Daily Archives: 1 August 2009

Wordcatcher Tales: Nisshoku, Shironiji, Tatsumaki

I’ve just returned from Japan, still jet-lagged, with a harvest of about 600 photos to sort through and dozens of new words. The weather was terrible almost the whole time, and so I’ll start with a few of the meteorological terms I gleaned on this trip.

Solar eclipse photographer, Kokura, Kita-Kyushu, Japan日食 (or 日蝕; see below) nisshoku ‘solar eclipse’ (lit. ‘sun eating’) – We arrived at Kokura station in Kita-Kyushu to find many bystanders glancing up at the solar eclipse in progress, in a cloudy sky between rainstorms (the previous day and the following day). We had arrived there by rail pass via bullet train on a diversionary quest en route from Hiroshima back to Nagoya. Flooding had closed train lines between Hiroshima and Kokura the previous day.

Our quest was first to find the site of my hilltop home and kindergarten 55 years earlier, where my father began his first job after Japanese language school in Tokyo as a missionary chaplain of Seinan Jo Gakuin. His Japanese teacher there was the head of the English Dept., who used to translate my father’s sermon drafts into flowery, archaic Japanese using vocabulary that students would sometimes later ask him to explain. That prompted my father to begin writing his own drafts in Japanese, using a more down-to-earth style that he still employs in both Japanese and English, whether preaching or conversing.

We finally found both sites after talking with a teacher in the current Mt. Zion Kindergarten, which now stands on the site of a once-separate kindergarten for burakumin children in the neighborhood, along the road to Tobata. The kindergarten I attended was for school employees, and has since been replaced by a swimming pool. The teacher’s husband had attended the same kindergarten during the 1950s, and she was the only person I queried who knew anything about the history of the school going that far back.

Statue of boys harvesting wakame, Moji Port train station, Kita-Kyushu白虹 hakkou, shironijicorona, fog bow’ (lit. ‘white rainbow’) – We spent the rest of the afternoon sightseeing in quaint old Mojikō (‘Moji Port’), which advertises its Retro attractions. (On the way there, we mistakenly got off at Moji Station, home of the equally retro Beer Masonry Museum.)

In front of well-preserved Mojikō Station is an unusual statue of three boys at work harvesting wakame, with a poem on the pedestal by a writer whose pen name is (横山)白虹 Yokoyama Hakkou (1899–1983). The poem reads 和布刈る / 神の五百段 / ぬれてくらし (wakame karu / kami no ihodan / nurete kurashi), which I suppose one could translate as ‘The 500 steps to the gods of the wakame harvest lead a wet life’. Better suggestions are welcome.

竜巻 tatsumaki ‘waterspout, whirlwind, tornado’ (lit. ‘dragon roll’) – In addition to all the news reports of rainstorms and flooding, we saw one report about a rare tornado cutting a swath through Tatebayashi, a city in the panhandle of Gunma Prefecture just south of where we lived in 2005–2006 in Ashikaga, on the edge of the Kanto Plain outside Tokyo.

UPDATE: Reader Doc Rock notes that the character for ‘eat’ (or ‘food’) that appears in ‘eclipse’ has another possible shape in Chinese, Japanese, and Korean: 蝕 ‘eclipse, occultation’, with the phonetic element (Sino-Jp. shoku) on the left and the semantic element (虫, ‘bug’) on the right. (The ‘bug’ radical usually occurs on the left or the bottom of characters containing it.) In native Japanese, the same kanji can be read mushiba(mu) ‘to be wormy, bug-eaten; to gnaw into, undermine’. In Sino-Korean, 日蝕 ‘sun eclipse’ means ‘solar eclipse’, while 日食 ‘[land of the rising] sun food’ means ‘Japanese food’ (Jp. 和食 washoku).

Note that the Chinese character for ‘rainbow’, 虹, also has a ‘bug’ radical. Why would early Chinese scribes have associated such magical meteorological phenomena as eclipses and rainbows with creepy-crawly creatures? (And barbarians: 蛮 Ch. man, Sino-Jp. ban!) Weather phenomena are more typically written with radicals associating them with ‘sun’, ‘rain’, ‘water’, and so on.

I am not at all sure, but there are striking parallels in many Austronesian languages, where certain unusual “prodigies of nature” tend to be marked by prefixes that often have shapes derivable from *qali- or *kali- (although there is much variation and irregularity). Compare three words for ‘butterfly’: Brunei Malay kulimpapat, Tagalog alibangbang, and Gedaged (PNG) kilibob. The same prefix tends not to be found on words for much more common and familiar creatures, such as ‘flies’ (Mal. langau), ‘lice’ (Mal. kutu), or ‘mosquitoes’ (Mal. nyamuk).

Now compare three Austronesian words for ‘whirlwind’: Malay kelembubu, Tagalog alimpuyo, and Lakalai (PNG) kalivuru. The same prefix tends not to be found on words for normal phenomena like ‘fire’ (Mal. api), ‘rain’ (Mal. hujan), or ‘wind’ (Mal. angin).

The Austronesian patterns have been analyzed rather comprehensively by University of Hawai‘i Professor Robert Blust in his (2001) “Historical morphology and the spirit world: the *qali/kali- prefixes in Austronesian languages” in Issues in Austronesian Morphology: A Focusschrift for Byron W. Bender, ed. by J. Bradshaw and K. Rehg, pp. 15-73 (Canberra: Pacific Linguistics).


Filed under China, Japan, Korea, language, travel