しりとり (Shiritori) and Word Games

Today, while hanging out with a few of my Japanese friends, I learned about a game called しりとり (shiritori), which is a type of word game where people say words, take the final kana (or syllable) and use that to find another word that begins with it. It was pretty difficult for me, since I have a fairly limited knowledge of Japanese words. So, that means if I say umi, the person after me has to say word that begins with mi. Obviously, you have to know the kana spelling of a word in order to play this game properly. The catch is that you cannot play words that end in the kana ん (n), since no words in Japanese end with this kana. On top of that, you can only play common nouns, so no names of places or people. If you are in a position where you have no choice but to play a word that ends in ん, then you lose. A similar game called “word chain” exists in English, though this version has way fewer way to ways to lose, since very few letters in English are like ん for the purposes of the game.

Now, what this made me think about is the fact that the idea of “spelling” is an almost unique thing to English, since nearly all letters have more than one possible pronunciation that overlaps with other letters. In Spanish and Italian, for example, spelling is fundamentally unimportant, since every letter has a one pronunciation and one only, and all words are spelled exactly the way they sound. French could conceivably have spelling-based games, since more letters are ambiguous the way English is. Even if the letter or symbol of a language has multiple pronunciations depending on the position of it in a word, spelling is insignificant so long as there no overlaps with other letters. For example, the letter “f” and the combination “ph” make the same sound, but are used to spell things in different ways. “Ph” is used in almost exclusively words of Greek origin, like “philosophy” or “philanthropy”, and “f” for everything else. But for the unlearned player of word chain, these words have ambiguous spellings.

Another thing that this pointed out to me is that in many languages, this game can end very quickly. For example, in Italian, nearly every word ends in a vowel, and that significantly shrinks the bank of words you can use for the game. Spanish has a similar problem, since relatively few words end in consonants other than and s. In many (if not all0 Indian languages, this game is not feasible, at least if it’s played like shiritori. Using the final syllable is very difficult, since even though Indian languages use abugidas, where each letter is almost always syllable unto itself. The problems come up when you have a syllable that has more than one consonant in it. For example, if I were to use the Kannada word ಮಿತ್ರ (mitra), the next word has to begin with ತ್ರ (tra), of which there are very few. It’s even worse if you play a word that ends in the sound ಋ (ṛ), since there are very, very few words that actually start with this letter. It’s just that the writing system is not suited for such games. For what might be obvious reasons, Chinese languages cannot play this game, since hanzi don’t work that way. Using radicals to determine the next word requires too much knowledge on the part of the player. Also, pinyin finals can’t always start a word, and tones restrict syllables even more.

Some of the languages that I think are suitable for this game (using either the Japanese or English version of the rules) include Greek, Russian, Korean, possibly Vietnamese, maybe Irish, and Catalan. Correct me if you think I’m wrong. One of the keys to this game is that there has to be a letter or symbol that little to no words can start with.

I hope you enjoyed this post, and I highly suggest playing it for practice in the languages mentioned. Please remember to share this wherever you think people will be interested!

Synonyms: A Good Thing or Just Extra Stuff?

When looking through dictionaries of different languages, you begin to notice that for several languages, there aren’t too many words for the same thing. In Romance languages, there are never more than two or three words for the exact same meaning. If there are more words that translate to that meaning, the extras most likely have a different nuance.

Take the word, “blue.” In English, we have several words that can be this color: “azure,” “cerulean,” “sapphire,” or “cobalt”. While these words do have distinct shades when physically represented, we often use these words interchangeably, often for poetic or literary value. Sure, you could say that the night sky is blue, but that doesn’t provide nearly as much beauty or aesthetic depth as saying that it is sapphire. There are many words with such synonyms and interchangeability. This is not to say that English lacks nuanced vocabulary, because it doesn’t. Much of the nuance in English is implied through context, intonation, and emphasis.

I can’t say for every language, but many Romance languages, Hindi, and Kannada don’t have many synonyms. In literary works, there are a few more for writers to work with, but even those can have other meanings attached to them. But first, let’s define what a synonym is: a word that is identical in meaning and differs little otherwise. If a word has an extra nuance or meaning to it, then it’s a not a synonym.

