Multiplicity in writing systems: terminological troubles
Consider the alphabetic principle: each letter represents one sound—or, to get technical, each grapheme (a symbol of writing) represents one phoneme (a linguistic sound).
So there’s a nice 1-to-1 mapping. But sometimes the mapping can get multiple, both in the direction of writing (1 sound is represented by N letters)…
…and in the direction of reading (1 letter represents N sounds):
Cases like ‹th›→/θ/ or ‹ng›→/ŋ/ are called digraphs. This is a widespread term, so I’d like to use it in my thesis. We can generalize, when N>2, to plurigraphs.
And cases like ‹x›→/ks/ (when from the rule of the system we’d expect a grapheme to represent one sound, but this particular one represents two) could, by the same token, be called pluriphones. (Continue reading for why I decided against “polygraphs” and “polyphones”).
I believe that Japanese kanji are basically morphographic; that is, I believe that, as a general, structural principle of the system, they represent morphemes, just like English letters stand for phonemes:
han-sei “reflection, regret”
But there’s a lot of deviation from this “morphographic principle”, just like English has a lot of deviation from the alphabetic principle. There’s a kind of plurigraphy, where it takes many characters to represent a single, unitary morpheme:
samidare “early summer rain”
In Japanese this is called jukujikun “multiple-character kun reading”.
(There are a number of complications here. First, the words written in kanji could be read regularly within the morphographic principle, resulting in daijin “big-person”, kemurigusa “smoke-herb”, and gogatsu-ame→satsuki-ame “May-rain”. It’s as if we reached the represented word through another, hidden word, semantically related to the target word: 煙草 → [kemurigusa] → tabako (though I don’t think this full route is followed by literate readers, who probably acquire a direct mapping). The second complication is that these words I’m presenting as unitary morphemes may actually be parsed as several morphemes, if the reader knows her etymology; samidare, for example, is sa-mi-dare “May-water-dripping”; but I posit that these words are opaque to most people, and, at any rate, the etymological morphemes of the word, sa-mi-dare =“May-water-dripping”, don’t map to the morphograms, ‹五月雨› = “five-month-rain”.)
There’s also an analogue to pluriphony, but with morphemes:
kami-nari “god-cry” = “thunder”
kuchi-biru “mouth-border” = “lips”
I’m not sure what to call these; I’m reluctantly resorting to plurimorphemy—having many morphemes.
Summing up the forms of multiplicity we’ve seen so far:
When reading: N graphemes → 1 object
When writing: N objects → 1 grapheme
So far so good. However, writing systems also have multiplicity of another kind entirely. Consider again the word “exit”, and compare the sound represented by the letter ‹e› in the following:
We see that, depending on the word, the letter ‹e› may be pronounced either as /ɛ/ (“short E”), /iː/ (“long E”), or /ə/ (“schwa”). (There are also other cases, like “pale”, where the ‹e› seems to be used in a non-phonographical way – it doesn’t represent a phoneme, but rather acts as a hint to select the “long A” pronounciation of ‹a› (cf. “pal”)).
This is different from pluriphony in the sense above. The ‹e› doesn’t represent several sounds sequentially, as ‹x› did represent /ks/; rather, it may represent one of several sounds in potential – but, in each actual use, only one of the possible values is selected (linguistics buffs: we’re talking about paradigmatic multiplicity vs. syntagmatic multiplicity).
What do we call this? Boltz (1994) calls it “poliphony”, as do many others, on analogy with the common word “polysemy”. However, Rogers (2004) uses the word “poliphony” to describe our “pluriphony”, on analogy with “polygraphy” derived from “digraph”.
I think I’m sidestepping the whole brouhaha, and going with polyvalent: literally, having multiple values. The word in English has confusing associations with the concept of chemical valency, but it has an older sense of “having multiple meanings”, that is, multiple possible (paradigmatic) meanings, so that it applies nicely. I don’t think I see it being used a lot in English (where it seems to be in competition with ‘multivalent’); but my thesis is in Portuguese, and polivalente isn’t all that rare for us, in the sense I want. Boltz has used “multivalent” in this sense, and M.O. Connor used “polyvalent” like this, too, when discussing cuneiform writing.
I can use the same word to describe the analogous property of kanji:
This is of course not an irregularity but a systematic property of Japanese writing, standing in stark contrast with its Chinese source: in Japanese, most morphographs are polyvalent. Boltz says polyvalence of this kind was quite common in ancient Chinese, and he call it “polysemy” – the word usually means “a word with many possible meanings”, but this extends quite naturally to cover morphographical polyvalence.
All we’ve seen of polyvalence so far was in the direction of reading: we want to read a letter or kanji, and it has several possible values, and we have to pick one. But there’s polyvalence when writing, too: if you want to write an [iː] sound in English, you’ll have to choose between ‹e› (“me”), ‹ee› (“bee”), ‹ea› (“each”), ‹ie› (“field”) etc. And, in Japanese, the morpheme za “to sit” can be written morphographically as 坐 or 座, ichi “one” as any of ‹1, 一, 弌, 壱›. By now I’ve run out of creativity, so I think I’ll just name the two cases as “reading polyvalence” – or, more informally, “multiple readings” – and “writing polyvalence”, or “multiple orthography”.
Polyvalence is why I didn’t call plurimorphemic graphs simply “plurimorphic”; “plurimorphism” sounds like a synonym for “polymorphism”, which in biological usage means “having many forms in potentia”. “Plurimorphemy” is ugly as hell, but at least it suggests “morphemes”, rather than “forms”.
This leaves my current scheme like this:
I’m not at all satisfied with how clumsy all of this is sounds, but I have to distinguish them, and I have to call them something. And we’ve not even began scratching the more interesting complications of Japanese writing: the way writing polyvalence tends to specialize in distinguishing nuances, for example (the tsukai-wake), which is a kind of sub-morphography, a fine-tuning of the morphographical principle at the semantic level; or the way its reading polyvalence, historically derived from translator’s glosses, ended up tying morphemes together in mental clusters, ame/ama-/-same | u all connected through ‹雨›, and this generic mental object RAIN partaking mutely in tsuyu, samidare, shigure, so that the writing even resembles a kind of… dare I say it?…
[Edit history: v. 2: Changed the prefix for in sequentia multiplicity from poly- to pluri-, following flow’s suggestion in the comments below.]