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:

  • Ryukyuan languages are typologically fascinating (subject-object cases influenced by animacy! Ōgami /kff kss/ = “fish hooks [that I] make” with no acoustic trace of a vowel!);
  • Ryukyuan languages preserve a lot from Classical– and Old Japanese features (e.g. rentaikei/shūshikei distinction, kakari-musubi syntactic agreement), and even Proto-Japanese stuff older than OJ (reflexes of more vowel distinctions than OJ kan/otsu), which means that they’re a treasure trove of priceless data for reconstructing older forms of Japanese and also (as Vovin argued) to clarify the relationship between Japanese and Korean;
  • We’re very much lacking documentation, grammars, dictionaries, transcriptions etc., and much of what we have are informal descriptions biased towards Japanese – many Japanese still think of these languages as “dialects” (hōgen) (not to mention phonetics transcribed in kana!!!);
  • Young Okinawans are monolingual in Japanese, current Ryukyuan speakers are mostly aged 60+ and bilingual in Japanese, Unesco considers all of the languages to be ‘definitely’ or ‘severely’ endangered, and children aren’t being raised in them;
  • Linguistic descriptions are urgently needed!

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.

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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.

Continue reading “Frellesvig on Classical Japanese past suffixes”

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.

Continue reading “On feeling unsure about a translation; or, Ki-no-Tsurayuki and me”

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 Continue reading “鶴、鷺、鸛: Crane, heron, stork”

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.

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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.

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Argument by kanji components: 静かさ、閑かさ



shizukasa ya iwa ni shimi-iru semi no koe

the cry of cicadas seep into the rocks

Is there any meaning to the fact that Bashō wrote shizukasa “tranquility, quietude, repose” with the character 閑 rather than the (possibly) more common 静 ?

Continue reading “Argument by kanji components: 静かさ、閑かさ”

Roy Andrew Miller, an unsung hero (villain) of academic dissing

R.A. Miller is better known for The Japanese Language, an indisputable classic of the field, and for his work on the Altaic hypothesis. However, I’ve never seen anyone draw attention to his academic reviews, the style and rhetoric of which I find to be highly entertaining (probably because I’m not the one being reviewed…). Consider the following representative lines of his comments on Bentley’s A Descriptive Grammar of Early Old Japanese Prose and on Vovin’s A Reference Grammar of Classical Japanese Prose:

The problems with Bentley’s book begin with his title. The texts with which he is concerned are in the main not prose, at least not in the usual understanding of the term; nor can the bulk of them be described as “Old Japanese”, let alone “Early”; nor is what he has published a “descriptive grammar”.

The meat is delicious: The Shinkai-san dictionary

A friend pointed me to James Somer’s article praising the older editions of the Webster’s dictionary. His major points are that:

  • The original Webster carefully distinguishes between nuances of near-synonyms: Flashing differs from exploding or disploding in not being accompanied with a loud report. To glisten, or glister, is to shine with a soft and fitful luster, as eyes suffused with tears, or flowers wet with dew.
  • Compared with modern dictionaries, its language is more pleasant, charming, and also precise and evocative in its imagery (again: “to shine with a soft and fitful luster, as eyes suffused with tears, or flowers wet with dew”!)

I sent him a message about a modern dictionary that I like a lot Continue reading “The meat is delicious: The Shinkai-san dictionary”

Ishihara Yoshirō, Inaori Ringo

りんごは ちいさく

An apple –
The only one left
Unpicked – petitely
Tried to stand true.
Though a single apple
May stand true,
What good could it do?
Though pondering thus,
The apple was so very timid
And so very helpless, that it nonetheless
Decided to stand truer still
And turned about
Looking around
And went rolling
Up to the hem of the mat and
As if it hadn’t done enough
It stood proud, petitely and

Ishihara Yoshirō, Inaori Ringo. We saw this poem in the morphosyntax class and I liked it. Transcription:

Hitotsu dake Ato e
Ringo wa chiisaku
Ringo ga ikko de
Dō naru Mono ka to
Kangaeta ga
Sore-hodo Ringo wa
Ki ga yowakute
Sore-hodo Kokoro-hosokatta kara
Yappari inaoru Koto ni shite
Atari wo gurutto
Mimawashite kara
Tatami no Heri made
Kore demo ka to chiisaku
Inaotte yatta

Thanks to /u/Hyperwyrm and /u/GrammarNinja64 for corrections and insight. Inaoru, lit. “to fix your sitting” i.e. “to sit up straight”, also means “to assume a combative attitude” (especially when facing adversity). I chose “stand true” because I don’t think English has many idioms about combative sitting… Also I can’t for the life of me come up with a good Portuguese equivalent, standing or sitting.

I’m missing some nuance of bravado on that final kore demo ka… -te yatta

Gramática escolar japonesa 学校文法 para estudantes de língua clássica

Os textos de língua clássica japonesa (古語 kogo / 文語 bungo) possuem todo um aparato de apoio para compreensão: dicionários, tabelas de referência, notas, edições comentadas e analisadas gramaticalmente… Esse material de apoio pressupõe domínio da chamada “gramática escolar japonesa”, 学校文法 gakkō bunpō.

Recentemente montamos na USP uma aulinha de reforço de gramática escolar da língua moderna, planejada como apoio a estudantes que estão começando a clássica agora mas nunca viram essa gramática nem para a moderna. O handout que preparei serve de introdução a alguns pontos-chave, e está disponível aqui (referências). O material é de língua moderna, mas procurei me ater aos conceitos e terminologia que serão mais úteis na hora de partir para a clássica.