Slowing down, & my own Peregrinaçam

After another long hiatus, I figure it’s time to admit I can’t update this blog regularly anymore. Turns out being a grad student is a lot of work! I know, who woulda thought, right? There are a half-dozen half-finished posts around, but from now on I’ll publish them irregularly. Sorry about that. There’s also RSS/Atom feeds and email notifications, should the Reader wish to make use of them.

Joining the adult academic world does have its perks, though—like being eligible for the Japan Foundation scholarship program for researchers. Long story short, after all these years, I can finally utter the following statement in a world where it has a positive truth value:

~★☆I am going to friggin’ JAPAN!!!☆★~

Yes, I’m cutting my hair in 2013! I’ll be in Ōsaka-fu for 60 summer days & learn kansaiben & go kuidaore & probably blog every single day even if to say “today I had takoyaki, again”. See you on the other side of the world~

Announcing myougiden, a command-line Japanese/English dictionary

Where have I been, you ask? I’ve disappeared for the last two weeks! I didn’t write anything, talked to no one, was nowhere to be seen!

As it happens, the Muse of Programming possessed me forcefully, and after some intense days taken by a mood, I ended up with this:

myougiden screenshot
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Kanji and speech, kanji and mind

One of the things that interest me in Japanese are the references to written language—specifically, to Chinese characters (kanji)—in speech. Of course, literate speakers of most languages will sometimes refer to writing (“I meant cue, cue with a ‘c'”). It’s my subjective impression, however, that the Japanese do it more often, and the morphographic nature of kanji makes it feel… different.

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Tea ceremony notes: The difference between Usucha and Koicha

A common experience when studying tea is that, as soon as you start getting the hang of a procedure, your teacher throws some new variation at you. One is always kept on her toes, so to speak, with a constant feeling of inadequacy. Though a bit disconcerting (not to mention ego-shattering), this is actually an optimum educational technique; you’re always just outside your comfort zone, which means you’re always absorbing new things.

One reason why this method works is that each new Temae (formal procedure) don’t simply start it all over from scratch; they can mostly be learned as variations on a theme, changing some points in the overall stable pattern. However, one of the most drastic steps in the Urasenke curriculum might be the very second “full” Temae, namely the basic manners for Koicha “thick tea”. Just as the student started to get happy with the flow of his beginner’s Usucha “thin tea” procedure, he’s introduced to a new form that has small but important differences almost at every turn. Furthermore, when he gets back to Usucha, he finds his blossoming fluency is now ruined with interference from the new habits. Until his body manages to sort out what to do when, he’ll close doors when they should be open and skip water when it should be added, and vice-versa. He’ll be doomed to a long period of Chigau yo. Kyō Koicha desu kara. (“No, it’s the other way around, since today we’re doing Koicha.”)

As a kind of personal exercise, I tried to write down in a table all differences I could think of between basic Usucha and Koicha temae. The results follow below.

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Update to phonetic series, and Kansai-ben

This is a dummy post, just to let feed readers know that the post on phonetic components was significantly updated, with more data, more tables, and (finally) a couple graphs.

If you’re even remotely interested in Kansai-ben (the Western dialect of Ōsaka and Kyōto, once the standard), I suppose you must already know of a site with a name like I don’t know how I didn’t notice it all this time. What a great compilation! Not just there are tons of examples and contrasts, but you can even play audio conveniently just by hovering the mouse cursor. The “other resources” section pointed me to Jarinko Chie (1981), oldschool anime entirely in Kansai-ben and currently available on youtube.

Speaking of Kansai-ben, I love how Afrirampo changes from -sanai to -sarehen when they’re into it:

Testing the predictive power of phonetic components in Japanese kanji

Most Chinese characters have a phonetic component—a hint that suggests their pronounciations. For example, 半 bàn “half” appears inside 伴 “companion” because the latter is also pronounced bàn; and further, it also suggests the approximate pronounciation of 判 pàn “judge”, 叛 pàn “rebel”, and 胖 pàng “fat”. Beginning readers often don’t notice this feature, but awareness of phonetic hints grows with proficiency. The rate of characters with a phonetic component reaches up to 90% – though that’s 90% of all characters, not 90% of what you’d stumble in actual use; nonphonetic characters (such as 木 or 人) are disproportionately more frequent.

