Modern and progressive dodoitsu

Meiji authors: We live in a…

This is actually from some “Modern and progressive dodoitsu” (kinsei kaikwa dodoitsu) published in volume 3 of Kibi dango magazine (1879). The author is one Shōyō Makoto (or Shinjin?) 逍遥眞人, not to be confused with Tsubouchi Shōyō 坪内逍遥—although his(?) name is a reference to the same passage from Zhuangzi. (In short, the zhenren 眞人 is the “true person” who has mastered the art of xiaoyao you 逍遥遊 “unfettered wandering.”)

Anyway, the deal with these dodoitsu is that their otherwise unremarkable gags include “modern and progressive” vocabulary written in katakana. Here are a few examples, with the M&P vocabulary in bold and quick trots for reference (alas, I do not have time to give these lines the translatorly attention they deserve).

Yongu giruru no/ sugata o kaete/ nushi no waifu to/ iwaretai
(The young girl wishes to change her form and be called his [your?] waifu)

Wocchi sagetari/ būto o haite/ neko ni misetai/ kaikwa-fū
(Dangling a watch and wearing boots—a progressive [or civilized, etc.] mien one wishes to show the cat)

Raitoharuto no/ omae o shirazu/ horeta wa watashi no/ kaikaburi
(Falling in love without knowing the light-hearted [i.e., frivolous, unfaithful] [side of] you was my overestimation [of you])

(Note: “Light-hearted” here corresponds to uwaki, which literally does mean “floating spirit” but nowadays almost always means “straying, cheating” in the romantic sense. Not sure off the top of my head about the situation for uwaki or indeed “light-hearted” in 1879!)

And of course:

Sosaichii de no/ kujō mo shirazu/ gonsai-kurui no/ nōburuman
(The nobleman crazy about his mistress, ignoring the complaints in society)

Why does “Ureshii Hinamatsuri” sound so Japanese?

Short answer: Because, despite being essentially common-practice in structure, it makes ingenious use of traditional (post-shamisen) Japanese tonality.

Long answer: In Japan, the 3rd day of the third month—which means March 3 in the modern age—is Hinamatsuri, a.k.a. Girl’s Day or Doll’s Day. Like all such observances in Japan, Hinamatsuri is associated with several children’s songs. The best known of these is probably “Ureshii Hinamatsuri,” (“Joyful Hinamatsuri”), composed by Kawamura Kōyō 河村光陽 with lyrics by Satō Hachirō. “UH” is also my favorite of the seasonal kids’ songs, mostly because of its distinctly—but not exclusively—old-timey Japanese feel.

The question is, why does it have that feel? Consider the melody for “UH,” presented below in C minor with fairly standard harmonization (I’m not sure what, if any, Kōyō prescribed):

Rough and ready lead sheet for “Ureshii Hinamatsuri”

As you can see, it’s in C minor, starts on the fifth, ends on the tonic, is sensibly harmonized in i, iv, and V, and doesn’t even contain any accidentals. Nothing on the page jumps out as exceptional or strange, and yet it sounds unmistakably different from peers like “Koinobori” or “Oshōgatsu.” Why?

Consider the first phrase (mm. 1–2 above). As written, it’s just doodling on G while the harmony works its way from tonic through subdominant to dominant. But it is also exactly the sort of phrase that would be played on a shamisen, or a post-shamisen koto—what I want to call “Shamisen Practice Tonality” (SPT).

I don’t want to get into too much detail about this right now, but suffice it to say this is basically the in scale, except (and this is a crucial difference) viewed as two notes a fifth apart, each accompanied by one note a tone lower and another note a semitone higher. So the example on the Wikipedia page above would be made of [C, D, E♭] and [G, A, b♭].

In mm. 1–2 of “UH” we have the notes [F, G, A♭] and [C]. In other words, it is noodling around the center of one area, with a brief detour to another, higher area. That higher area might be [B♭, C, D♭], or it might be [C, D, E♭]—at the end of m. 2, we don’t yet have enough information to say.

Fortunately, the answer is immediately provided in mm. 3–4, which is in the area [C, D, E♭] with a brief detour up to [G].

What this means is that the first four measures of “UH” also contain only notes we would expect to find in a piece based on SPT, in areas around [G] and [D]. In other words, the tune is both a common-practice melody in C minor, and an SPT melody in G.

Or, almost. The wave function kind of collapses with that final C, which (for me, at least) is so strongly tonic that the SPT feel completely evaporates. It no longer becomes possible to “feel” C as leading up to the D-as-dominant—it’s just C, tonic. (Shifting to a new temporary tonal center a fifth lower than the original tonic was also a thing in SPT, but that’s another story.)

To make a musical analogy, most people reading this are probably familiar with the song “Sakura” (or “Sakura sakura” if you like). Here it is in G—or, at least, using exactly the same notes in much the same way as other SPT pieces that clearly have G as tonic—to match the “UH” sheet music above:

First few bars of “Sakura”

Now imagine if, instead of ending on the D, it went down to C instead:

First few bars of “Sakura” with C as final

See (hear) how that final C immediately flips the tonality and whole feel of the piece to “Japanese-influenced melody ending in C minor”? The third measure of that modified version is basically “UH” in miniature.

