Monday, July 25, 2016

My friend Jason sent me an e-mail the other day in which he asked me if I knew the character 間.

I did.  It's a very common character, one you see every day.

Here's my response to Jason:

is the Chinese character for “space.”  That's the traditional Chinese character.  The Chinese have simplified it to 间, but I'm concerned with the character as it is used in the Japanese language only. Japanese and Koreans did not follow the Chinese simplification program in 1949. The Japanese did simplify some characters, but it was a Japanese simplification of Chinese, not a Chinese simplification of Chinese.  This was Early Cold War times, remember, and the notion of a single Chinese language writing system to enhance pan-Asian communication was not yet on the horizon.

In the kunyomi (“Japanese” reading), 間 is pronounced “ai” or “aida.”  “Aida” is the word for “between,” as in “kimi (you) to (and) boku (me) to (and, again) the old oak tree no aida (no is the possessive marker, equivalent to ‘s)” it translates “between you and me and the old oak tree.”  Note that Japanese has postpositions, not prepositions.

An additional kunyomi is “ma” which means either a room or a space or a pause or a musical “rest”.   Tokonoma,” for example, that little alcove in a Japanese room where you hang a scroll and put flowers and maybe an altar to the ancestors, is written with this character: 床間。

When combined with the character , tsuyu “dewdrops, flimsiness, tears, mortality” it is pronounced tsuyunoma and may be translated “a fleeting moment.”

If you ever take a train in Japan (and how could you not?), the first word you always hear when a train is about to enter a station is “mamonaku.”  ma = space; mo = even; naku = not.  In the English tongue, this word may be understood to convey something like “in no time at all…”  Note that the distinction here between time and space is of no account; "ma" may be understood to be a generic word for both time and space.

間男, maotoko, “ma” combined with the word for man, , otoko, it translates “secret male lover.”

In the onyomi (“Chinese” reading), it has two pronunciations: KEN and KAN.  Which one you use is a feature of individual words, the same as gender is in European languages.  There is no explaining it; you simply have to know.

“Person” in Japanese is “hito” (nothing to do with Hirohito, which I eventually discovered means "Mr. Abundant Benevolence," and not "Mr. Wide Person" as I thought for the first decade or so I lived in Japan.).  It is written 人。“Hito” is kunyomi -  the corresponding onyomi is “nin.”  When (pronounced nin) is combined with ken (the k becomes g in word compounds for phonological reasons irrelevant here) you get ningen.  “Person-space” is the word for “human being.”

Combine (we’re still talking about the ‘ken’ pronunciation now) with se, “the world,” and you get 世間, seken, which translates “people, ‘the public,’ society, life, rumor or gossip.”

You know that Japanese, like many East Asian languages, uses “counters.”  You combine the numbers, one, two, three, four, five, etc. ichi, ni, san, shi, go, etc. with a counter depending on size, shape, or other characteristic:

-hon/pon/bon – for counting long thin things like pencils, penises, chopsticks and trees.
-mai ­– for flat things, like sheets of paper and solar panels
-hiki/piki  – for four-legged-animals (small ones - there's another counter for larger animals)
So “two pencils, empitsu” would be nihon no empitsu; “two pieces of dried seaweed, nori” would be nimai no nori, and if you asked me how many dogs I had in the car and I had both Bounce and Miki with me, I would answer nihiki.

, pronounced –ken, is the counter for spaces on a go board (I don’t know why you would count the spaces, since in go it’s the intersections that count, not the spaces, but I mention it because go is apparently the only board game in which human beings (人間) can still reliably defeat computers.

ikken, niken, sangen, then, are the counters for spaces.  Note that -ken/gen are counters for spaces and only coincidentally the same word as for spaces itself.  Many people these days, when talking of "lines and spaces" use the English words "line" (ライン), i.e. ra-i-n and "space" (スペス), i.e., su-pe-su.  Go-players of the conservative sort might want to avoid foreign words when speaking of an ancient Japanese traditional board game (which is, of course, Chinese), but more modern youngfolk might be heard to speak of "two spaces" as niken no supesu.  Only if they knew the counter for spaces, of course.  Older people regularly bewail the loss of the language with the present generation, so who knows? Also, this may never have actually happened, of course, but I'm considering the theoretically possible.

One last comment, and then we can break for lunch…

The elements of consist of the outer two parts – – which is mon “gate”, and a sun being observed through the gate.  Think of the character for gate as a pair of swinging saloon doors in the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral. Note that you could just as readily write this character with a moon, , tsuki, instead of a sun being seen through the gate and it would still mean the same thing.  How it is that “sun (or moon) observed through the gate” came to be the Chinese character for “space” is a question that it takes somebody of a higher pay grade than mine to answer.

Some other things that can be seen through the gate are:

kuchi – “mouth” – 問 – as in “to question” or “to accuse”
mizu – “water” ­– – as in “to pan for gold”
–­ kokoro – “heart” ­– 悶える “to be in agony”
mimi – “ear” – 聞こえる“to hear”

and that’s but a small sample.

Forgive the digression.  It was only the sun and moon seen through the gate that you were asking about.  I have much to learn about not going on beyond the pale.

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