However, this system was always imprecise, and grew ever looser as the spoken language changed and the characters were simplified in various ways. In many cases, it’s now unclear to what degree a component was originally added as a phonetic hint, a semantic mnemonic, both, or neither. For example, it’s conceivable that whoever first built the character for 判 “judge” decided to use 半 not just for its sound, but also because they thought “cutting 刂 in equal halves 半” makes sense as a mnemonic for “judging”.

When the characters are used to represent Japanese, the phonetic hints only work with Sino-Japanese readings, i.e. the on-yomi (…that’s kind of why they’re called on-yomi, “sound readings”). Moreover, even for on-yomi, the Japanese readings grew to be more imprecise than even Chinese. I wanted to try to measure their predictive power; this post report the results of a simple but quantitative experiment (for a quick summary, skip to results!).

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Fernão Mendes Pinto in Japan

Fernão Mendes Pinto (1509–1583) was a Portuguese sailor, trader and adventurer who wrote a sprawling 226-chapter epic on his travels to the Orient, the Peregrinaçam (“Pilgrimage”; modern spelling Peregrinação)—or, to cite the full title, “The Pilgrimage of Fernam Mendez Pinto where he accounts for many and very strange things he saw and heard in the kingdom of China, of Tartaria, of Sornau, which is vulgarly called Sião, of the Calaminhamn, of the Pegù, of the Martauão, & in many other realms & lordships of the Oriental parts, about which in these ours of the Occident there is very little or no news”. His tales were so tall that people were skeptical from the beginning, and the author quickly acquired the punny nickname Fernão, mentes? minto! (“Fernão, are you lying? I am!”). Much of the Peregrinaçam is clearly fantasy, but a surprising amount turned out to be plausible as we came to know better the peoples of Asia.

The journey includes a brief passage in Japan. Compared with the intellectual 16th-century Jesuit writers (João Rodrigues, Luís Fróis &c.), Fernão has a completely different aura; uncouth and blunt, he seems to even take a certain “New Yorker’s pride” in his own barbarism. In this post, I tried to cite some examples I found interesting. Continue reading “Fernão Mendes Pinto in Japan”

Martin on speech levels in Japanese (aka Keigo)

Martin’s classic article Speech Levels in Japan and Korea (first presented in 1958) doesn’t seem to be on the Internet. Being a fan, I dug around for Dell Hymes’ Language in Culture and Society, an anthology that includes it, and …Dude! What a book! Big! Heavy! Dusty, musky, hefty in the kind of cloth cover that makes it feel like a movie prop! And all the celebrities are in there: Hymes himself, and Boas, Lévi-Strauss, Pike, Malinowski, Firth, Mauss, Evans-Pritchard, Haas, Sapir, Whorf… Academia has this way of getting you to know the names (and general ideas) of the previous paradigm, without actually ever reading them. I’m sorry, generative linguists, but you’ll never have the sheer amount of cool of anthro people; pondering over hermetic syntactical operations while redrawing trees like a comp-sci major simply doesn’t compare in sexiness to living with exotic peoples to chart their fascinating cultures, then switching societies like jackets and coming home to tell the story. Finding this book was like going to a bar and meeting Indiana Jones (or Oriental Jones…)

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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).

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Speaking of alternative realities, Richie on Butoh:

The actor/dancer outcast was given the task of personifying darkness since it was the sacred kagura, and the noble Noh, that represented light. Yami, the place of darkness, this was where the dancers danced, danced for yami no kamisama, the faceless unknown god of darkness. No matter how sunny the occasion, the village matsuri had its omikoshi, that massive float borne by the happy revelers. And inside this festive ark was that small black box where the faceless god—so far from the multifold deities of Shinto, from the embracing visage of Buddha himself—reveled in the chaotic bounding about, the disorderly shouting, the certain confusions of the dark.


Continue reading “Yami-no-who?”