Category Archives: language

Wordcatcher Tales from Kyoto

Last month I visited the Kyoto Railway Museum, full of many things that made me nostalgic for my many youthful train trips (and several more recent ones) in Japan. I also discovered two Japanese language usages new to me.

マメ知識 mame-chishiki ‘bean-knowledge’ – The very kid-friendly museum contained many small placards in front of larger exhibits with tasty tidbits of information labelled ‘bean (of) knowledge’. Almost all the kanji had furigana to show how they are pronounced, so that kids who had not yet mastered all their elementary or middle school kanji (as I haven’t) could still read them. ‘Bean’ mame (written 豆 in kanji, マメ in katakana) also means ‘small’ in compounds like 豆本 mamehon ‘miniature book’, 豆鉄砲 mameteppou ‘pea shooter’, or even 豆台風 mametaifuu ‘baby typhoon’. The mamechishiki in the photo below tells how the Kamome (Seagull) limited express from Hakata (Fukuoka) would change directions by veering off the main track at Umekoji Station (where the museum is now located) to go north to the top of a delta-shaped track, then back down the far side of the triangle into Kyoto Station so that the locomotive would be facing Hakata for the return trip.

Bean of knowledge

A bean of knowledge about the Kamome limited express train

上り下り nobori-kudari ‘ascending-descending’ in early Meiji – The railway museum also displayed blackboard tables (in kanji) of fares and departure times from the early Meiji era (from the 1880s), when the train system was just beginning, and the national capital was moving from Kyoto to Tokyo. Nowadays, all trains moving toward Tokyo are ‘ascending’ (上り nobori) while those moving away from Tokyo are ‘descending’ (下り kudari). Before the Meiji era, travelers and goods ‘ascended’ to Kyoto and ‘descended’ to Edo. But the timetable below from Kyoto Station shows different usage, perhaps reflecting the route of the earliest heavy freight traffic in the Kansai area, which ran by rail from Osaka to Otsu on Lake Biwa, then by boat north across the lake to Nagahama, then by rail to Tsuruga on the Japan Sea coast. Trains departing south from Kyoto are listed as ascending, and those to the north of Kyoto are listed as descending, perhaps because people and goods bound for Tokyo would first aim to reach a port on the Tokaido side of Honshu.

Meiji-era train

Meiji-era train timetable for Kyoto Station

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Wordcatcher Tales from Naha

The Far Outliers have returned from another summer trip in Japan, where we encountered some new vocabulary for unusual food items. Here are three from Naha, Okinawa, the last of Japan’s 47 prefectures that we have visited.

ハリセンボン (針千本) harisenbon – Newly relocated Makishi Market had many colorful reef fish for sale, along with a cornucopia of pig parts (ears being a uniquely Okinawan favorite). Among the fish was one I had never seen for sale before, a porcupine fish (labeled harisenbon ‘thousand needles’), usually sold with its spiny skin peeled off. We didn’t get a chance to eat it.

Porcupine fish

Porcupine fish in sunglasses

フリソデ (振袖) furisode – At a yakitori bar specializing in Miyazaki chicken and Kyushu sweet-potato shochu, we encountered a menu item new to us, labeled furisode ‘swinging-sleeve’, which most commonly labels the deep sleeve pockets of kimono. (Furi ‘swing’ also appears in karaburi ’empty-swing’, the term for a swing-and-a-miss in baseball.) After consulting the chart of chicken cuts on the wall, where the furisode is right above the sunagimo (lit. ‘sand-liver’) ‘gizzard’ and rebaa ‘liver’, it finally dawned on us that furisode is a fancy name for a chicken’s crop, for which the technical name in Japanese is 素嚢 sonou lit. ‘simple/first-pouch’. We ordered a skewer of it, and also tried their chicken-liver sashimi specialty item. The other customers were mostly drinking, so the chef and young waitress were very pleased to see how much we enjoyed the fine foods prepared, and gave us several items not on the menu (like skewers of roasted garlic cloves).

