The Nanbanjin Nikki


Online Japanese manuscripts at Gallica

My palæography teacher brought this to my attention: Gallica, the digital library of the Bibliothèque nationale de France, has a « France-Japon » section. The last two links are currently broken; they should be:

Greg Pingle on Mongolian Sinitic; and John Phan on Sino-Vietnamese

Greg Pingle has a cool Quora answer to the question: what if Ainu had borrowed from Chinese? He compares it to Mongolian Sinitic loans, which are unlike Sino-Xenic in being a) whole-word, not morpheme-based, and b) orally transmitted.

In the discussion thread for the old post on Sino-Xenic, commenter 番 brought my attention to John Phan’s work on Sino-Vietnamese. Phan has kindly uploaded a preview to his dissertation, Lacquered Words, where he argues, contra Miyake, that

unlike Sino-Korean or Sino-Japanese, Late Sino-Vietic resulted from a bilingualism in Sinitic and Vietic languages that flourished in the area of northern Vietnam throughout the Tang dynasty.

[…] Contrary to current analyses of Sino-Vietic lexica (which assume reading-based transfusions similar to the origins of Sino-Korean or Sino-Japanese), I claim that the bulk of Sinitic loanwords in Vietnamese resulted from bilingual contact, between a form of Sinitic native to the region of modern day northern Vietnam and contemporary forms of Vietic language. For reasons discussed below, I have termed this variety of Sinitic “Annamese Middle Chinese” (AMC). Unlike in the Korean peninsula or the Japanese archipelago, I claim that the river plains of northern Vietnam were home to a rooted and thriving community of AMC speakers for most of the first millennium, and it is the presence of this community and the bilingual effects of their coexistence with Vietic speakers that fundamentally defines the nature of Sino-Vietic contact throughout history.

[…] However, when AMC obsolesced as a spoken language in the region, it left a form of Literary Sinitic behind which entered into a hyperglossic relationship with the new dominant form of speech, i.e. pVM. This hyperglossic relationship was in turn analogous to contemporary hyperglossic arrangements in Korea and Japan of the 2nd millennium.

In this way, even though Vietnamese is not a Sinitic language, ancient Vietnamese speakers were bilingual in some form of spoken Middle Chinese. This makes the Vietnamese a kind of interesting hybrid:

I eagerly await the full dissertation.

Japanese compound word morphology: intra-word order influences verbal argument type

Terry Joyce, in an paper about something else, mentions this neat datum that I had never noticed.

Japanese is a head-last language, meaning that the arguments of a verb precede it: (more…)

Writing kanji on the air is even better practice than writing on paper

Margaret Thomas, Air Writing as a Technique for the Acquisition of Sino-Japanese Characters by Second Language Learners.

Summary: When studying a kanji, native Japanese speakers often trace its strokes with their fingers on the air, palm, or thigh, while keeping their eyes fixed on the source model. (They do it for recalling, too, often closing the eyes or averting the gaze). This is called “air writing” (kūsho 空書 or karagaki 空書き). Thomas experimented with 75 non-native learners, of 22 different mother languages, and found that air writing helped retention significantly more (p < 0.01) than pen writing or visual memorization—though the effect size was modest, and only noticeable when memorizing harder kanji (some 15.43% more hits for the hardest kanji set).

Interestingly, six participants who were told to not use kūsho still did it spontaneously during recall tasks; either with their hands, or by mimicking kūsho patterns with subtle head or torso movements.

Thomas tested only kanji recall, not recognition (which is likely the most important task in the modern age). However, she does mention a couple studies suggesting that native speakers can recognize kanji more easily when allowed to air-write (Matsuo et al, Dissociation of writing processes: functional magnetic resonance imaging during writing of Japanese ideographic characters, 2000; and Matsuo et al, Finger movements lighten neural loads in the recognition of ideographic characters, 2003).

I think it’s reasonable to suppose that, for non-native learners, too, air-writing helps with both recall & recognition. This is good news because you can practice anywhere with your own body.

A 2015 count of Japanese word frequency

*Slowly emerges from underground cave*

I’ve been doing computer things to large samples of Japanese text. To be more specific, I’ve been feeding the full contents of the Japanese Wikipedia to Mecab, R, python, and several small shell scripts.

It occurred to me that, while these things are at hand, it would be simple to make a new count of frequent Japanese words. So I did. You can see what is it like at this Wiktionary page. Full TSV tables are available for download: the count of lemmas (uninflected words), and of inflected word forms.

New stuff about kanji is forthcoming.

*Slowly submerges to cave*


I’m doing a daily close reading of Murakami with my sweetheart and this came up:


She asks: Why Kyakkanteki Jijitsu, instead of Kyakkanteki na Jijitsu?


Why it is important to document the Ryukyuan languages (while there’s still time)

Thomas Pellard, Why it is important to study the Ryukyuan languages – The example of Ōgami Ryukyuan. Presentation PDF, full of linguistic data and convincing arguments.

