Pardonne-moi, readers, for again I find myself too exhausted to blog. I’ll take the easy way out by merely pointing you to a totally rad paper I found some days ago: Orientomology: The Insect Literature of Lafcadio Hearn (1850–1904). Kudos to David B. Lurie for not only writing it, but also making it freely available outside paywalls—he has some more stuff on his site, so I hope he won’t mind if I make this non-rotated version available here, for the benefit of those without a rotating browser plugin.
I’m tired of the social barriers that a foreigner faces when trying to study Japanese culture (beyond anime). I’ve decided to change fields once again, and move into ethnometeorology. To start with, let’s see a few poetical Japanese words for clouds and… Shimatta! Forget it, I suck at this. I can’t do April Fools—I wouldn’t be able to keep a poker face for my life.
Despite his taste for folklore and bestiaries (which Kappa satirizes, along with lots of other things), and despite his more accessible stories, Akutagawa Ryûnosuke certainly wasn’t a fantasy or sci-fi author. I feel a little bit dirty by doing this to serious capital-L Literary Literature. But (to paraphrase Zhuang-zi) how could someone of my persuasion, already being of my persuasion, decide otherwise? So, here’s everything we know of Kappanese:
As you certainly know, foxes (kitsune) are magical creatures. They can create illusions and take the form of humans; they can become invisible and ethereal, and in this form possess humans, causing illness and madness. But did you know that you, too, can get your very own fox-familiar to obey your every depraved wish?
There’s a widespread but simplistic notion of the evolution of writing in Japan that goes like this:
Before the Man’yôshû, the Japanese employed Chinese characters “semantically” (morphography, the writing of morphemes);
The Man’yôshû innovated the use of characters for their sounds only (phonography), which was called man’yôgana;
This system was later refined and evolved to kana;
Such innovations allowed the Japanese to write their own language and to end a China-oriented “dark age of native style”, restoring the value of Japanese poetry.
This narrative misconstrues or obscure several facts:
Chinese writing was partly phonetic from the beginning (down to the structure of character-formation), and had been used (also) phonographically since forever (notoriously, to transcribe Sanskrit words in Buddhism);
At the time of the writing of the Man’yôshû there was no such thing as “Japan” or “China”; and what’s more, the way the Yamato court conceived of the relationship between Yamato and Han cultures was not in terms of opposition, negation, or evolution, but more of a coexistence of modes or styles;
In a similar way, phonographic writing wasn’t considered an evolution or replacement of morphography;
Phonographic writing in Japan greatly antedated the Man’yôshû, and also continued after it;
The writing in the Man’yôshû wasn’t predominantly phonographic at all, and most characters were used morphographically;
And, in fact, the Man’yôshû represents a peak in complex writing using Chinese characters (sinography)—what’s most notable about it isn’t the use of phonograms, but the virtuosistic pirouettes of a literate elite.
This is not an scholarly essay; I just want to cite some illustrations of the last bullet-point, because I find them as perplexing as they’re fun. Readers who need more are pointed to the references.
“Writing” in Japan up until the Nara period (8c) often meant writing in Classical Chinese, but there are a number of extant texts in Japanese that make up our earliest records of the language—notoriously the songs collected in the Kojiki, the Nihon Shoki and the Man’yôshû. Because the Chinese writing system is designed to represent Chinese-specific morphemes and syllables, adapting it to represent Japanese was a complex task (since neither morphemes nor sounds coincide between the languages). Writers in the past came up with a number of different techniques, some of them quite complicated, to represent Japanese using Chinese characters (in fact, the Man’yôshû actually took delight in scriptural-level complexity and indirectness). However, for modern readers interested in the Old Japanese (OJ) language itself, the most important technique was also the simplest: a notation that used Chinese characters phonetically to represent OJ syllables. In this the Japanese followed earlier Chinese and Korean transcription practices, which they learned together with the writing system from their Paekche instructors.
Unfortunately, it’s not that easy for the modern reader to decipher even this “simple” phonological notation based on Chinese characters (hereafter “phonograms”). Not only has the phonology of Japanese changed since then, but the Chinese family of languages also kept changing (often radically), and in any given case it’s not obvious from which variety of Chinese—or Sino-Korean—the Japanese based their choice of phonograms. The textual evidence makes it clear that at different epochs they have used several different, conflicting sources for phonetics. Marc Hideo Miyake identifies five such “systems of sinographic reading” that were used to try to write down Japanese. To put it another way, written Chinese was a moving target; every so often the Japanese would come in contact with a new cultural influx that would teach new “correct readings” for the characters, which meant they had to change which phonograms should be used to represent Japanese (which of course was also a moving target).
(This is about modern transcriptions using the Latin alphabet; if you’re looking for historical Old Japanese transcription techniques, might I interest you in this other post?)
Because I’m quoting material from different works in this blog, I can end up citing various transcriptions and romanizations, which can be confusing. In fact I am confused. This post is to attempt to set things straight about how people represent Old Japanese (OJ) words in modern texts.
In discussions of Japanese, the secondary number system (hitotsu, futatsu, mittsu &c.) is often described as “remnants of an older, native system” without further explanation. Kudos to Miller 1967 for actually describing the older, native system—at least as far as the limited written records allow us. I often want to refer to it so I’m copying it here.
I’m unsatisfied with the low frequency of posts in this blog. My worries about quality have been working as a writing-block more than anything else. So I decided to take a different approach in 2012 and blog regularly, even if this means making more personal or casual posts, or just quoting books I’m reading &c.
For now I’ll strive to publish something every Sunday ; let’s see what such a rhythm feels like.