Chicken parts

Yakitori chicken parts

グルクン gurukun ‘double-lined fusilier’ – We ate the popular prefectural fish of Okinawa, called gurukun there, but タカサゴ (高砂) takasago in Japanese during our first excursion to Makishi Market. The fish sellers there generally recommend eating their fish either raw (as sashimi) or deep-fried (karaage), because reef fish are not as oily as the fish most favored for shioyaki (salt-roasting). Many of the larger reef fish were individually speared, judging from the holes through their eyes or head, but large numbers of the smaller gurukun are often herded or chased into a net by a team of divers.

Takasago fish signage

Takasago/Gurukun fish image and names

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Chief Operating Officer to Explorers

From Into Africa: The Epic Adventure of Stanley and Livingstone, by Martin Dugard (Broadway Books, 2003), Kindle locs. ~400, ~2000:

Among their caravan was a hard-working young African named Sidi Mubarak Bombay, whom Burton referred to as “the gem of the group.” Bombay was a member of the Yao tribe who had been captured by Arab slave traders at the age of twelve, then sold in the Zanzibar slave market to an Arab merchant. When that Arab moved to the city of Bombay shortly after, his young slave came along. After his owner’s death, the slave was given his freedom and the adopted name of his new hometown. Upon returning to Africa sometime in his early thirties, Sidi Mubarak Bombay joined the Sultan of Zanzibar’s army as a soldier, and was posted to a garrison in Chokwe. That outpost seven miles from the Indian Ocean coastline was where Burton and Speke met up with the industrious, grinning former slave. By arrangement with the garrison commander, Bombay and five other soldiers were hired to accompany the British caravan. Bombay’s work ethic and linguistic skills soon made him invaluable to Burton and Speke. Unbeknownst to Bombay, his soldiering career was at an end, replaced by a new line of work.

Bombay spoke fluent Hindustani, as did Speke, so Bombay served as Speke’s gun bearer and translator. “He works on principal and works like a horse,” Burton wrote of the short ugly man with filed-down teeth and an aversion to bathing, “candidly declaring that not love of us but duty to his belly makes him work. With a sprained ankle and a load quite disproportionate to his puny body, he insists on carrying two guns. He attends us everywhere, manages our purchases, carries all our messages, and when not employed by us is at every man’s beck and call.” Bombay would go on to become the talisman of African exploration, an essential roster member on any serious expedition for decades to come.

The legendary Sidi Mubarak Bombay—“the honestest of black men who served with Burton, and subsequently with Speke”—came on board as leader of Stanley‘s protective militia. In time, Bombay would serve as unofficial caravan leader, and liaison between Stanley and the pagazis [porters].

Thirteen years had passed since a young Bombay had dazzled Burton and Speke with his easy humor and insatiable work ethic. But he was still able to walk thirty miles at a brisk pace, had worked with the most expeditions of any man, and knew the interior by rote. Bombay, however, had also passed into middle age. He was bald and the young pagazis didn’t respect him. As the rare man in history to follow the Nile from Lake Victoria to the Mediterranean, Bombay thought himself a celebrity. He had an ego, as Stanley knew from reading the works of Burton and Speke, and could be outspoken, prone to drinking and chasing women, and a procrastinator. So there were liabilities incumbent with Bombay’s hiring. All in all, however, the exploration veteran was vital.

Stanley trusted Bombay so much he let the former slave hire his own soldiers. Bombay handpicked twenty men.

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Yapese “See something, say something”

Public service announcements in TheBus in Honolulu typically include two Micronesian languages, Chuukese and Marshallese, in addition to several Asian languages, but I recently saw one that included Yapese, another language in Micronesia that is not closely related to any other Micronesian language, and is in many ways unique among Austronesian languages.

The Yapese text is written in a very barebones orthography, making even fewer distinctions than the Bible orthography. It makes me think someone who speaks but doesn’t write Yapese dictated it to someone who transcribed it without knowing much Yapese phonology or grammar (or even the Bible orthography), since they don’t write any glottal stops or glottalized consonants (usually marked by an apostrophe), only write 5 vowels, and misanalyze some small grammatical particles. The original spelling is in quotes.

