Joel of Far Outliers has a typically detailed and interesting post sparked by a viewing of Clint Eastwood’s Letters from Iwo Jima (硫黄島からの手紙); it’s part of his “Wordcatcher Tales” series, in which he analyzes unusual Japanese words or expressions. He discusses the “Iwo” in the island’s name, actually 硫黄 iou ‘sulphur, brimstone’ (the -w- hasn’t been pronounced in quite a while, though I’d be curious to know just when it disappeared); 閣下 kakka ‘(Your/His[/Her]) Excellency,’ the form of address for the commanding general (reminiscent of tsarist forms like ваше благородие vashe blagorodie, abbreviated by the men in the trenches to vashbrod’ or the like), which leads to a discussion of Japanese ranks as compared with American ones; and 貴様ら kisamara, an insulting way to address a group (kisama ‘you [derog.]’ + -ra [impolite pl.]), which leads to a discussion of Japanese pronouns and an extremely useful link to the Yale Anime Society glossary, David Soler’s list (last revised in 1999) of “the 100 words which I deem to be most common and/or essential in anime” followed by a discussion of personal pronouns. Some of the words are of particular relevance to movies (“nigeru to flee. Often used in the imperative form, Nigete! or Nigero!, in which case it’s best translated as ‘Run!’ or ‘Get away!'”), but many are just common words and expressions I well remember from my years in Japan as a kid (e.g., “baka an all-purpose insult denigrating the subject’s intelligence”).


  1. David Marjanovi? says

    “Impolite plural”. Oh man. 😮

  2. “baka an all-purpose insult denigrating the subject’s intelligence”).
    I remember, many years ago, seeing “baka” interpreted as “beggar” and being the only swear word in Japanese. Years later, somebody, although veiled, preferred “bugger” for an origin…

  3. The distinction between “wo” and “o” was lost before 1200. One of the achievements of the poet Fujiwara no Teika (1162-1241) was to reform kana orthography, but he apparently based his distinction between the kana for “wo” and “o” on word accent.

  4. I had no idea it was that far back—many thanks!

  5. Note also that the /au/ -> /o:/ change (changing the name from /iwau/ to /iwo:/) didn’t happen until a few centuries after the de-w-ification, IIRC. But use of the /w-/ characters hung on in the writing system for longer than writing /o:/ as /au/ did.

  6. The /au/ to /o:/ change that Matt mentions has always interested me, especially in the kana rendering of the placename of Osaka. Anyone?

  7. The change of /au/ to /o:/ is late. It took place via the intermediate stage of /ɔ:/. This is clearly documented in the Jesuit transcriptions of Japanese around 1600, e.g. in Joao Rodriguez’ Arte da Lingoa de Iapao (Nagasaki, 1604), in which long /o/ and long /ɔ/are systematically distinguished. Of course, this created a situation in which Japanese had six long vowels but only five short vowels. It soon came to its senses and merged /o:/ and /ɔ:/.

  8. Hello medvedi!
    [Removed a bunch of spam links but left the charming salutation — LH.]

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