Pellard on etymology: Whence pira?

Following last week’s opaque and diffuse system, here’s another recent one from Thomas Pellard: “A (more) comparative approach to some Japanese etymologies” (PDF available from here).

Great reading as always, especially for the mass of data from the southern branches of Japonic it supplies. My only objection is that the proposed etymological connections to Ainu feel way underbaked. As far as I can tell (from text and bibliography), Pellard picked up Tamura Suzuko’s dictionary of the Saru dialect of Ainu—which admittedly is probably the best single Ainu dictionary there is—and looked through it for words that sounded kind of the same. I’ve got no problem with this procedure as an ideas generator, but I don’t think it’s justified to take casual findings like this and present them as something that “could hardly be a coincidence.” The first rule of historical linguistics is that absolutely everything can be and probably is a coincidence, and that goes double when you’re cold-searching a dictionary.

That said, I don’t necessarily mean to argue that every link Pellard proposes is wrong. It’s a bit more complicated than that. Take as an example OJ pira ( > NJ hira). This would usually be glossed “flat” but Pellard has issues with its appearance in some mountain terminology, e.g. yomo tu pirasaka in the Kojiki:

The word pîra-saka is surprising, since the semantic spelling of the Nihon shoki clearly means ‘flat slope/hill,’ and the root pîra is indeed well attested in Japanese with the meaning ‘flat.’ The same oxymoron is seen in other toponyms such as pîra-yama ‘flat mountain’ (平山, MYS 9.1715), pîra-woka ‘flat hill’ (枚岡 Norito 394, 比良乎加 Wamyō ruijushō Genna vi-v6).

First of all, I’m not convinced that this is even an oxymoron. “Smooth, easy-to-climb slope,” “Mountain with a flat top,” “Hill with evenly sloping slides”—all these seem fine to me. Even “Mountain that is lower than the other mountains around it” seems reasonable as an etymological justification for pirayama. Pellard, however, apparently does not share this intuition. Fair enough. He investigates the Ryukyuan languages:

Turning to the Ryukyuan languages, the same meanings are attested for this etymon, and a PR form *pira (a), and PJ *pira 2.1/2, can be reconstructed from the following forms: Yamatohama çiɾa ‘road over a mountain pass,’ Kamikatetsu çìɾá ‘slope at the top of a mountain,’ Yoron pjaː, Izena ɸíɾáː, Nakijin pˀjáː, Shuri ɸíɾà, Ishigaki psɨsá ‘slope’, Taketomi piɕə ‘slope (of a roof).’

Note that for none of these do we need hira to mean anything other than “flat surface”—as long as we don’t care about the angle of that surface relative to the ground. (Also note that I was unable to recreate the Ishigaki orthography properly and others may be suspect too. Please refer to original paper.)

Anyway, long story short:

The relationship between ‘hill, slope’ and ‘flat’ is not obvious, but I propose that ‘flat’ is the original meaning of *pira and that the sense ‘hill, slope’ is a secondary development through ‘mountain pass, plateau’.

I agree that “flat” is the original meaning of *pira; as above, though, I don’t think you need to go through any mountain passes to get to “slope.”

Pellard then offers a connection to Ainu:

Interestingly, Ainu has a word pira meaning ‘cliff’, and also a verb pirasa ‘to spread out.’ The phonological and semantic match with Japonic *pira is perfect and could hardly be a coincidence.

As noted above, I dispute “could hardly be a coincidence” on anti-hubristic grounds. I’m also deeply skeptical about the quality of the phonological match—it looks good, but shouldn’t we get a diachronic model of premodern Ainu involved, if we’re going to be comparing it to Old Japanese? But let’s put that aside and consider the semantic match.

First of all, it may be of interest to note that Ainu pira seems to imply a specific kind of cliff. Tamura Suzuko’s Ainu dictionary doesn’t mention this, but, for example, Chiri Mashiho’s Chimei Ainugo shōjiten (Small Dictionary of Place-name Ainu) glosses the word as:

Cliff; a cliff where the soil has collapsed/crumbled and the earth is revealed

(Incidentally, Chiri also mentions the possible connection to Korean that Pellard brings up.)