So, that’s why “UH” has that haunting old-timey sound yet still resolves as we expect it to: Because its C minor melody is built of notes and phrases from the shamisen-derived music of Edo (in G!), but composer Kawamura Kōyō made sure to collapse the ambiguity when he returned to the tonic.

Ryūkōsai Jokei reasoned about, catalogued

Andrew Gerstle is the co-author, along with Yano Akiko, of a catalogue raisonné of the works of Ryūkōsai Jokei 流光斎如圭, either a or the founder of the Kamigata school of actor ukiyo-e (started about a century later than in Edo, and featured different actors in different kinds of roles). Since that catalogue was only available in a limited not-for-sale edition, he has very thoughtfully put the work up on the SOAS website for download in PDF format: Ryûkôsai Catalogue: The Dawn of
Osaka Actor Likeness Prints
(Ryûkôsai zuroku:Kamigata yakusha nigao-e no reimei, 流光斎図録:上方役者似顔絵の黎明). The prints start at about page 50. Enjoy!

As for the elephant

Jiří Matela’s Heritage of Mikami Akira: A Note on Linguistic Typology is a nice, short introduction to its subject. Mikami Akira 三上章 was a Japanese linguist who created the sentence Zō wa hana ga nagai (“elephant TOPIC nose ?SUBJ/NOM long,” “Elephants have long trunks”). I say ?SUBJ/NOM because, while these are the two analyses typically applied to this sentence in the English literature, well…

Mikami’s objection to the concept of subject in Japanese is a terminological one. Mikami refuses to use the word “subject” for something that does not correspond to the concept of subject in the western linguistics, where the concept originated. […] Mikami’s position is to associate the subject with the noun phrase in the nominative case. However, a nominative noun phrase should control the finite verb and cause a grammatical agreement, the way we know it from European accusative languages, to be recognized as the subject. In Japanese, there is no such morphological agreement, therefore there is no nominative case, and therefore there is no subject.

If we take a look at Mikami’s emblematic sentence, Zō wa hana ga nagai, or “Elephants have long trunks”, we can see Mikami’s point. There is no overt agreement between the predicate adjective nagai, “long”, and either of the two noun phrases (zō wa and hana ga). The word hana does not control the predicate, it is merely semantically connected to the stem of the predicative. The word , on the other hand, is the sentence topic, since it is a result of the “topicalization”, a transformation that raises a deep structure genitive noun phrase (zō no) into the sentence topic, marked with the particle wa. Although from the point of view of e.g. construction grammars the notion of transformation (topicalization etc.) is quite problematic, for Mikami, to put it simple, if there is no structural justification to call a noun phrase a subject, there is no reason to ever introduce the concept of subject into the description of the Japanese grammar.

The obvious question: If hana ga isn’t a subject, what is it? Matela doesn’t explore this, but as I understand it (I don’t think I’ve ever read one of Mikami’s own books, shamefully enough), Mikami argues that NPs like hana ga are “subject[ive] complements” (shukaku hogo 主格補語). Might sound like splitting hairs, but that’s science, I guess.

“The autumn gloaming deepens into night”

Elin Sütiste’s “A Crow on a Bare Branch” is an exhaustive analysis of 32 translations of Bashō’s famous kare-eda poem:

kare-eda ni / karasu no tomarikeri / aki no kure

The autumn gloaming deepens into night;
Back ‘gainst the slowly-fading orange light,
On withered bough a lonely crow is sitting.
(Walsh, 1916)

Lo! A crow sits on a bare bough,
‘Tis a dreary autumn evening.
(Miyamori, 1930)

Bare barren branch on
which a crow has alighted autumn
Nightfall darkening.
(Unknown, 1964)

The three translations above are the three that most caught my interest. The first two are largely notable for their period charm. As Sütiste observes, placed in chronological order the 32 translations form a sort of ape-straightening-up-into-man (sic!)–style diorama, revealing the gradual coalescence of a “haiku style” in English at the expense of diversity. (Note, though, that Aston’s 1899 translation, the first, was already in something very like that final haiku style; I suspect that close examination of the style’s development would reveal that it was more a story of specific influential figures, probably starting with Aston, than non-directed evolutionary change in the community.)

The last of the three I like because of the pleasing off-kilter effect of the “autumn” at the end of the second line. Is the wandering autumn justified by the source text? Maybe; the aki “autumn” in the original doesn’t show any sign of enjambment, but it could be argued that the shocking inclusion of nine (!) morae instead of seven in the middle section should be represented in the English somehow.

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.

His matchless discernment: Tomioka Tessai

Nice article [PDF] full of old-fashioned talking-in-paragraphs about Japanese painter Tomioka Tessai by “Bishop Kojo Sakamoto, Abbot of Kiyoshi Kojin Seicho Temple” (which today styles itself Kiyoshikôjin Seichô-ji Temple). I guess the exhibition it refers to was held in the 50s or 60s.

Once he said, “People are always coming to me boasting of their calligraphy. All of them write very well, but none so well as I do. If only Kobo Daishi were still alive, the two of us would have a real ‘meeting of minds’ about calligraphy!” I was struck with admiration for his matchless discernment.

