圭 refers to raised earth bumps that delineate a tilled field, and from that it extended into delineations in general. A useful mnemonic if nothing else.

These characters that split others (like 行→術, 衣→裏 ) are weird.

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