For example, there are three words in Kannada that can be translated as, “embarrassment.” However, only one, talebaagisu, actually means “embarrassment,” as in, “humiliation,” or, “chagrin.” The other two, sankocha and aumana, are, “embarrassment,” when you receive a service or offer that is overly grand for the occasion and when you receive help when you don’t want it (a blow to your pride). As you can see, the nuance is very heavy, and all three words are very different.

We use synonyms all the time in English, whether it’s just another word or a euphemism. While other languages certainly have euphemisms, the ones that I’ve read and learned about have considerably fewer words of identical meanings used interchangeably. So the question is: What’s the point of having synonyms? Tell me what you think in the comments!

The Messy Genius of Kanji (Guest post by Ineptidude)

こんにちは, everybody! I’m Ineptidude, and I’ll be posting today.

Today, I want to talk about the bane of the Japanese student’s existence: Kanji. (For those that don’t know, Kanji are Chinese characters used in Japanese to represent nouns, verb stems, and adjectives.) When I started to study Japanese, I was initially daunted by the immense number of kanji I would have to learn. (There are 2000 kanji, called jouyou kanji, that the Japanese government deems the most “common” kanji. Adding to this, there are other kanji that are considered generally good to know.) Continue reading The Messy Genius of Kanji (Guest post by Ineptidude)

This I Believe

Recently, my English teacher assigned a personal essay based off an essay prompt from the 1960s, called, “This I Believe,” that encouraged people to send in 500 word essays detailing a personal belief. My teacher encouraged us to make it highly personal in nature, written in your speaking voice, and delve into the inner nature of the belief being written about. It must detail how you came to your philosophy. The original invitation requested these essays to enrich the lives of others,  give them some form of wisdom or food for thought, and to stimulate the formation of personal beliefs. Perhaps a bit typically, I wrote mine on language, so I’m posting my essay here for you to read:

Yake aunge Kannada baralla? Aun kivda, pedda?” (Why doesn’t he speak Kannada? Is he deaf, stupid?) elderly relatives asked my parents in the family house in Madras. I heard and understood every word, but could not form them in a reply.

Sumne English-li helamma, Shashank. Aurge Kannada-li heltini nin-gosra.” (Just say it in English, Shashank. I’ll tell them in Kannada for you.) my parents would assure me. And I felt miserable because of it. My world was fragmented to me in those days.

I believe that language shapes people, because I myself was shaped by it. I could not speak until I was around three years old, and when I was older, I couldn’t speak Kannada very well, cutting me off from my family and background. It was then that I realized the effect of language on people, especially myself. A lot of people take speaking your mother tongue for granted, but it has always meant much more to me than just a skill.

Years later, I speak Kannada a little better, but not as well as I’d like. I developed a passion for language, and right now, I’m learning three at the same time. It’s not just because I want to look smart, or make myself look more impressive. I believe in connecting with other people on that basic level. I understand someone more deeply in his or her own language. I think in terms of the languages I know. I work to learn languages to learn from the world. I cannot reject language, for I must aspire to know others as I know myself.

The fact there are multiple languages broadens the range of self-expression. I believe in the power that language holds over human beings, to capture the exact way one feels in one or two words. Language retells history, experience, and feeling. I am humbled by the solemnity of sajda, and the absoluteness of sifr. Through language, can I feel duende within myself. You can’t explain these words, because their meanings are fundamentally attached to the way people use them and say them. I believe that to speak a language is to vocalize experience and convey feelings in ways that other arts cannot. Sankocha and aumana are unique to my experience as a Kannadiga, and they hold special meaning for me. Kob-jasti is not just a word my parents use to describe me when I’m being condescending or cocky. Shani, Saturn, is not just a planet to me, and mundede is so much more than just a widow. 

Through language, I can understand the full range of the human experience. I can carry myself with sprezzatura, perhaps one day know koi no yokan, and feel saudade thereafter. To use language, for me, is to live life and understand others in their own tongue, how they really are. I believe in the power of language to change people as it has done me, and create mutual, complete understanding between people of each and every background.