Category Archives: language

Wordcatcher Tales: Goze

From The Roads to Sata: A 2000-Mile Walk Through Japan, by Alan Booth (Weatherhill, 1985), p. 130:

Well into the twentieth century this stretch of coast was the haunt of the goze [瞽女 ‘blind-woman’]—blind wandering shamisen players who trudged through the villages of the old province of Echigo, from wedding to wedding, from festival to festival, begging food and lodging in return for a song. All were women (though the shamisen is an instrument traditionally taken up by the blind of both sexes), and most were members of a strictly hierarchical society that organized them into small dependent bands. The younger and more ambitious of the goze might supplement their pittance of an income by selling their bodies at the village fairs, though if this were known to the society, they would quickly find themselves stripped of companionship and forced to wander through the Back of Japan alone, with only a stick and their songs to survive on.

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Wordcatcher Tales: Bandori, Quaintify

From The Roads to Sata: A 2000-Mile Walk Through Japan, by Alan Booth (Weatherhill, 1985), pp. 106-107:

Willow trees line the old green streams that crisscross the streets of Tsuruoka, and the streams are walled like the castle moats they once were. The day was immensely hot, with the humidity of gathering rain. In twenty minutes my clothes were soaked, and before I was even out of the city I stopped to cool off in the Chido Museum and dripped my way round a fine collection of ornamental bandori—the backpacks used by country people for humping firewood, vegetables, and kids. The most elaborate of these were the iwai-bandori, designed for carrying wedding trousseaus, and the colors and patterns reminded me of the Navajo rugs I had once seen in New Mexico. (Speaking of the Navajo, I have often wondered why people who strive to depict the Japanese as quaint have never resorted to the Red Indian ploy. The written character for “moon,” for instance, is the same as the written character for “month,” so the Japanese, like the Hollywood redskins, speak of things happening “many moons ago.” To my knowledge, no one—not even the most frantic quaintifier—has ever translated the expression that way, but the quaintifying industry is alive and kicking, and if the Japanese would only start wearing feathers on their heads the oversight could quickly be expunged.)

In the grounds of the museum stood several “old” buildings—a town hall (1881), a police station (1884)—so revered for having survived a century that they had been lugged from their original sites and painstakingly reconstructed. There was also a fine old three-story farmhouse. (It had a warm thatched roof and high paper windows, and on the timber floors of its second and third stories, the old silkworm trays and frames stood intact. This solid old farmhouse had been trundled plank by plank from a little mountain village some sixteen kilometers outside Tsuruoka, and was now fenced off behind a turnstile earning money for the proprietors of the Chido Museum. I wonder what the villagers had had to say, and whether they had put on their war paint.

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Wordcatcher Tales: Kampouyaku

From The Roads to Sata: A 2000-Mile Walk Through Japan, by Alan Booth (Weatherhill, 1985), pp. 141-142:

The city of Toyama is nationally famous for the manufacture of patent medicines, usually sold door to door by elderly enthusiasts in small wooden chests (the medicines, not the enthusiasts), and these chests become part of the household furniture. The preparation of and sale of the medicines, called kampoyaku [漢方薬 kan-pou-yaku ‘China-method-medicine’] (Chinese concoctions), bear all the signs of a small-scale cottage industry, but the entrepreneurial genius of the people of Toyama has parlayed this unlikely source of fortune into a business with an annual wholesale value of more than 190 billion yen. The city’s oldest and best-known kampoyaku manufacturer is Kokando, and I arranged to pay them a visit.

The Kokando factory—opened in 1876 and rebuilt shortly after the war—stands in the southern sector of Toyama near the old tram stop named after it. The who showed me round spoke slowly and precisely and with the solemnity of a preacher who has the undivided attention of a disarmed infidel.

“Before the war our ninety-nine medicines—the widest range of kampoyaku in Japan—were manufactured and packed entirely by hand. Nowadays, of course, we use machines, but the traditions and process remain the same, and the recipes continue to derive from thjose which were imparted to Lord Maeda in the seventeenth century.

