August 25, 2016

What's in a name?

In Japan, you can't name your kid anything. The Ministry of Justice has the final say (as in France, the cops must have a linguistics division). Currently, only the 843 "name kanji" (kanji rarely used for anything but names) and 2,136 "common-use kanji" are permitted in first names.

But thanks to on'yomi, kun'yomi, na'nori, and ateji, parents can get very creative about how a kanji is pronounced. And the bias of late, grouch the old-timers, has been toward the unpronounceable.

In Chinese, there is exactly one phoneme per character. Kanji was imported to Japan from China and adopted into a language that has nothing phonemically or grammatically in common with Chinese.

As a result, the original Chinese pronunciations had to be heavily modified to fit the Japanese language, resulting in on'yomi ("Chinese" reading). Because there's such a poor overlap between the two phonemic systems, there are often multiple on'yomi for each kanji.

At the same time, kanji were retrofitted to represent existing Japanese words (kun'yomi). As a result, a single kanji can have several different readings, including na'nori, readings that evolved specifically for use in names.

In Chinese, foreign (untranslated) words are written using ateji. That means the foreign word is "spelled" phonetically using the pronunciation associated with the kanji. The inverse form of ateji is assigning (often foreign) pronunciations to a kanji based on the meaning.

There are a number of websites that sound out Western names using Chinese characters. You can do this in Japanese too, but Japanese has a purely phonetic "alphabet" (a syllabary) made specifically for foreign words and names called katakana.

Nevertheless, as I illustrate here, (reverse) ateji is too much linguistic fun for writers to ignore.

Let's say you wanted to name your kid "Star Child." Sounds very hipster in English, but in Japanese it produces pretty ordinary pronunciations (with one exception). The suffix 子 ("child") is common in Japanese names for girls (sort of like all the girl names that end with /ly/).

Girl names

星子 Shouko
星子 Seiko
星子 Tiara
星子 Hoshiko

/Shou/ and /Sei/ are on'yomi. /Hoshi/ is kun'yomi. "Tiara" is, of course, (reverse) ateji.

Boy names

星郎 Hoshirou
星男 Hoshio

/Rou/ is on'yomi and /o/ is kun'yomi. The suffix 郎 (used similarly to 子 for girls) means "son" and 男 means "man."

Because the most common "spelling" of Seiko is 聖子 ("holy child"), which also just happens to be the name of the hugely famous singer Seiko Matsuda, you would have to explain to a person you just met that your name is instead spelled with the kanji for "star."

And, yes, sans a business card, Japanese provide these sorts of explanations all the time when introducing themselves, and/or write the kanji in the air or on the palm of the hand.

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