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Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Japanese Language Trivia of the Day:

Do you know this kanji: 米? I bet you do. It means rice and America. I use it as a joke when I write my last name (米里; I tell them it means AMERICA village, which gets a laugh, but doesn't stop them from calling me コメザトさん).

I remember learning a long time ago that the reason the kanji for "rice" also just happens to mean "America" is because the Japanese used to write America in kanji, and they would choose the Kanji based on their sounds, not for the meaning. 米 can be read as め so it became a part of 亜米利加. Other non-Japanese countries got similar treatments, 伊太利亜 is Italy, and that too is often shortened, using 伊 by itself to represent the nation.

If you've ever watched an English movie with Chinese subtitles, you'll know that they do the same thing: the characters names are often written in Chinese kanji. No, there is not a Chinese character that means "Tyler Durden."

So what I learned recently is the NAME for using kanji in this fashion:

当て字 or 宛字
あてじ
ateji

The man on the right, Natsume Soseki (pen name), is a famous author, and is also well known for being the man to come up with many, many of these 当て字。And they're not just used for names of foreign countries/ers.

Have you ever seen the kanji for sushi? Here you go: 寿司. I've seen it at tons of shops, on advertisments, on Brett's kaiten platinum card... but I never stopped to wonder why the kanji for sushi would mean "long life" and "government official." The meaning is arbitrary!
The same thing happens to hijiki:
鹿尾菜 or, translated, deer-tail-grass. Yum.

Sometimes, in extremely fortunate situations, the kanji can be chosen for their meanings AND their sounds. In fact, the way I got interested in ateji in the first place was when I asked a teacher if he could write the extremely difficult kanji for りんご. He could not, and since I had made the faux paux of asking him in front of his class, he was obligated to quickly explain this inability away by saying that NO-ONE writes apple in kanji; the kanji are ateji! I thought, man, if that's a legitimate excuse for not knowing kanji, I need to know which ones are ateji right away. And yes, 林檎 as the interwebs confirm, are substitute characters, albeit extremely fortunate ones. Their separate meanings are "forest" and... "apple." What?

Other fortunate examples are 合羽 (かっぱ, kappa) which, I did not know, comes from the Portuguese "capa" meaning "raincoat." The kanji can be thought of as "the meeting of wings: folding wings over yourself to provide shelter." It's a stretch, but, hey. It's cool.

If you're a foreigner living in Japan, and you're lucky enough to not be named Jeff or some other name with sounds that don't occur in Japanese, you probably have been given 当て字 for your name. If not, you should make your own! Take your name as you would write in in katakana, and then search a kanji dictionary looking for Kanji that fit you, phonetically as well as personally. I had some nice calligraphy framed for my new niece, with her name in 当て字: 蛍里「けいり」 - firefly village.

Then there's another type of 当て字:

熟字訓
じゅくじくん
jukujikun

熟字訓 are 当て字 but backwards. They're words spelled with kanji that are chosen for their meaning and NOT their readings. 煙草 means "smoke" and "grass" and SHOULD be read: ケブリクサ or ケムグサ or something like that. Instead, it's read タバコ。

These kinds of words have to be long and established to count as 熟字訓 though. A lot of times, in modern manga or novels, a writer will include 振り仮名 that suggest pronouncing 宿敵 as ライバル (rival), but because this word has it's own Japanese pronunciation and a Japanese definition that already means rival, it doesn't count as 熟字訓. It's just plain old 当て字.

My favorite so far, and the one that convinced me to write this post, is the one that the poor woman who sits next to me at school begged me to unlearn. It appears only in manga, fiction, and is very popular in graffiti. I like to think of it as what you would say to someone you hated before you had to fight them to the death. For your Japanese learning pleasures, I'll leave you with it.
夜露死苦おねがいします。

3 comments:

Alex said...

At first, I wanted to create some 当て字 for my own name, but recently I'd just prefer to, "translate my name into Japanese," which is sort of like a variation of 熟字訓 in that I intend to keep the meaning of my name intact, but I'm going for a whole new pronunciation.

I haven't gotten around to it yet, but I expect "defender of men" to render well in Japanese.

Oh, and 煙草 and 林檎 may be uncommon, but 缶 is all over the place (recycle, reduce, reuse, and close the loop!). Also, I see 珈琲 around every once in a while.

Lane said...

Oh wow, I saw 夜露死苦 on a this (http://angband.oook.cz/animeband/) page and for the first time, and I thought: what the heck is this. Then I tried to pronounce it, and it came to me: よろしく. And then I thought: these guys are crazy! But I had no idea this was a - somewhat - legitimate and commonly known word!

Wow, thank you so much for this information. It really made my day (or what's left of it.. :)

Anonymous said...

i think it comes from GTO
Onizuka's always using it.