“The botanical ingredients include Korean ginseng (a very expensive kind of carrot) and the roots of the Indian ginkgo tree. But more highly prized are the items we obtain from the internal organs of animals. There is, for example, the dried glandular fluid of the male musk deer, drawn off during the rutting season and employed in the manufacture of a powerful stimulant. Originally, in order to obtain this fluid, it was unfortunately necessary to slaughter the deer, but nowadays, thanks to the development of new methods, it can be obtained humanely through plastic tubes. Then there is the bile of the Japanese bear, a pain killer and an agent in the reduction of fevers. The secretion from the poison gland of the Chinese toad is mainly used in the treatment of heart diseases, though it, too, kills pain with remarkable efficacy. And gallstones produced in the bladders of cows are a restorative and an antidote to several toxic substances.”

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Filed under China, disease, drugs, food, industry, Japan, language, travel

Wordcatcher Tales: Babanuki, Shinkan, Yashizake

Initially spurred by finding the names of two couples killed in Saipan during the Pacific War on an Okinawan family tombstone in the Mo‘ili‘ili Japanese Cemetery, I just finished reading a novelized war story about the Saipan campaign, Oba, the Last Samurai, by Don Jones (Jove, 1988), a book passed on to me by an old friend with long Micronesia ties. It contained a few Japanese words of interest.

ババ抜き babanuki (lit. ‘granny-draw’) ‘Old Maid‘. As soon as I read that this was a children’s card game, I knew it must mean the game called Old Maid in English (and a variety of interesting names in other languages).

神官 shinkan (lit. ‘god-manager’) is an older term for ‘Shinto priest’, the person who serves as caretaker of a Shinto shrine and officiates at Shinto rites there. The more common term nowadays seems to be 神主 (native Japanese) kannushi or (Sino-Japanese) jinshu lit. ‘god-master’, or 神職 shinshoku lit. ‘god-employee’. These days, it is very rarely a full-time job.

椰子酒 yashizake (lit. ‘coconut/palm-sake’) ‘palm wine, coconut toddy’. On Saipan, this would almost certainly be coconut toddy, and not some other kind of palm wine, but the author only describes it as derived from a native plant, without mention of coconuts.

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Wordcatcher Tales: Old Japanese Cemetery Kanji

I’ve been helping to decipher some old gravestones in the newly renovated Mo‘ili‘ili Japanese Cemetery (est. 1908), a candidate for the State and National Register of Historic Places. Here’s a short list of deciphering aids that I’ve just updated in time for this year’s Obon season.

Dates

紀元 Kigen ‘record-origin’ (counting from Emperor Jimmu, 660BC)
明治 Meiji 1–45 (1868–1912)
大正 Taisho 1–15 (1912–1926)
昭和 Showa 1–64 (1926–1989)
平成 Heisei 1–? (1989–?)
行年~才 gyounen/kounen — sai ‘age at passing: — years old’
享年~才 kyounen — sai ‘age at passing: — years old’~生 ‘born (on) —’
~亡 ‘died (on) —’
~寂 ‘died (on) —’
~往生 oujou ‘departed life (on) —’
~帰幽 kiyuu ‘returned to the netherworld (on) —’
永眠 eimin ‘eternal sleep’
早世 sousei ‘early death’
生児 seiji ‘just born’
嬰児 eiji ‘infant’
孩児 gaiji ‘infant, suckling’
若郎子 wakairatsuko ‘young boy’
若郎女 wakairatsume ‘young girl’
吉日 kichijitsu ‘propitious day’ (e.g., for erecting a monument)