I’ve respelled each line in something close to the new orthography, but without the controversial q for glottal stops, and also added a line with rough glosses for each word. The naag that I’ve glossed ‘TR’ makes transitive verbs out of other words, including words borrowed long ago from Japanese, like dengwa ‘telephone’ and unteng ‘drive’, as well as those borrowed more recently from English. The ea glossed ‘ART’ occurs before specific nouns that are neither indefinite (marked with ba) nor definite (marked with fa). It’s interesting that they felt it necessary to define English bus driver in a paraphrase that relies on an older Japanese loan.

“Mu ayweg nem. Mu rin.”
Mu ayweeg neem. Mu riin’.
You help you. You do [it].
= Be aware. Take action.

“Mu eg nag e nen nag be guy ni ra bucheg banen”
Mu eeg naag ea n’ean ni ga bea guy ni raa bucheeg ba n’ean
You report TR ART thing that you are seeing that will do-bad a thing
= Report anything you see that will cause harm.

“Mu dengwa nag e 911 fa mog ko bas driver”
Mu dengwa naag ea 911 faa moeg ko bas driver
You telephone TR ART 911 or you.say (it) to bus driver
= Call 911 or tell the bus driver

“(un ni be unteng nag e bas)”
(an ni bea unteng naag ea bas)
(person that is driving TR ART bus)
= (the person who is driving the bus)

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Tyranny of Transliteration

From The Epic City: The World on the Streets of Calcutta, by Kushanava Choudhury (Bloomsbury, 2018), Kindle Loc. approx. 1580-1590:

Bengali last names when transliterated into English often have multiple spellings. For instance, my name, Choudhury, can be Chaudhuri, Chowdhury, Chaudhry, and so on. These variations are used by aunts and cousins in my own family. Other Bengali last names even have varying pronunciations. As with Bob and Robert, so too everyone recognises that Banerjee and Bandopadhyay are the same name. Everyone, except the University of Calcutta. Each name has a prescribed university version. If your birth certificate says Choudhury when the university accepts only Chaudhuri, there will be forms you will have to fill out and get attested, clerks you will have to flatter and treat to tea while you wait to be renamed. Like Yahweh, Ellis Island and the slave masters from Roots, not only will the university play name-giver – on your certificate you will become Chaudhuri, of that there is no doubt – but whether they will recognise your life prior to your conversion is a matter left up to the fates themselves.

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Why Write about Calcutta?

From The Epic City: The World on the Streets of Calcutta, by Kushanava Choudhury (Bloomsbury, 2018), Kindle Loc. approx. 1380-1405:

Sumitro and I were sitting in the last row of a minibus, bouncing from Ballygunge to Rajabazar, travelling northward up the city’s spine.

‘Who are you writing for? Why are you writing about Calcutta? And whose Calcutta?’ Sumitro fired those questions away with his piercing intelligence.

The minibus was idling in the traffic snarl at Park Circus when Sumitro asked: ‘Why is it that representations of Calcutta seem unchanged for centuries?’

The first Europeans who came to these shores had refused to get out of their boats. They called the settlement in the swamp Golgotha. Most accounts of Calcutta since have hardly varied. Calcutta to Western eyes was the epitome of urban hell, the Detroit of the world, the punchline to a joke: your room looks like the slums of Calcutta. Every visitor, even those who came to slum it in Calcutta, seemed to take away the same city, I said, the same crumbling mansions of colonial elites, graveyards full of dead Englishmen who could not survive the tropics, and everywhere, like a disease, the suffering of the poor. Ultimately the slummers all fell back upon the idea of the urban hellhole, the city as a place of darkness and death. Even Louis Malle and Allen Ginsberg arrived as gleeful voyeurs and headed to the cremation ghats at Nimtala, as if the last rites were a morbid spectator sport, as if they came from places where no one died. Had any of them ever been to Nimtala to give shoulder to the dead? Had they any idea how it might have felt to be on the other side?

‘Where in the representations of Calcutta is the jumble-tangle human clot of Baguiati?’ Sumitro asked, its intersection throbbing at every hour of the day with careening autos and overtaking buses and people rushing away in every lane clutching polythene bags from Ma Sarada Stores full of moong dal and Surf Excel?

