JOK Notebook

Worlds Are Colliding

I thought I had unearthed something radical. As I worked on essay 1799 on 峰 (peak, mountaintop; ridge), I realized that this kanji had both a kun-yomi of ぶ and an on-yomi of ブ, both non-Joyo. Can one kanji really have a kun-yomi and on-yomi that match? In the words of George Costanza, worlds are colliding!

I asked my proofreader whether my dictionaries (the source of my yomi information) could have been wrong. 

In response, he showed me a few instances in which temple names incorporated 峰 with the yomi of ブ.

Yes, but were we seeing ぶ or ブ in those names? And had he understood my question? I checked with him.

He said nothing further about it.

I had thought he would leap to his feet or fall to the floor in wonderment, depending on his position when reading what I wrote. He had apparently done neither.

I finally said that I had an unresolved feeling about the issue. Wasn't it a huge deal that both ぶ and ブ apparently existed as yomi of 峰?

No, he said at last. This happens from time to time. "In fact, the border of on- and kun-yomi can be quite obscure for some terms. The Japanese term うま, which is the kun-yomi for 馬 (horse), is said to come from the on-yomi マ (Mandarin reading: mǎ). In the same way, うめ (梅: plum) comes from the on-yomi メ (Mandarin: méi). For those kanji, the kun-yomi aren't technically 'native Japanese terms.'"

He added, "It's not such a big surprise for me that they match for 峰. Sorry for being a wet blanket."

I love when he uses that term. He does so fairly often because I frequently become excited about kanji matters that native speakers take for granted.

He directed me to a web page that lists kanji for which the on- and kun-yomi match. I've replicated the essential information here and have added the Henshall number, the primary definition of the character (regardless of whether it applies to both yomi), and green for non-Joyo yomi:

    On-Yomi Kun-Yomi
1. 医 (225: medicine; doctor) い(やす)
2. 仮 (625: temporary) か(す)
3. 死 (286: death; to die) し(ぬ)
4. 架 (1045: to lay across) か(ける), か(かる)
5. 化 (238: to change into) か(わる), か(える)
6. 差 (482: difference) さ(す)
7. 鎖 (1286: chain) さ(す)
8. 杓 (non-Joyo: ladle) シャク しゃく(う), しゃく(る)
9. 識 (698: to discriminate, discern; knowledge) し(る)
10. 達 (541: to attain) タチ たち
11. 俯 (non-Joyo: to bend down) ふ(せる)

A few notes:

The characters in #8 and #11 are non-Joyo and therefore shouldn't be in the list, given the parameters the writer set out, but never mind.

Only in the 10th case is there a perfect match with no okurigana involved. Once again I feel awe and wonderment! 

Clearly, whoever wrote the post also felt excited; I've spotted multiple exclamation points and comments such as すごい! (awesome!) and 見事 (みごと: splendid, magnificent, beautiful, admirable). The person felt particularly enthusiastic about #8 and #10 because the yomi include two or three kana, not just one, making the coincidence that much greater.

The list misses 峰. Hmm, maybe I did stumble onto something important!

Or did I? How much does the distinction between on- and kun-yomi even matter? In my years of writing about kanji, I've made a very big deal of the difference (e.g., on page 38 of Crazy for Kanji, where I say among other things that one Japanese teacher finds on-yomi to be "crispier"!). I've done that mainly because that's how we learn kanji. But must we?

I was surprised once when I talked to a server in a Tokyo sushi restaurant about the surname Fukushima (福島) on his name tag. I noted that it was an unusual name in combining an on-yomi (フク) and a kun-yomi (しま). He stammered, blushed, and released a torrent of giggles as he told me that he had no idea about such things and was never much of a student. I was stunned because, given the extremely high levels of Japanese literacy and education, I assumed that everyone must have mastered these basic concepts.

Maybe, though, they count less than I think. Just as one learns one's own language organically without dissecting everything to death, it must be possible to approach kanji holistically, reading 福島 as ふくしま and dispensing with the sorts of distinctions that kanji learners invariably want to make.

I can't help but think, though, that there would be a loss if one blurred those lines. Imagine not knowing your family history or your country's history. These layers created the nest into which you were born. They shaped you, whether you realize it or not. You can function just fine without knowing about the past, but once you grasp your personal context, you understand so much more about why things are as they are.

When it comes to kanji, I find etymology interesting and sometimes helpful as a mnemonic, but I quickly forget the details, if not the whole story. I would not, however, want to forget whether a reading originally came from China or from the spoken language in Japan in the years before kanji arrived on its shores. As I try to make sense of kanji, I sometimes imagine the early people who used it, and I assess how it fit their needs. After all, although the Chinese and Japanese share a writing system to some degree, their cultures are also enormously different, and the people have had different priorities. Their needs have shaped the way they have imbued the characters with readings and meanings. Sometimes, too, a kun-yomi has a different meaning from the on-yomi for the same kanji. That's true in a few places in the list above, as with #6 and #10; 差す can mean "to offer" and "to hold up," among many other things, and the kun-yomi -達 is a plural suffix, whereas nothing of the sort is true for the on-yomi of 達.

In the new essay on 峰 (peak), I take a brief look at 頂, another kanji for "peak." Although it has a Joyo kun-yomi of いただき, which means "mountaintop," that reading appears mainly in poetic and theatrical contexts. Usually, いただく means "to receive humbly." Meanwhile, the on-yomi of チョウ tends to mean "top," as in "top of one's head" or "top of a mountain." What a difference! One yomi (いただく) brings you low as you bow in gratitude, and the other (チョウ) puts you on top of the world!

I want to keep such things straight!

Here's a preview of essay 1799 on 峰:

Have a great weekend!

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