Saturday, November 19, 2011

In defense of tomorrow

"What is the meaning of this Kanji?" Our teacher highlighted two Chinese characters on the sheet being projected to the screen in front of us. One looked a bit like a flower. The other, like a child's climbing frame.

"らいねん," we volunteered as a class. "Next year."
来年 rai-nen.

"And this one?"

The flower was still there but the climbing frame had been replaced by a broken ladder with the bottom-most rung twisted free.

"らいげつ," we replied. "Next month."
来月 rai-getsu.

"How about this one?"

Again, the same flower but now alongside a small chest of drawers.

"らいにち," we started confidently and then paused. "… next day?"
来日 rai-nichi.

"In this case," our teacher explained. "日 (nichi) is understood as if it were 日本 (nihon), Japan. So it means: 'coming to Japan'."

There was a silence as we took this in.

"…. why doesn't it mean 'next day'…?" asked someone at last.
a.k.a. Defend your language, Japanese person!

Our teacher paused. "Well, what is the Japanese for 'next day' or tomorrow?"

"あした," we all chorused.
明日 ashita.

"Yes. That's why."
a.k.a. Silence, you foreigners!

(Note: らいねん, らいげつ, らいにち and あした are written in the phonetic Japanese script, hiragana.)


  1. I don't know how the hiragana appear on your screen, but on mine they are little squares containing random numbers and letters. All the more confusing. I bow to your brain-power in mastering a language of such complexity expressed in kanji rather than script. (This from someone who attempted Ancient Greek - at least that has recognisable letters.)Amazing.

  2. Hmm.... must be language settings on your browser... I didn't think that might be a problem! Still random squares and letters sounds pretty accurate!

    Japanese is fun, but I don't find it easy. I actually really enjoy the writing system and grammar parts though because they are interesting, whereas learning vocabulary is necessary but just a slog! So, in some ways, it's better than a European language where most of it comes down to work memorisation, since the grammatical routes are closer to English.

  3. Re: garbling of ひらがな
    What you're experiencing is mojibake (changing characters): because not all programs recognize Japanese characters, they come out garbled in some browsers. This is a problem even today for some company and university websites.

    The character "rai" means "to come"; so rai-nen and rai-getsu mean "coming year" and "coming month".

    "Rai-nichi" means "coming to Japan." The Japanese use some one-kanji abbreviations for countries, a tradition kept from when kanji (and not katakana) were used for phonetically writing down country names. In this case, 日 is shorthand for 日本。
    For example, the character 米 (bei, or "rice") is used to represent the US.
    They used to write 亜米利加 for "a-me-ri-ka". (The character 亜, or "a", is not used since it's also used in "Asia.") Often times, you see 米国 in the newspapers to mean "America," 国 meaning "nation."
    Other prominent examples are 伊太利亜 (I-ta-ri-a, abbreviation 伊) and 独逸 (Do-itsu, abbreviation 独) and 仏蘭西 (Fu-ran-su, abbreviation 仏).

    The word 明日 literally is written "bright day." Tomorrow is a bright day!
    The word for the day after tomorrow is 明後日 (asatte, or myougonichi), written "bright day that comes later."

  4. Wow -- that's really interesting. I've never seen western country names written in Kanji before -- we always write them in Katakana.

    "Bright day" is a cheerful outlook. I will try and remember that when my alarm clock goes off tomorrow.