I have a lot of work to get through, so I’m just going to point you in the direction of a most interesting discussion over at Conrad’s philosophitorium of Heidegger’s (to my mind completely loony: “Koto, then, would be the appropriating occurrence of the lightening message of grace [das Ereignis der lichtenden Botschaft der Anmut]”) interpretation of Japanese kotoba (‘language; word’ in the world inhabited by normal people), with enlightening and informed commentary by the lively and learned Matt and the equally learned literary estheticist Gawain, and Gawain’s post in response, In which he is a Japanese scholar, with further analysis of the word and his excited discovery that “the semi-divine authoress of the Pillow Book, my Sei Shonagon, the truest love of my life (see my post on her here) wrote the word kotoba as — 詞.” It’s all good stuff, and I want to know more about the putative rivalry described by Gawain’s commenter Peony:

It is essential to keep in mind that the court was dominated by an intense rivalry between 2 cousin empresses…. It was one of the most lively rivalries in all Japanese literary history and the superstar authoresses of the day were divided along Party Lines: sei shonagon on one side and murasaki shikibu, akazoe emon and my personal love, izumi shikibu on the other…. So any insult to sei shonagon functioned as a disparaging of Empress Akiko.

Gawain says “we don’t know much about the supposed rivalry between SS and Murasaki Shikibu”; Peony responds “We actually know more than that, but…” But what? Tell me more!


  1. “equally learned literary estheticist Gawain”
    thank you
    i’m afraid there really isn’t very much we know, and that’s really too bad, isn’t it?

  2. PS The best resource on this for a layman is probably The Pillow Book’s English translation by Ivan Morris, with an excellent introduction, and its companion volume (sold as vol 2) of footnotes and commentaries.
    Sir G

  3. I don’t know Japanese, but Heidegger’s “translation” of a simple Japanese word reminds me of the elucubrations of would-be decipherers of unknown scripts, such as Athanasius Kircher for Egyptian and Sir Ernest Thompson for Maya. When the inscriptions were methodically studied as representing words of actual languages, they had mundane translations, of course less “poetic”, but much more informative.

  4. WWWJDIC word search on 詞 gives 3 expressions where it is read as kotoba: (in 2 of them it is an alternative to the common spelling of kotoba)
    合言葉(P); 合い言葉; 合い詞 【あいことば】 (n) password; watchword; (P)
    忌み言葉; 忌言葉; 忌詞 【いみことば】 (n) taboo word
    掛け詞; 掛詞; 懸け詞; 懸詞 【かけことば】 (n) pun; play on words
    “ha” has even more semantic range than stated in the posts: it can also mean edge, tooth, feather/wing, and probably others; compare German “Blatt”. Each sense is written with different Chinese characters; on the other hand, a Japanese compound word may be written with a single Chinese character, e.g. 鋼 meaning “steel” and pronounced “hagane”, lit. “edgemetal”.

  5. For those who want to read primary sources, in addition to the famous Tale of Genji, Murasaki Shikibu wrote a diary (Murasaki Shikibu Nikki), of which English translations exist. It is more polished than a typical diary (she gave readings from it during her lifetime), but it contains a good bit about life at court.

  6. Caffeind, there are lots of other words like that too (絵詞, 捨て詞…). The deal is that 詞 is on the Joyo list, but only with the pronunciation “shi” or as part of the specially spelt word norito (祝詞) IIRC. So 詞 as “kotoba” only remains in words specialized or obsolete enough to be learnt in contexts well outside the early-education ones where the Joyo rules hold sway.) Words that the average modern-day Japanese person should learn before leaving high school (e.g. 合い言葉) all have a recommended modernized spelling with 言葉… with the exception of very old literary terms (掛詞, etc.) which come up studying classical texts.

  7. David Marjanović says

    “Lichtend”?!? WTF?!? That word doesn’t even exist. Heidegger made it up.
    And that for no recognizable reason. Why not simply “erleuchtend”? That (“enlightening”) exists.
    §%&!*%!§ German philosophers.

  8. “Lichtend”?!? WTF?!? That word doesn’t even exist. Heidegger made it up.
    I share your dislike for Heidegger, but the word does exist:
    see the entry in Deutsches Wörterbuch von Jacob Grimm und Wilhelm Grimm.

  9. David Marjanović says

    Ah. So it may still have existed when Heidegger used it.

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