‘Why not the Maniktala Market?’ I said, ‘With its fishmongers seated on their concrete plinths like sultans, surrounded by mounds of hilsa, pomfret and koi.’ ‘What about all the shops and little village-worlds in Bowbazar, in the heart of Calcutta?’ Sumitro asked.

At Sealdah, the bus roared up the overpass we called ‘the Flyover’. To our right, the suburban train station was bright with fluorescent lights; its orange neon signs were flashing SEALDAH, SEALDAH, SEALDAH, alternately in English, Hindi and Bengali, as they have eternally in my memory. To our left, the evening rush at Baithakkhana Bazar spilled out onto Bowbazar Street. Three centuries ago, the English trader Job Charnock, who is said to have founded the city, had sat under a banyan tree there and turned it into his parlour, hence the name Baithak Khana, Living Room. The street was barely visible now, covered over by the evening vegetable sellers squatting with their goods spread out on tarps, backlit by the beckoning glow of the jewellery shops that lured in wedding shoppers. Under a canopy of sulphur street lights stretching all the way to Dalhousie, was the perpetual human parade.

From atop the Flyover, Sumitro surveyed the sweeping view of all that was revealed below, and asked, ‘Where has anyone represented all this?’

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Bengal’s New Bourgeoisie

From The Epic City: The World on the Streets of Calcutta, by Kushanava Choudhury (Bloomsbury, 2018), Kindle Loc. approx. 560-580:

Each summer, I had returned to Calcutta for months at a time, without a project or a purpose, just to be there. The Statesman looked worse with each passing year. Most of my Statesman friends – those who weren’t lifers like Mike – had fled to the Telegraph or one of the national papers that had opened up offices in Calcutta. The times were changing. India’s corporate boom was trickling into the city. New jobs were emerging. Some friends had left journalism altogether to work in back offices, writing content and doing design for American corporations. On the verdant eastern edge of the city, a whole planned suburb called Sector Five had sprouted to accommodate them. Next to grazing fields dotted with palms and cows, the likes of IBM, GE and Pricewaterhouse-Coopers had built glittering glass temples to global capitalism. Premodern and postmodern India headbutted each other as if waiting to deliver the punchline to a cruel joke. A peasant and a programmer walk into a bar . . .

I met a friend who had found such a position in an American firm at Sector Five. As she was showing me around her glass temple, she took me to a room full of rolled-up mats. They reminded me of the mats that some of the Muslim waiters used to spread out during prayer times at the Statesman canteen.

‘Are the mats for namaz?’ I asked.

‘No,’ she said, ‘they are for yoga.’

It was the first time I had heard anyone in Calcutta utter the word. She didn’t say joge, which is the Bengali term for the breathing exercises and body contortions that we had all been forced to practise as kids, exercises that were the realm of old geezers, much like consulting astrological charts, performing exorcisms or taking snuff. Joge to us was some grandpa forcing you to sit still for fifteen minutes and pretend to ‘meditate’. This avatar of grandpa’s joge as yuppie yoga was part of a prepackaged global lifestyle imported from America.

At six o’clock, Sector Five was lined with more coach buses than South Point School. As those glass temples emptied into the streets, throngs of twenty- and thirty-somethings all lit Filter Wills cigarettes and fired off that last text message. And new masses replaced them, for another shift would start soon enough. It may have been quitting time in Calcutta, but somewhere in New York or California, the day had just begun. Sector Five was staffed by my people, my generation of the middle class. It employed thousands of men in Moustache jeans and women in Fab India salwars, the types that in my time would idle for years, having passed their college exams, offering tutoring, writing Charminar-fuelled poetry before finally giving up or moving out of the city. Those multitudes represented something unprecedented in my lifetime. Before, I had only seen such crowds of the young middle classes at cricket matches and during student demonstrations. This was new. They were not jeering Pakistani cricketers or attacking tuition hikes. They were working. In Sector Five, on parade was Bengal’s new bourgeoisie.

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