I honestly don’t think it takes a whole lot of discernment to identify Kūkai as one of Japanese calligraphy’s all-time greats. It’s like saying “Now Michelangelo, there’s a guy who was on my level.” You really have to be Tessai to get away with it. (Katō Shūichi said that B. C. Binning put Tessai on the level of about Cézanne, as I recall.)

An opaque and diffuse system

New (I think) article on Ryukyuan from Thomas Pellard and Masahiro Yamada! “Verb morphology and conjugation classes in Dunan (Yonaguni)” (also redirected from Here’s the abstract, broken into two paragraphs by me for readability:

Most Japonic languages have a relatively simple and transparent morphology. Their verb morphology is usually characterized by a highly agglutinative structure that exhibits little morphophonology, with only a few conjugation classes and a handful of irregular verbs. In sharp contrast with its relatives, Dunan (Yonaguni), a highly endangered Japonic language of the Southern Ryukyuan branch, spoken by approximately 400 speakers located on Yonaguni Island (Okinawa prefecture, Japan), exhibits a unusually complex verb morphology for a Japonic language, mostly due to some drastic historical changes. The verb morphology of Dunan seems be the most complex one within the whole Japonic family, and a systematic description challenges in several interesting ways morpheme-based approaches.

The following presents an outline of the verb morphology of Dunan, limited to the basic synthetic forms of regular verbs. Focus is put on the partition of verbs into classes and its morphomic pattern. Three morphomic factors are identified as partitioning verbs into conjugation classes: stem alternation, suffix allomorphy, and metatony. The resulting system of paradigm classes is found to be opaque and to show little interpredictability between paradigm cells, i.e. few reliable inferences can be made from one inflected form about other forms. Morpheme-based approaches are not well-suited for the analysis of Dunan’s verb morphology, which rather calls for an abstractive Word and Paradigm approach.

To a hardened Indo-Europeanist, the morphology Pellard and Yamada describe is probably just barely sufficient to raise a single eyebrow, but (as they observe) in the highly agglutinative context of Japonic, it is quite off the chain:

[T]he number of distinct stem forms per verb does not exceed three. However, the distribution of stems within paradigms is not uniform for all verbs (Table 2.7). For instance, in the case of verbs with three stems, the shortest stem usually appears only in the perfect cell, but not in the case of sigmatic verbs, where the same stem is shared by the hortative, medial, and perfect cells. On the other hand, for sigmatic verbs, the shortest stem is used in the negative cell only, while for most other classes the negative shares the same stem as the present and imperative forms.

The number of stems needed to account for the whole pattern of stem alternations across the different classes amounts to seven, i.e. more than twice the number of distinct stem forms for any verb (Table 2.7). This leads to the unexpected conclusion that there are almost as many stems as basic forms.

(Seriously, check out table 2.7. It’s on page 37.)

Overall, a very satisfying read for a construction grammar zealot like me, although with a real gut-punch of a conclusion:

The most realistic hypothesis is that speakers memorize whole inflected forms (minimally, principal parts) as part of a network of interdependencies with an implicational structure. Unfortunately psycholinguistic tests are hardly feasible in the case of Dunan, a highly endangered language still spoken by elderly persons only. A more computational approach, based on entropy and complexity measures (Ackerman et al. 2009, Finkel & Stump 2009, Sagot & Walther 2011, Blevins 2013) is a more realistic goal for future research.

Yūsei 優性 → Kensei 顕性

A couple of weeks ago the Genetics Society of Japan announced some changes in their new official glossary of genetics terminology. The most striking are the changes to the words for “dominant” and “recessive,” which are changing from yūsei 優性 to kensei 顕性 and ressei 劣性 to sensei 潜性 respectively.

The reason for these changes in particular is simple: to stop people misunderstanding what they mean. Etymologically speaking, yūsei and ressei imply something closer to “superior” and “inferior” than “dominant” and “recessive.” This is obviously not great for a field that is prone to lay misinterpretation about inherent superiority and the like at the best of times. The etymological implications of the new words are more like “apparent” and “hidden,” which does seem far safer.

There are also other adjustments. Some are housekeeping, like changing the word for “mutation” from totsuzen hen’i to just hen’i because totsuzen means “sudden” and isn’t necessarily part of the concept. Some are more expansive, like a shift in terminology relating to color blindness: the Society now recommends shikikaku tayōsei 色覚多様性 (“color vision diversity”) over terms like shikikaku ijō 色覚異常 (“color vision abnormality”), itself apparently a euphemism for the blunter shikimō 色盲 (“color blindness”).

One thing that isn’t mentioned in the news stories about this I’ve seen so far (example, example) is that these terms aren’t necessarily neologisms. A simple Google Books search reveals kensei and sensei in use as far back as the 1960s, for example. The newsy part is that the Genetics Society of Japan, based on consultation with its members, has decided to throw its weight behind the “new” terminology and deprecate the old. This will reportedly include trying to persuade the Ministry of Education and Everything Else For Some Reason (MEXT) to get on board, so keep watching your kids’ textbooks, I suppose.