Names

~家之墓 — ke no haka ‘(X) family’s grave’
~之奥(津)城 — no oku(tsu)ki ‘(X)’s tomb/grave’
~之霊神 — no reijin ‘(X)’s soul’
~霊位 — no reii ‘(X)’s mortuary tablet’ (‘soul/spirit’ + ‘place/stand’)
~先祖 — senzo ‘(X family) ancestors’
~代々 — daidai ‘(X family) generations’
士族 shizoku ‘samurai clan’
俗名 zokumyou ‘secular name’
妻~ tsuma ‘wife’ (name often written in katakana, not kanji)
原籍~ genseki ‘original domicile registry, permanent address’
法号 hougou ‘Buddhist name’
戒名 kaimyou ‘posthumous Buddhist name’
法名 houmyou ‘posthumous Buddhist name’
釈~ Shaku ‘Shak[yamuni] (the historical Buddha)’ (in many posthumous Buddhist names)
~妙~ myou ‘mystery, miracle, wonder’ (in posthumous Buddhist names)
~居士 koji ‘Buddhist lay leader (male)’
~大姉 daishi ‘Buddhist lay leader (female)’
~禅定門 zenjoumon ‘Zen Buddhist honorific (male)’ (formerly ‘Zen monk’)
~禅定尼 zenjouni ‘Zen Buddhist honorific (female)’ (formerly ‘Zen nun’)
~信士 shinji/shinshi ‘honorific title for men’
~信女 shinnyo ‘honorific title for women’
~童子 douji ‘honorific title for boys’
~童女 dounyo ‘honorific title for girls’
~尼 ama ‘nun’ (sometimes marks posthumous names for women)
~県~郡~村/町 — ken ‘prefecture’ — gun ‘district’ — mura/machi ‘village/town’
施主 seshu ‘mourners, benefactors, donors’
嗣子 shishi ‘heir, successor’
dou ‘ditto’ (same as the name in the next column to the right)
dou ‘ditto’ (same as the name in the next column to the right)
々 (doubles/repeats the previous kanji)

Mantras

南無阿弥陀仏 Namu Amida Butsu ‘Hail Amida Buddha’ (= Kannon, Pure Land [浄土 joudo] Buddhism)
南無妙法蓮華経 Namu Myouhou Renge Kyou ‘Hail the Mystic Law of the Lotus Sutra’ (Nichiren Buddhism)
倶会一処 Kue Issho (a phrase from the Amida Sutra suggesting) ‘we will meet again in the Pure Land’
三界萬霊 Sangai Banrei ‘3 worlds, 10,000 souls’ (for all souls, past, present, and future)

Helpful Resources

NengoCalc is invaluable for converting Japanese imperial reign name dates into Western calendar dates.

Rikai Unicode Kanji Tables are invaluable for locating rare (or miswritten) kanji that don’t show up in the usual kanji dictionaries, name glossaries, or input methods. Kanji dictionaries will often give you the code range of similar kanji (grouped by semantic ‘radicals’), so you can scan for a form that is no longer used in Japanese, but that shows up in old names, then cut and paste it into a search box to see if you can get a name reading.

The Weblio English-Japanese/Japanese English website is perhaps the best place to match name kanji with multiple pronunciations (which is almost every name kanji in Japanese!) against actual attestations in a wide range of Japanese sources. If you google Japanese name kanji and get nothing but Chinese search results, you probably misread or misanalyzed the original engraving, but stonecarvers also make mistakes.

Nanzan University’s 2001 Japanese Journal of Religious Studies (28/3-4) translation of Tamamura Fumio’s “Local Society and the Temple-Parishioner Relationship within the Bakufu’s Governance Structure” helps clarify Buddhist posthumous naming conventions and honorifics.

Finally, English Wikipedia articles about Japanese prefectures almost always have very helpful subarticles listing old district, city, and town names that have disappeared after mergers and reorganizations. And Japanese Wikipedia is even more complete, besides listing major cities, towns, and districts by their kanji names (and pronunciations).

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Era of Maritime Polynesian Pidgin

I’ve lately been reading several books in paper, the most recent being Language Contact in the Early Colonial Pacific: Maritime Polynesian Pidgin before Pidgin English, by Emanuel J. Drechsel (Cambridge U. Press, 2014). When I heard about it, I immediately went to order it from Amazon, but the hardcover is listed at $99 and the Kindle version listed for $79, so I resorted to borrowing a copy from the University of Hawai‘i Library’s Hawaiian & Pacific Collection. However, Cambridge UP’s website does offer a free download of a Maritime Polynesian Pidgin Vocabulary listing (pdf).

