Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Adventures in Japanese

Last week in Japan there was a tornado, a rare disaster in this country of landslides, typhoons, volcanoes, earthquakes and group suicides. The day after, I had a private lesson with my Japanese teacher and we briefly discussed Japanese weather words (a useful form of vocabulary in a country where the weather is constantly changing and often dangerous).

I learnt that the Japanese word for tornado (tatsumaki) consists of the kanji for dragon (龍,tatsu) and the kanji for `to roll`, (巻,maki). So a tornado is a `rolling dragon`.

I also discovered that the kanji for thunder or lightning consists of the kanji for rain set above the kanji for a rice paddy, a kanji which evokes immediate images of Japan in June, when the rain is sheeting down, or September, when storms are common. It should perhaps be indicative of how wet Japan is that many of its weather kanji are based on the kanji for rain. I subsequently looked up some of these words in my kanji book, and discovered that a japanese word for situation is also the word for wind and rain.

Finally we discussed snow words. The Japanese have many words for snow, including big snow (as in a lot of it), small snow, new snow, fluffy snow, fine snow. These words are composed of the adjective with the word for snow (just like in English), but they become one word, not two (this is a subtle distinction in Japanese because the kanji is the same but it is pronounced differently). I can only conclude that this means snow is a big part of life here; and in my seminar yesterday with my supervisor, he told me that we can expect one "huge" snow in February, and a "big" snow in December.

I think that English would be a considerably more interesting language if its weather words were based on the use of fantastic imagery. If, for example, a heavy storm were called a "dragon storm", or hail "stones of god". Perhaps if the Enlgish were subject to any form of disastrous weather other than continual rain this might have entered the vocabulary - although I suppose this isn`t entirely a bad thing. Winter is coming, and every night I cower beneath my kotatsu in fear of the coming storm...


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