The Nanbanjin Nikki


A few notes on koronia-go, by Yoshio Mase

If you live in a linguistically peripheral academic area, one easy way of generating academic essays is to “bring attention to the recent developments in the field”—that is, to translate and summarize. That’s kind of cheating, though. Even though my proposed thesis will be essentially a literature review, I’d still like to avoid merely translating stuff and then using big words to describe the result.

(Yes, everything went fine with the exams & I have a thesis now! (Note for Brazilians: “thesis” means “dissertação” and “dissertation” means “tese”. Except if they’re British, then it’s the other way around.))

But! A blog is not a thesis. (Thankfully.) So I bring you today a humble translated mini-summary of Yoshio Mase’s article, “The language of Japanese immigrants and their descendants in Brazil” (Estudos Japoneses VII, 1987).

I should add that this variation of Japanese was already dwindling when Mase presented this study (1986), and today it’s restricted to a few elders.

(All Japanese words not in phonetic notation are in Hepburn romanization; ‹ja› means [dʒa], etc.)


When I was at university in Australia, I think we used to refer to it as a ‘thesis’, which was formally known as a ‘dissertation’. So not totally a simple American/British divide :)

Anyway, congrats on getting your thesis/dissertation topic! (Is it Coronia-go?)

By Bathrobe on .

Thanks! No, I’ll do the thing about The Great Ideographic Debate and possible limitations of the “visible speech” model of writing. I’ve been wanting to write on this for ages, but as I dug for stuff the topic kept expanding and expanding, so it seemed like a good candidate for a lengthy master’s (and prof liked it).

By leoboiko on .

Yes, I think you forgot to say exactly what your topic is, but congratulations! Great post, too.

The first-person pronoun in the colony was yō (from Pt. eu or Spanish yo?), and the second-person was ossē (from rural Portuguese [o.’se]).

Borrowed pronouns always interest me — does Mase speculate on how this came about? I guess the easy (lazy) assumption would be that since Japanese pronouns are so tightly linked to social structure/hierarchy etc., if you’re dropped into a whole new society it’s just easier to adopt the pronouns that society uses, rather than try to establish a stable mapping of your old pronouns to the new society’s structure.

By Matt on .

He doesn’t stop to muse about it; it’s a short, descriptive essay. I recall my aged tea ceremony teacher did use [jo:] to refer to herself when speaking Portuguese; it’s quite distinct from pt. [ew], so it stood out. I wonder if it’s just a phonetic shift, or a Spanish loan out of place, or if it’s derived from some regional Brazilian dialect I don’t know. At any rate I’d think the Japanese would be the most prone to adopt new pronouns easily; hell, I’m still unconvinced “personal pronouns” is the best way of thinking about them in jp…

By leoboiko on .

The Great Ideographic Debate? I have a book called Realms of Literacy – Early Japan and the History of Writing by David Lurie, and I find it maddeningly post-structuralist.

By Bathrobe on .

Yeah it’s in the wishlist :) Lurie has a short essay on the debate itself.

My personal position is that the linguists are basically correct on this, and the basic use of characters is to represent speech after all (cognitive/psycholing experiments are hard to argue with). However, I also think that there are a number of interesting special uses, particularly in the realms of literature, calligraphy/fine arts, and anthropology; and that, if you just buy the aggressive rethoric of ideographic-myth-debunkers, you’d lose some interesting points from the other side.

One thing is characters as used in modern Chinese báihuà, say in a medicine leaflet; another thing is characters as used in a Heian poetry scroll, or in kuji-kiri magic, or in Japanese sign language.

I also think the ideographic debate points to a larger question, the autonomy of writing in general. It’s evident for everyone that writing, other than representing speech, has some extra stuff in it; but if you ask, say, a Chomskian and a Prague functionalist, they’d differ completely on how important these extra parts are. So my thesis/lit review intends to cover:

– The question of the autonomy (or not) of writing
– The ideographic myth
– The critique of the ideographic myth
– The critique of the critique of the ideographic myth

By leoboiko on .

Another phenomenon I’m curious about are the references that Japanese make to “characters” in speech. It’s not uncommon to hear something like:

— And the shinsei was quite difficult, so I…
Shinsei? Which shinsei?
— You know, shin as in mousu (“to say +[humble]”), and sei as in kou (“to request”)…
— Ah, ok.

