Ashikaga was once an important center for Japanese textile manufacturing, dating back to the days of silkworm-raising. In the early days of Japan’s industrial revolution, there were waterwheels (水車 mizuguruma) all over this piedmont town. Nowadays, the textile industry has left town, leaving behind a legacy of handicraft artisans, fine textile shops, and a few working pieces of machinery in a “play-learn” emporium (遊学館 yuugakkan), where you can learn how to weave a coaster on a small floor loom. (It costs ¥400 and usually takes 30-45 minutes.) Last week, while my visiting in-laws were trying their hands at weaving, I stood around translating, looking up words in my electronic dictionary, and listening to the two old timers who were demonstrating a braiding machine and a spinning machine that was plying thread from bobbins onto reels (clockwise on one side, counterclockwise on the other). They were excited to have an interested audience for a change.
One of the best things about doing fieldwork in a second language is that you often learn new things in the process, and also get a better command of vocabulary in your primary language. I learned a lot of English fish names a couple of decades ago when I elicited the local names for several hundred fish in a coastal language of New Guinea. Here are a few items of useful vocabulary from my 遊学館 experience.
機 hata, loom – The Chinese character with which Japanese hata is written also indicates all manner of new-fangled machinery, such as 洗濯機 sentakki ‘washing machine’, 飛行機 hikouki ‘flying machine (= airplane)’, and the Japanese ‘machine man’ superhero Kikaida. So now ‘loom’ can also be rendered as 織機 shokki ‘weaving machine’, and ‘power loom’ as 機械機 kikaibata (lit. ‘machine loom’). Worse yet, the same character also occurs in the famous Sinitic compound meaning ‘crisis’: 危機 kiki, danger + something not quite equal to opportunity—more like ‘wit, resource, device’.
杼 hi, shuttle – In sharp contrast to 機 ‘loom’, the character for ‘shuttle’ is rare enough that my electronic dictionary ranks it last among the ten kanji pronounced hi and Microsoft’s Japanese-language input system doesn’t even offer it among its 42 ways to write the syllable hi. I had to go copy the character from unicode.org. In any case, most Japanese are quite familiar with the word adapted from English: シャトル shatoru, as in shatoru basu and supeesu shatoru.
縦糸 tateito, warp thread; 横糸 yokoito, weft thread – The terms that translate ‘warp’ and ‘weft’ render a whole range of similar oppositions: 縦引き鋸 tatebiki nokogiri ‘ripsaw‘ vs. 横切り yokogiri ‘cross-cut saw‘; 縦波 tatenami ‘longitudinal wave’ vs. 横波 yokonami ‘broadside wave, cross sea’; 縦揺れ tateyure ‘pitch (of a ship)’ vs. 横揺れ yokoyure ‘roll (or a ship)’; 縦書き tategaki ‘vertical writing’ vs. 横書き yokogaki ‘horizontal writing’. Finally, the highest rank in sumo is the 横綱 yokozuna (lit. ‘horizontal rope’), who is entitled to wear the ceremonial rope (綱 tsuna) across his waist.
Postscript: Weave : Weft :: Heave : Heft :: Leave : Left :: Bereave : Bereft. Can you think of any more English words that follow this pattern? Aha! Language Hat adds Cleave : Cleft.