Kayano Shigeru’s Ainugo jiten (Ainu Dictionary) glosses it as:

Cliff: A cliff with neither trees nor grass growing on it

It seems to me that the word pira “cliff” is more likely to have an etymology referring to bareness or dirt than to flatness, mountain passes, etc.

In Yamada Shūzō’s Ainugo chimei no kenkyū (Study of Ainu place names), vol. 1, he says that place names including pira “remain widely distributed” around Hokkaido. On p. 26 he also says:

Place names including pira usually survive today with the kanji 平 [NJ hira, “flat” < OJ pira] applied [to that element]. In Matsuura [Takeshirō]’s travel journals (nisshi), it appears not only as a place name, but also in sentences like ‘Here is a series of pira’ [kono tokoro pira-tsuzuki nari]. Going to the place in question, we find not a series of flat plains but a row of cliffs. From this it is clear that he used 平 with the meaning of “cliff.” In ancient Japanese, 平 hira [= OJ pira] means “steep slope” 急傾斜, and is still used in the dialects of the mountainous parts of northern Tōhoku [northeastern Japan]. Presumably Matsuura knew this well, and that was why he casually used 平 to indicate a cliff.

I’m not an expert on Tōhoku dialects, but a search through the Nihon hōgen daijiten (Big dictionary of Japanese dialects) seems to support Yamada’s contention. Hira or an obvious variant appears as a dialect word for “low/flat region” and/or “slope” all over Japan, but as a word meaning “steep slope” only in Niigata, Iwate, Aomori, and Hokkaido (the northeast, basically). It’s also attested as a word for “cliff” in Iwate, Yamagata (northeast), and… Kagoshima, way down south. Okay, that’s a surprise—but the general pattern is clearly that steep slope/cliff meanings are clustered up north.

So what does all this mean? Well, to start from the obvious, it seems very likely that speakers of Japanese dialects borrowed the word pira “cliff” from Ainu when they moved up north. (I severely doubt that the borrowing went the other way, as I am not aware of any other word for a basic geographical feature that the Ainu borrowed from Japanese and then used for lots of place names all over Hokkaido.) Note that at this point, the Japanese speakers would also already have had the word corresponding to modern hira, and would have been using it for “flat place” and “even slope.” So they might have seen the new “cliff” meaning as an extension of that.

If pira in OJ pirasaka is related to Ainu pira “cliff,” the mechanism would have to be either common ancestry or borrowing at a much earlier stage, from a hypothetical language related to Ainu but spoken in central/western Japan. That second scenario doesn’t sound impossible… but personally, I find “cliff slope” and “cliff mountain” rather less convincing as place names than “level/smooth slope,” “flat-topped/low/smooth mountain,” etc. Essentially, I don’t see anything motivating this scenario, and am inclined to stick to the null hypothesis: Japonic had pira “flat,” which expanded to refer to level slopes and so on; Ainu had pira “cliff”; they are a bit mixed up in the northeast due to A→J borrowing but are not related in any meaningful way. (Oh, yeah, and a cosmic ray or something hit a certain dialect in Kagoshima and created an inconvenient mutation. If there are actually multiple examples like this west of Kyoto, I’d be interested to hear about it.)

Turning to the “verb pirasa ‘to spread out’”… this English gloss is liable to cause misunderstandings, I think. The verb is transitive, so it doesn’t mean “spread out like a plateau.” It’s more like “spread out like a person spreads out toys on a rug.” In Hattori Shirō’s Ainugo hōgen jiten (Ainu Dialect Dictionary) it appears as every single dialect’s translation for hirogeru/spread it out—in the section about actions done to physical things—and it appears as an element in several items under the heading chirakasu: to scatter, to put (a room) in disorder.

In other words, the core meaning of pirasa seems to be something like “cause things that were close together to not be that way any longer.” There’s no Ainu-internal reason to suppose that it has anything to do with the word pira cliff. It is used for “unroll a skin so that it lays/hangs flat,” apparently, so I guess it’s possible that it’s related to modern Japanese hira, hirogeru, etc… but unless someone can explain the -asa part, again, I’m sticking with the null hypothesis.

I know it’s boring, but an overlooked phoneme here, a fudged definition there, and before long you’re committed to Japanese being Basque.

Author: Matt

I live in Japan and read less books than I used to before I had kids, but still quite a few.

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