Think about what this suggests: The Japanese mental lexicon must be organized in sets of (near-)synonymous morphemes, shin/mousu, shin/atarashii, shin/makoto and so on; and each morpheme must be marked as [+sinitic] or not, since the Sino-Japanese morphemes tend to be a more formal register and tend to be bound… Literate Japanese generally think of those sets as “pronunciations to the same character”, classified in on or kun (I call this popular conception the “character-centric view”). However, even illiterate Japanese must learn those equivalencies, so this organization isn’t really about characters at all. Nonetheless, it appears to be convenient to have a “pivot” or label to help with grasping a conceptual morpheme-set; and characters seem to be used as a symbol for them. “Knowing what’s the kanji” becomes their description of “grasping the semantics of this morpheme”.

This is comparable to deep (morphological) writing in the alphabet: in “child” and “children”, the sequence <child-> is used for different phonological realizations of the same morpheme. But the case of Japanese is more extreme. It’s as if they wrote “liberty” and “freedom”, “green” and “verdant” with the same graph (and assuming the existence of such pairs was the rule rather than the exception); what happens with the cognitive status of the graphs—and of the sets?

Think of DeFrancis/Unger description of characters as

> basically a syllabic system of writing with a cumbersome logographic component that helps compensate for the shortcomings of the phonographic component.

I agree this is an adequate model for báihuà, but I don’t think it’s sufficient to cover all the cultural phenomena surrounding characters.

By leoboiko on .

I’ll have to read Lurie again. (I don’t want to, because it’s maddening and frustrating to wade through that prose.) Without reading that article you linked to and speaking from a recollection of what Lurie was trying to say (as I said, it’s maddening), Lurie’s point seems to be that Japanese didn’t start out as 音 and 訓, or at least, he opposes the ‘bilingual hypothesis’ that identifies the Chinese component as originally foreign words. The Japanese concept of writing didn’t start out from the idea that Chinese was a foreign language, as opposed to their own native language. Writing was just… writing, and different modes were mixed together almost indiscriminately. The on/kun thing came much, much later. Sorry, I can’t articulate it now, and I’m too pressed for time to sit down and give it the time it needs. Anyway, the guy is groping after something, but he isn’t quite there yet.

I wrote my own summary of my understanding of how hanzi/kanji are used at my website,, but that was written a long time ago and is pretty elementary. Part of the complexity comes from the Chinese side itself, which is not as straightforward as it seems.

Recently I read an extended quote from 岡田英弘 at a Japanese blog (which I depressingly don’t seem to have kept) which put forward the rather breathtaking hypothesis that Japanese was ‘created’ by kanji. That is, he believes that the Japanese language was created when people came up with Japanese readings for kanji. It was totally wacky, but on the other hand, the idea that the Japanese language was somehow moulded around kanji (by assigning kun-yomi to kanji) is an interesting one. If I find the quote I’ll let you know.

Good luck with your dissertation!

By Bathrobe on .

Oh, and the first half of Lurie’s book is about how kanji were adopted into Japanese at the very beginning. He makes much play of the fact that they weren’t a system of writing. They could be better described as talismanic symbols. People used them (sometimes in mangled ways) even though they couldn’t necessarily read them.

By Bathrobe on .

The other very interesting point that I took from Lurie’s book is that much of the original Japanese use of kanji possibly dates back to the Koreans. That is, the original practice of using what was later codified as on-yomi and kun-yomi and other aspects of the Japanese ‘system’ first arose on the Korean peninsula and was brought to Japan by Korean teachers. Unfortunately the historical record is sadly lacking at this point. If more archaeological and written records were available, it might be possible to prove that what the Japanese have now is a natural outgrowth of Chinese and later Korean usage.

By Bathrobe on .

Hey, you should sell me that copy of Lurie’s book!

> I’m still unconvinced “personal pronouns” is the best way of thinking about them in jp…

I understand the hesitancy! There was certainly something special about them in OJ (other nouns don’t have alternate forms ending in “re” — although “demonstrative pronouns” did…) but once that evaporates from the language the argument becomes a lot more difficult.