Wednesday, August 24, 2005

As easy as 123


Last night's Japanese class produced a language rule that completely amazed me - different counting systems are used depending on the shape of the object you're counting. In English we would say 'three bananas', or 'three postcards', but in Japanese the words used to correspond to the number three above would be different. There's the -mai system, which relates to things that are flat (plates, tshirts, slices of pizza etc), and the -hon system for things that are cylindrical in shape (bottles, trees, fingers etc). If you happen to be counting something that's of an indeterminate shape - like potatoes, televisions, lions - you use the more regular hitotsu, futatsu, mittsu (i.e. 123) system. The -mai and -hon systems above are combined with the other 123-system - ichi, ni, san etc. However the hitotsu, futatsu, mittsu system only goes up to ten - after which you swap to the ichi, ni, san system. Confused? As you can imagine this led to a barrage of bewildered questions that verged on the philosophical - How thick does a book have to be before it ceases to be flat? How would you count trees that have fallen over? What if the pizza's deep-pan?

The second half of the lesson was spent looking at Japanese words that have been developed from English. They look almost unrecognisable when written phonetically, but when you see the word 'sanoitchi' next to a picture of a sandwich, you get an idea of the prononciation. Japanese is of course an ancient language, so modern inventions are less likely to have 'original' names - like 'kamera', 'terebi', 'sutereo' - and my personal favourite 'tepu-rekoda'. Try saying them aloud and the meaning becomes clear - if you want to do some baking, you might put on an 'epuron' beforehand. In a department store you'd go down an 'esukareta' between floors - and maybe come back up in an 'erebeta'. And if that special someone bought you a 'purezento' - you might tell them those three little words - "Ai rabu yu".