The Nanbanjin Nikki

ザ南蛮人日記

An informal review of Wixted’s A Handbook to Classical Japanese

Couple weeks ago I stumbled, purely by chance, on Wixted’s 2006’s A Handbook to Classical Japanese (Wixted has been featured earlier in this blog). It’s quite rad! There seems to be a dearth of reviews (here’s one; also a sample section) so I wrote this post about it.

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Pictographic characters for Chinese bronzeware

Here’s something that caught my eye while browsing the edu-manga ‹Sho› no Rekishi to Meisaku Tehon (★★★☆☆):

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Some Japanese queer vocabulary

Let’s get this thing back on schedule!

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Some Léon Wieger quotes

As the decay of the 周 Chou Dinasty grew worse, studies were neglected and the scribes became more and more ignorant. When they did not remember the genuine character, they blunderingly invented a false one. Those non-genuine characters, copied out again by other ignorant writers, became usual. Confucius himself made this statement. Towards the year B.C. 500, he uttered this complaint: «When I was young, I still knew some scribes who left blank the characters which they could not write; now there are no more such men!» Consequently, the 奇字 ch’i tzǔ «odd characters» were multiplied without restraint, to the great prejudice of etymology.

1. Causes of the excessive multiplication of characters… First, the ignorance of scribes who continually brought to light faulty forms which were stupidly reproduced by posterity; then, the need felt to give names to new things. The Empire was growing, learning was spreading; writing had become a public thing; the process 形聲 hsing-shêng (see page 10) being an easy one, all took to it. From this disorderly fermentation, without direction, without control, without criticism, sprang up, together with useful characters, thousands of useless doubles. […] The index of Li-ssǔ contained 3300 characters. Two centuries later, there were 10.000. Now the dictionary of 康熙 K’ang-hsi (A.D. 1716), contains 40.000 characters that may be plainly divided as follows: 4.000 characters in common use; 2.000 proper names and doubles of limited use; 34.000 monstruosities of no practical use.

[On the creation of block and cursive forms] During his campaigns against the Huns, the general 蒙恬 Mêng-t’ien is said to have invented or improved the writing-brush, the ink and the paper. This invention was fatal to the characters. […] The writing-brush galloping, the strokes were connected up, giving birth to the 連筆字 lien-pei-tzǔ; then it flew, throwing on the paper misshapen figures, which are called 草字 ts’ao-tzǔ. The fancy for these novelties became a rage. At the beginning of the Christian era, a man believed himself dishonoured if he wrote in a legible way.

Page from L. Wieger’s “Chinese Characters”

Page from L. Wieger’s “Chinese Characters”

Note to the Internets: this is all utterly wrong :)

Caractères chinois (translated as Chinese characters: their origin, etymology, history, classification and signification), being from 1915, is hopelessly outdated; it’s also full of mistakes. That’s a shame, because it’s charming as hell, and a pleasure to read. I especially like the format of the “Etymological Lessons”, and I wish someone would make something like that using state-of-the-art scholarly knowledge. The impressionistic stories extrapolated from bronze inscriptions are textbook Orientalist fantasy, very entertaining. The book is still probably the best Western-language compendium on what I call the “traditional” school of Chinese “character-etymology”—i.e. the local philological tradition based on the Shuowen and (to a lesser extent) the Kangxi.

List of humdrum words that look cool in kanji (by: Sei Shônagon)

For this section of The Pillow Book, it would be interesting to know precisely which characters Shônagon was thinking about, so we should be wary of how exactly our chosen edition arrived at its kanji. Unfortunately I know next to nothing about the different manuscript lineages, but since the 11th-century original was kana literature (wabun), I suppose that’s a bit of a moot point anyway—we can’t have primary evidence of her intentions. Therefore, for this post, I’ll just use the University of Virginia’s E-text version, which is based on the 1929 Yûhôdô 有朋堂 edition, itself based on the Nôinbon manuscripts:

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Boltz on the origin of Chinese characters

Three proposed stages of writing systems:

  1. Pictography: Drawings that portray things directly, without reference to language. Not writing, but a “forerunner”.

  2. “Zodiography”: Pictography of words. Can be the same graphs as in pictography, but now they’re taken to represent words in a language; i.e. each graph now has a phonetic (P) and a semantic (S) value. This is the first stage in which specific linguistic utterances can be represented, though not any utterance.

  3. Graphic multivalence: The zodiographs are extended in one of two ways:

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Ladefoged & Maddieson on Japanese phonetics

I like The Sounds of the World’s Languages a lot. If you’re used to think in phonological terms, it greatly expands your simple model with real-world phonetic quirks. (For example, it turns out vowel “height” and “backness” are not actually very correlated with the position of the highest point of the tongue, though the two properties are real enough in the acoustic level).

One fun way to browse a book like this is to look for “your” languages in the index and peek ahead. I learned quite a few neat things about Chinese and Icelandic this way, but since the focus of this blog is Japanese, have some Japanese-related tidbits to whet your appetite:

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The Shôrinji Kempô Theme Song

The Bullshidô guys can complain all they want that Shôrinji Kempô has not enough aliveness, or that the clothes are too fancy etc., but does MMA have a theme song?? Does it? Of course it doesn’t! Shorinji Kempô: the only martial art with a theme song!

I am immensely amused by this.

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Otaku and otaku

Once again I face the end of Sunday night having written nothing, and with an exam due tomorrow. If I try to work on one thing, I’ll feel guilty about the other. Then I figured: why not post about the exam contents? 一石二鳥!

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Kanjigen updates

In lieu of an essay, today I’ve made several long-overdue updates to my comparative “character etymology” tool, Kanjigen. Changes include:

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MS-DOS manga

Jeg kan ikke norsk! Jeg kan ikke snakke litt norsk, even. And that’s quite worrying since Norwegian exams are coming, er, in 2 dager. Being unable to write much about Japanske at the moment, I bring as an offering this manga I found last week for R$1:

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Japanese word boundaries: inflected nouns?

The other day there was a discussion on No-Sword that turned to the topic of word separation, and I’d like to salvage my comments and throw together a post, even if it’s redundant—there are a couple of interesting papers that I believe are deserving of more exposure.

Japanese, like the scriptio continua of Classical Greek and Latin, is written without spaces; but romanized Japanese needs spacing, and, lacking a well-established tradition, we are often at a loss on whether to space a compound or not (akishigure, aki-shigure, aki shigure?). Investigating this opens a whole can of worms. Valéry once said that words are like fragile planks over the abyss; we cross words to reach meaning everyday without any difficulty, but if you stop on top of a word to examine it—say, “time” or “being”—the word promptly breaks and you find yourself falling. And this applies to the word “word” itself. The way I see it, there are at least three major usages of “word”:

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The upward slant in Eastern and Western calligraphy

Having exams tomorrow, I’ll leave you with a quick observation on comparative handwriting. (more…)

English translated lyrics for Ningen Isu, Rashômon

Back in my youth, I thought that One Day I’d know enough Japanese to translate the songs of rock bands I like, and I’d become famous and loved as an Internet lyrics translator. This memory popped out of the blue, and I thought: I wonder if I could do it already? I’ve read the original for Rashômon, after all, and this isn’t Onmyô-za; how hard it could be?

Well… quite hard. :)

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Lurie on Lafcadio Hearn and insects

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.

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