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Profoundly Different, Yet The Same

Yet another lunch inspired linguistic thought here.

One of the things I love about Japanese is its layers and layers of meaning. Much is made of the fact that in Japanese there are generally two, if not more, pronunciations and meanings for the same character. 音, for example, is the kanji for sound. On its own, it is pronounced “oto”, but when combined with other Japanese characters to form a compound it is generally pronounced “on.” Thus, “music” in Japanese, “音楽” is pronounced “ongaku” and not “otogaku.” Admittedly this makes the language an absolute pain to learn. You finally learn one reading of a character only to find out you can read it only half the time! Once you get over that hump, though (and I am by no means over it myself) you can start to recognize a richness in the language we can’t really comprehend in English. Because there are so many different pronunciations of the same character, at times there are specific connotations attached to the use of a certain pronunciation. It allows for instant understanding not just of the world itself, but also of the context in which it is used. Also it makes great fodder for language fun for learners of Japanese, but that is less important! 🙂

On Wednesday at lunch as we often do, we were having a discussion about death. My vice principal asked me to confirm that in America they bury people as well as cremate them. I confirmed this, and then we got to talking about Buddhism, and about why exactly the Japanese government outlawed burials. (It’s unrelated to Buddhism, simply a health issue.) Then my principal, a man of vast knowledge, began explaining about Buddhism’s purgatory. It is said that when a person dies, they stay in this purgatory for 49 days. Here is where my introduction of Japanese’s vast pronunciations and this lunch time tale intersect.

As some of you may know, there are two ways of saying “four” in Japanese, “shi” and “yon.” The reason there are two is that “shi,” which came from Chinese, is a bit too close to comfort to “shi” which means death. In fact, they are indistinguishable in terms of pronunciation. That’s the problem with these phonetic languages, eventually you run out of pronunciations and have to recycle them. You may recall from a previous post that the “un” from luck and the “un” from feces have a similar link, hence the lucky golden poop.

To remedy this issue between four “shi” and death “shi,” they created a new pronunciation, “yon” to be used. Generally, yon is used when talking about “four” because it does not conjure up images of death. I must interject here and say it is tradition, not that the Japanese are to this day so absurdly superstitious. There are times, though, when “shi” is used, and one of these times is when you are talking about the 49 (shijyuukyuu) days the departed spend in purgatory. You could say “yonjyuukyuu” but it simply doesn’t sound right when discussing this particular topic. And so, anyone walking in on this conversation can infer immediately what the subject of the discussion is, without hearing anything else. Barring a foreigner making a mistake, they will immediately understand you are having a conversation about the 49 days spent in purgatory after death, and can join the conversation flawlessly without interrupting with: “Whatcha talkin’ about?” Such specificity is unheard of in English.

This is the kind of stuff that keeps me so interested in Japanese day in and day out. The connection between language and culture is so apparent that they are almost inseparable. You will never ever be able to be completely fluent in Japanese without also having a deep knowledge of its culture, and its history.


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