It’s a dense work. The author, an expert in two North American trade pidgins, Chinook Jargon in the Northwest and Mobilian Jargon in the Southeast, relies on a combination of ethnohistorical and philological methods to reconstruct Maritime Polynesian Pidgin, which served as a lingua franca during the early period of regular Western trade with islands in the Pacific. During this era, from the 1760s into the 1860s, powerful chiefs controlled critical resources on the larger Pacific Island groups, especially water, food, timber, and manpower. Pacific Islands also supplied bêche-de-mer and sandalwood for the China trade. Polynesians were highly valued as sailors on Western ships, whose crews were frequently depleted by disease and desertion. Polynesians could not only handle boats, they could also swim, unlike many European and American sailors in those days.

Moreover, the Polynesian languages spoken in the principal island groups during the early trading and whaling era—Tahiti, the Marquesas, Hawai‘i, and New Zealand—were similar enough that Polynesians were also recruited as interpreters during negotiations with island chiefs. Their Maritime Polynesian Pidgin was later supplanted by English-based and French-based pidgins during the era of settler colonization and plantation economies.

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Writing Consonant Symbols for Vowels

New orthographies for Pacific Island languages have had very mixed results. I’ve blogged about some of the less successful attempts at new orthographies in Micronesia: for Yapese and Marshallese. By contrast, the first Hawaiian orthography, developed by missionaries, proved enormously successful, leaving a huge legacy of Hawaiian-language publications now being digitized and translated.

I recently came across another new orthography in a Pacific language that looks bizarre to people who read widely in Latin-based alphabets, but that seems to work for the 4,000 or so people who speak Natqgu, a language in the Reefs-Santa Cruz islands off the southeastern end of the Solomon Islands. A local language committee revised an earlier orthography that was difficult to type because it relied on diacritics to distinguish 10 vowel positions, plus distinctive nasalization on a few of them. Fortunately, they didn’t need all the plain consonant symbols on standard keyboards so they decided to substitute consonant symbols for the diacritic-laden vowels and mark nasalization with a trailing apostrophe.

Language Project advisor Brenda Boerger describes the local committee’s thinking in Natqgu literacy: Capturing three domains for written language use in Language Documentation & Conservation 1 (2007): 126–153:

But by the mid-1990s, when Wurm’s [diacritic-dependent] Natqgu orthography had been in use for over ten years, there had still been little increase in vernacular literacy. So the local community was again asked by the Natqgu Language Project to consider modifying the orthography in order to eliminate the diacritics. This time there was sufficient support for it, and with the consent of the leader who had had reservations, the language group decided to change the orthography. Their reasons were primarily two-fold. The first was exactly what was reported above. That is, speakers continued to find it difficult to learn to read and write Natqgu, apparently as a result of their lack of experience in identifying the letters with diacritics as separate symbols and sounds from those without. Their second reason was related to producing printed materials. Typing the diacritics demanded a special typewriter with at least a tilde. The double quote mark was often used in place of the umlaut. For vowels with both an umlaut and a tilde, it was necessary for the typist to scroll the paper slightly, so that the tilde would be over the umlaut (double quote mark). Typing was tedious, and the end result was not the clean copy normally expected for printed texts. Furthermore, no printing business in the Solomons at that time was able to typeset text with the Natqgu diacritics.

Since the earlier language committee had become inactive, an ad hoc orthography committee composed of leaders literate in Natqgu was formed to make the change. They discussed a number of possible ways to modify the alphabet. For each proposal a paragraph was printed so the committee members could see text in the revised orthography. One proposal included using digraphs to replace the letters with diacritics. Another pattern suggested digraphs, which had Natqgu attempting to follow English pronunciation and spelling conventions, by representing /ə/ as uh and /a/ as ah. However, since this went against the convention for most languages in the world, including Pijin and other Solomons vernaculars, all of which represent /a/ as a, this alternative was rejected. As other digraphs were examined, the committee quickly rejected them all. They realized that not only would using digraphs add to the length of words, but that the added length would also make them even more difficult to read, especially since three of the vowels with diacritics occurred most frequently.

