MANA, MANYOGANA.

Brian of What is food for language? has a post called “Mana 101″ that gives good examples of the early early Japanese writing system called mana or man’yōgana. As the Wikipedia entry says:

Man’yōgana (万葉仮名) is an ancient form of Japanese kana which uses Chinese characters to represent Japanese sounds. The date of its earliest usage is not clear, but it seems to have been in use since at least the sixth century. The name man’yōgana is from the Man’yōshū (万葉集, “Anthology of Myriad Leaves”), a Japanese poetry anthology from the Nara period written in man’yōgana.

(I was familiar with that name, but not with mana, and I’m curious to know if there’s any distinction between the terms, and who uses which when.) Brian writes:

Matt at No-Sword introduced me to a text called the Shinji (or Mana) Ise Monogatari, an edition of the Tales of Ise written entirely in kanji… The text is written in “mana,” sometimes called “man’yôgana” in modern scholarship, but the meaning of these terms can seem very fuzzy at times, so I thought it would be useful to go through a section of it to introduce some of the orthographic techniques it uses.

He quotes the first few lines with a kana gloss, a modern text, an English translation, and a photo of the actual book, giving a thorough explanation of how it works (with some nice crunchy Early Middle Chinese reconstructions) and concluding “This text is a great example of the richness of premodern Japanese writing practices, and of the problems with trying to draw a neat line between kana and kanbun writing.” Should be good reading for anyone interested in Japanese writing.

Comments

  1. I have heard this writing system for Japanese described as the worst ever devised. I believe that it was used for the Manyoshu also.
    The Mongol text of the Secret History was transcribed by a somewhat similar method. Something like 300-400 graphs were used to represent syllables, and several diacriticals were devised to make discriminations not found in Chinese.
    I would love to see a comprehensive study of Asian writing systems. Buddhist phonology was quite sophisticated, but it ran head on into the bizarre Chinese system, and Syriac also played its role. And then you have the extremely sophisticated pHags-pa (sp?) system which was I have been told was designed to be able to represent every word in every language in Chinese Mongolia, and the complicated Xi-xia system which was designed from scratch on the Chinese model.

  2. Andrew Dunbar says:

    I didn’t see anywhere how to write “mana” in Japanese. Would it happen to be “万名”?

  3. The dictionary Kojien gives 真名 or 真字 as the standard kanji. Therefore, the term supposedly means “true names” as opposed to the “borrowed names” of kana 仮名. But that etymology has always seemed a little fishy to me. Anyone have a better idea?
    And thanks for the link, Languagehat!

  4. Hey,
    I came across your webpage while searching for the meaning of Colocasia (taro). Apparently the word comes from middle eastern word Culcas. Do you know what that means?
    thanks so much for your help
    Sontee

  5. I was going to say this at Brian’s blog originally, but I kept putting it off so I guess now I’ll say it here: I thought that “mana” was a term used in opposition to “kana”, (mana = using Chinese characters for their meanings, kana = using them for their sound; which also means the etymology works for me), so logically couldn’t be the same as “manyogana” because that’s a type of kana. (Specifically, kanji used as is but for sound only [including sounds now lost to MJ], before the characters started evolving into kana proper.)
    But (a) I haven’t actually studied the usage of the words, and (b) I think I lost all credibility on this topic by casually and mistakenly referring to this book as being written in “kanbun” in my original post anyway.
    Plus, even mana include some characters used for sound alone, as Brian points out.

  6. Sontee: The OED says Latin colocasia is from Greek kolokasia, end of story. The Greek word is presumably borrowed from somewhere, but there’s no way now of knowing. I see that various websites say the Greek is “derived from an old Middle Eastern name colcas or culcas,” but that’s apparently somebody’s wild guess. Never trust online etymologies that are not cited from a reputable source (like a print dictionary), and never trust etymologies that refer to “Middle Eastern” or “African” or some other vague term that isn’t actually the name of a language.

  7. Matt,
    You are right, they really aren’t the same, but it’s also nearly impossible to draw a clear distinction between them because:
    a) Many texts written in so-called man’yogana (say, the Man’yoshu) incorporate some logographic characters as well. My impression is that it’s actually pretty rare to find a text that *just* uses kanji for sound. Similarly, as you say, mana texts can have a lot of characters used phonetically.
    b) “mana”, at least as it is used in Heian-era texts, really means something more like “wotokode” rather than “kanbun”. That is, it’s a calligraphic term (referring to how the text *looks*) rather than an orthographic one (referring to how it’s to be read).
    c) “mana” is an old classical Japanese term, but I think “man’yogana” is a much later philological term (I could be wrong about this though).
    I probably shouldn’t have glossed over this distinction quite so blithely in my original post.

  8. Hey, Mr Hat, Helen DeWitt now has a blog.
    I just thought you’d like to know that if you don’t already.

  9. I did not know that. But: 1) How do you know it’s hers? There’s no indication on the blog itself that I can see. And 2) If it’s hers, why am I not on her damn blogroll? Does she have any idea how many copies I sold of her book??

  10. I’d say you sold one to me, but I bought it used. I’m sure she’ll be glad to add you once she finds out about you.
    There’s a link on her website, her LibraryThing account is helendewitt, also she’s talking about her new book (read the comments).

  11. David Marjanović says:

    I have heard this writing system for Japanese described as the worst ever devised.

    Why?

    And then you have the extremely sophisticated pHags-pa (sp?) system which was I have been told was designed to be able to represent every word in every language in Chinese Mongolia

    ‘Phags-pa (the apostrophe is “a nasal prefix”… Classical Tibetan is… complicated) was supposed to work for all of the big languages in Kubilai Khan’s empire, apparently including Persian. However, it completely fails to indicate tones, so that’s probably one reason why it didn’t catch on for Chinese (the other, of course, being the reactionary attitude of the few people literate in Chinese at that time).

  12. There’s a link on her website, her LibraryThing account is helendewitt, also she’s talking about her new book (read the comments).
    Aha! Well, then, I shall read it religiously, and thanks. And needless to say I’m looking forward to her new one.

Speak Your Mind

*