After reading Victor Mair's post about the Year of the Ovicaprid, naturally the first thing I did was check to see if shoats, in the form of the character 羊, appear in the Man'yōshū. It turns out they do — sort of, in an oblique way.

They appear in two poems, #1857 and #3788. They look like this (via the Oxford Corpus of Old Japanese):

毎年 梅者開友 空蝉之 世人君蹄 春無有来
tosi no pa ni/ ume pa sakedomo/ utusemi no/ yo no pito kimi si/ paru nakarikyeri
"Every year, the plum trees blossom, but as a person in this hollow world, for you there is no spring."

(Many editors prefer to revise kimi to ware, giving the final line "...for me there is no spring.")

無耳之 池蹄恨之 吾妹兒之 來乍潜者 水波將涸
miminasi no/ ike si uramyesi/ wagimokwo ga/ kitutu kadukaba/ midu pa karenamu
"How detestable the lake at Mount Miminashi is. When my beloved came and sank into it, better the water had dried up."

(This is one of a set of three poems allegedly composed by three brothers distraught with grief after their competitive courting of the same woman ended with her throwing herself into a lake.)

In both case, we have not just 羊 but actually 羊蹄, literally "shoat's hoof," and in both cases it represents a single one-mora word, the (somewhat poorly understood, as far as I can see) emphatic particle /si/. Why? Because the plant known in Chinese as 羊蹄 — Rumex japonicus, apparently — was called, in Old Japanese, sinone, presumably literally something like "si root."

I'm honestly not sure whether to call this shakkun 借訓 ("borrowed readings", using kanji for sound alone) or gisho 戯書 ("playful writing", using kanji in a rebus-like or otherwise whimsical fashion). It is interesting that both instances of this usage are in very dark contexts, but I can't find any reference to this plant having ominous or depressing connotations so it's probably just a coincidence.

Popularity factor: 7


Perhaps 羊蹄 was used to represent /si/ because R. japonicus is a plant of moist ground and would be just the sort of rank, undistinguished, detestable weed growing at the scene of the lament, the shore of the lake at Mt. Miminashi. As a member of the genus Rumex, it must have an acrid taste as well.


This one hurts my head.

Rumex japonicus in Chinese is 羊蹄 *jaŋ-dê "sheep's hoof". The same plant in Japanese was called "sinone". So 羊蹄 became Japanese writing for "sinone". This part is fine.

But then the same two-character piece of writing is used to represent just the "si"? Why? Because "shi-no-ne" analyzes as "si's root", so the same plant could just be called "si"? Apparently so? (The Kōjien says that "sinone" is "especially the root").

So the optional "-none" is a red herring? 羊蹄 *jaŋ-dê = the plant called "si" → the homophonous particle "si", a standard kungana?


Yeah, it basically looks like the plant name was understood as "shi" with "shi-no-ne" an alternate longer form (perhaps referring to the root specifically), at least at the point when whoever wrote these poems... did.

I don't know if it was STANDARD kungana. Two times out of 4,000 poems isn't a slamdunk case. But... yeah. It's nuts.


I mean, it's not an elaborate gisho trick like 十六 = 16 = 4×4 = si-si = boar, or 大王 = Greater Wang = Wang Xizhi, famous calligrapher (as opposed to his son, Wang Xianzhi, Lesser Wang) (puns totally intended) = "calligrapher" = "tesi" (hand master) = particle "tesi".

It's just the usual kungana/shakkun process, even if the particular kungana reading is rare: Chinese word -> Japanese translation -> homophone of the translation.


I kind of feel though that if you have two characters for one sound, it's got to be gisho on points if nothing else. There's no way that the author/scribe here was like "Si, si... what kanji can I use for that?" and all that came to mind was "羊蹄".


One sound = one mora, obviously. "Sound" as in 音 rather than phoneme etc.


It's definitely deliberate, regardless of what we call it.

Out of curiosity, I grepped for 2-charater 1-mora in Edict (though of course these aren't kungana, just common gikun):

海鼠 [こ]
五十 [い]
豆汁 [ご]
豆油 [ご]

3 kanji for 2 kana gets more cases:

蝦虎魚 [はぜ]
海鷂魚 [えい]
牛尾魚 [こち]
金翅雀 [ひわ]
狗母魚 [えそ]
胡頽子 [ぐみ]
五加木 [ごか]
五倍子 [ふし]
香具師 [やし]
山毛欅 [ぶな]
似而非 [えせ]
七五三 [しめ]
鼠頭魚 [きす]
大口魚 [たら]
啄木鳥 [けら]
桃花鳥 [とき]
豆腐皮 [ゆば]
白膠木 [ぬで]
飯匙倩 [はぶ]
百舌鳥 [もず]
野木瓜 [むべ]
老海鼠 [ほや]
磚子苗 [くぐ]

And 4/3:
御座んす [がんす]
御食津神 [さぐじ]
御饌津神 [さぐじ]
再従兄弟 [はとこ]
再従兄妹 [はとこ]
再従姉弟 [はとこ]
再従姉妹 [はとこ]
三十三才 [ささぎ]
三十三才 [さざい]
三十三才 [さざき]
小啄木鳥 [こげら]
平兵衛酢 [へべす]
平兵衛酢 [へべず]
木五倍子 [きぶし]

Aime la vérité, mais pardonne à l'erreur

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