Table 4. Vowel Equivalences in the Old and New Natqgu Orthographies [truncated here]
old = new = IPA
a = a = a
e = e = e
i = i = i
o = o = o
u = u = u
o = c = ɔ (open o)
ü = q = ʉ (barred U)
ö = r = ɞ (close reversed epsilon)
ä = x = æ
ë = z = ə

That situation left the committee with the “one sound, one symbol” alternative. As an advisor to the committee, I showed them orthographic and IPA vowel symbols from other languages in the world to consider as possibilities, some of which had the same disadvantages as the orthography with diacritics. They expressed a strong desire to stick to the letters they already recognized as symbols for written language — those on an English typewriter. As a consequence, they decided to represent the five diacritic vowels by using consonant letters from the English alphabet which were not necessary for writing Natqgu words. The inventory of possible letters was: c, f, h, q, r, x, and z. They rejected the use of f and h because, “Vowels should only be one space high,” leaving only five letters remaining for the five vowels under consideration. They compromised on the descending leg of q because, “Its body has the round shape like most vowels.” Assigning each vowel to a symbol was fairly straightforward. There was already the practice of writing /ɞ/ as ir, so leaving out the i seemed logical. The letter c was the mirror image of the open /o/ which they’d been shown. The pronunciation of the name of the letter q was similar to the sound of /ʉ/. And the name of x sounded almost like axe, which begins with the sound /æ/. That left z to represent /ə/. Thus, the spelling of Natügu became Natqgu, as in the majority of the relevant bibliographical references in this article. They also decided to represent phonemic nasalization with a straight apostrophe following the vowel symbol, so that it could be typed sequentially and no vowel would require a diacritic.

Given that there was little local identification with the old orthography, the new one was easily accepted, even though orthographies have been hotly disputed elsewhere in the Solomon Islands. Occasionally a leader from a more distant village would drop in and say, “I heard you changed our writing.” I countered that a committee of Natqgu speakers had made the change, and gave a quick lesson on how to read the new orthography, complete with a handout delineating the correspondences between the two orthographies and giving key words for each vowel. Each key word used the focus vowel twice. The handout contained the material in Table 4, minus the IPA symbols, and could be used to explain the changes to others.

A side benefit of the orthography change was the continued production of this half-page handout, which over the years took on a life of its own. The team eventually requested that it be the first page in all of our publications. People would regularly come to the door and say, “I want the vowels,” meaning they needed a copy of the pronunciation guide. These copies were simple and cheap to produce, so they could be given without charge. Having a copy of the vowel handout was the starting point for those who decided to informally teach a friend to read, and demonstrated their desire to use Natqgu in its written form, as well as its spoken one. I suggest that the “vowel paper” became so popular because it significantly increased the ease of access to Natqgu literacy using the new orthography, in part by eliminating the need for a teacher on the part of those already literate in English.

As reported in the next section, the most important result of adopting the new orthography has been that speakers are able to learn to read and write in it more easily, apparently because it is more intuitive to them.

The New Testament, Psalms, Ruth, and the Anglican Book of Worship have been translated into Natqgu in its new orthography. Here’s what Psalm 23 looks like in the new orthography.

Sam 23
Kxaolve Sip

Nabz ne Devet

1 Yawe, aolve-zvzq ninge apux sip nem.
X trtxpnz’ngr da kx mnctxpx-ngrneng.

2 Mailz-zvzq ninge me ycngr lue x dakxnzng,
Murde naamax mrgc tqycngr nrwx.

3 Amrnaq nzlu-krnge.
X aelwa-zvz-ngrme lrpzki kxtubq, murde drtqm tr zlwz.

4 Nctrko scm tzmle nzti bange.
X bz scm abrmle drtwrnge mz da kx prtz.

Kxmule-esz’ vztrx mz nzlo, a’ trtxpnz’ngr da kx namwx’lrtix.
Murde nim Yawe, kc tqmncme bange.

5 Alebzme nange dakxnzng,
X aelubzme narnge tolo,

Mz mzlir enqmi rngeng.
X drtwrnge elalzm.

6 Krlz-angidrx kx sa naka-zvzme bange zmrlz x nzokatr-krm,
X namnc-zvzx ma nyz’m.

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