Pellard argues that:

I keep reading this guy and I’ll end up packing for Ryūkyū (or Hachijō, for which many of the same arguments can be made)…

Web search penance

The interests of this blog are quite specialized, & furthermore I’m erratic with posting. To avoid the feeling of writing in a vacuum, I sometimes like to peruse the list of search queries that brought people here; it always warms my heart to find that some lone soul was questing for “clouds word japanese” or “writing with upward slant” or “鹳 stork” and found something about that exact topic.

However, there are the times when search engines will suggest your site to a query that it can’t, in fact, satisfy. Carl Pyrdum’s super cool blog, Got Medieval, introduced the concept of “Google penance”: the spiritual exercise of completing the information that people came looking for – even though, alas!, it’s already too late. I loved the idea and decided to try my hand at it. So let’s do “penance”!! pleasantly.


Frellesvig on Classical Japanese past suffixes

The other day Matt posted on the Classical particles traditionally described as “past” (though many seem to be about aspect rather than time): namely ki, keri, nu, tsu, tari, ri. I commented on some unusual points of Fujii Sadakazu’s analysis, which I’m more than a little skeptical about. Then it struck me that I should take a closer look at what a linguist has to say; so I read more carefully the relevant sections of Frellesvig’s A History of the Japanese Language, and summarized them below. For contrastive illustration, I’ve used my photocopy of a grammar table from some handbook or another as a typical representative of traditional (school) grammar.


The Elements of Sōsho (1913)

After last post’s enormous wall of text, here’s a plain link just because I was happy to find out about Capt. Francis Stewart Gilderoy Piggott’s The Elements of Sosho, a 1913 manual on Sino-Japanese cursive writing – freely available in glorious facsimile at!

Sample page for The Elements of Sosho


On feeling unsure about a translation; or, Ki-no-Tsurayuki and me

For the next few paragraphs, I’d like you to picture yourself as a 21st-century Japanese Studies scholar. Perhaps one day you’d be taking a class about the 10th-century Tosa Diary when the Professor asks for an essay, & for its theme you may choose any aspect of the Tosa which draws your interest. You write her an email: I realize it’s a bit unusual but could I work on the manuscript tradition? I mean, what manuscripts do we have left, where are they, which ones are used to make modern editions, what were they exactly like – what material, what form of writing, what hand, what orthography, how do they differ from the annotated text we’re currently reading, et cetera? The Professor never replies, which you take to be acquiescence (but: could she be wary of this proposal? Isn’t the topic too far away from Literature, isn’t this already History, palæography, mere technicalities far below the lofty aspirations of Spirit? Shouldn’t you try to, you know, read the entire original text first, before worrying about scriptural minutiæ?) Anyway; once possessed by the task, there’s no going back; you know your own telos, & you must go on.


鶴、鷺、鸛: Crane, heron, stork

I keep confusing these fellows:

Kanji Japanese English Family Latin Portuguese
tsuru crane Gruidæ grus grou
sagi heron Ardeidæ ardea garça
kō-no-tori stork Ciconiidæ ciconia cegonha

An egret is basically a white heron (Jap.: shirasagi), especially those who develop fine plumes during mating season. The heron/egret distinction is cultural, not biological. The word “egret” is from Fr. aigrette, from aigron = heron.

It’s not easy to distinguish cranes, herons, and storks by appearance alone, since each category (more…)

Dare-ka and dare-mo

One thing that always bothered me in Japanese language pedagogy is the way that they teach quantifier words, like dareka = “who-ka” or daremo = “who-mo”: They’re just translated atomically, e.g. in this case as “someone” and “everyone”, with no further discussion. However, it’s clear that those -ka and -mo particles perform a set role when added to question words:

dare-ka who-KA someone
nani-ka what-KA something
itsu-ka when-KA sometime
ikutsu-ka how many-KA some, a few
dare-mo who-MO everyone
nani-mo what-MO everything
itsu-mo when-MO always
ikutsu-mo how many-MO a lot

What’s more, there was something less obvious that kept nagging me in the back of my mind: I felt like these uses of ka and mo somehow aren’t so different from their usual roles – ka as the question particle, and mo as the “too” particle. I thought “who + too = everyone” made sense, somehow, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on why.


I knew that the communists simplified the Chinese characters, but this is ridiculous

screenshot of page for 誌, showing the simplification as a graphic icon for 'pencil'


Shigesato Itoi’s ephemeral essaylike things

Shigesato Itoi is known in the West as the author of the cult videogame series, Earthbound (in Japan, Mother 2 – the sequel Mother 3 wasn’t released overseas, but there’s a pro-level fan translation available). Itoi is know in Japan for a whole lot of things, a small sample of which include being a renowed copywriter (he came up with “Gameboy” and “oishii seikatsu”), a celebrity tarento, an Iron Chef judge, a music afficionado and lyricist, the co-author of a short-story collection with Haruki Murakami, a radio host who presented a talk show aimed at middle-aged men “to listen during bathtime”, the developer of a celebrated paper planner/notebook, the voice artist of Daddy in My Neighbor Totoro, and so on and so forth. Itoi’s Japanese Wikipedia page has more than a hundred bullet points, and doesn’t even mention videogames in the summary paragraph.