December 20, 2007

Fun with furigana

Japanese grammar is quite straightforward. To start with, no case or gender or articles to worry about. And with only a few exceptions the phonology is a cinch.

But Japanese orthography was devised in the very bowels of hell. Despite inventing a simple syllabary called kana (it was good enough for Tale of Genji, the world's first novel), Japanese then adopted kanji from Chinese (with which it shares zero linguistic similarities). And then 1500 years later started using the Latin alphabet to boot.

There are actually two types of kana: hiragana for writing native Japanese words, and katakana for writing foreign "loan words" (cognates). Once typeset print became widespread, a third type emerged: furigana. Furigana are small kana characters set adjacent to or atop kanji that instruct the reader how to pronounce the kanji.

These characters mean "vast store of knowledge." The furigana spell out the pronunciation: unchiku. The first character is "nonstandard," meaning that it is not taught as one of the 1945 "general use" kanji. But the average Japanese would recognize the word from the pronunciation, the same way English speakers know far more words than they can spell.

Believe it or not, while it's a bear to learn, reading Japanese with kanji is easier than reading Japanese without it. (Writing, though, is another matter entirely. Equally true of English.) But there are other ingenious uses for furigana + kanji as well, such as giving kanji invented or nonstandard phonetic readings (ateji).

One is to introduce foreign words into a narrative. This is common in science fiction. By pairing the katakana loan word with the kanji, the meaning becomes apparent to the reader. On the right, unisex is paired with the Japanese kanji meaning "gender neutral" (chuuseiteki). Any doubts about the English meaning are cleared up by the kanji.

A second is to artificially embed a single word with two associated meanings. Here, the English word "slum" is paired with furusu, meaning an "old haunt" or "place where one grew up," meaning a "childhood home in the slums."

Lastly, a recent invention that shows up a lot in manga, where dialogue balloons can put space at a premium. You should be able to guess this one yourself. The reading of the kana (not a kanji) is waza, an adverb that means "on purpose." So what does adding that furigana 2 mean?

Waza-waza, of course. Meaning: "really doing something on purpose." This works well in Japanese because so many adverbials and especially onomatopoeia are expressed as trochaic pairs.

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