By Sara Aoyama
In the last column I gave you guidelines for pronunciation of the five
vowel sounds in Japanese, and also for some of the consonants. I’m
sure that you noticed there were some missing consonants, though. That’s
what I will address in this column. So, here are a few more lines to
add to the Japanese alphabet chart that we are now familiar with:
The GA line corresponds to the KA line. In the Japanese syllabary, KA becomes GA when two extra strokes are added in the upper right hand.
So KA looks like this:
And GA looks like this:
The SA line changes to the ZA line, the TA line changes to the DA line,
and the HA line changes to both the BA and PA line. When it becomes PA,
instead of the two extra strokes in the corner, there is a small circle.
So we have HA , BA and PA all looking pretty similar:
Now that you’re feeling confused, let’s talk about what
all this really means for a martial artist!
The best example is found in the kicks. We have mae-geri, mawashi-geri,
kansetsu-geri, and yoko-geri. These are translated as front kick, roundhouse
kick, joint kick and side kick respectively. You might then deduce that
the word for kick must be geri. But it isn’t. The verb “to
kick” in Japanese is keru. The noun form comes from that and is
keri. So, why do all those kicks end up as geri, you may wonder. The
reason for this is because some Japanese sounds change when they are
combined with other words or syllables. Often k changes to g, t to d,
h to b or p. There are probably rules for when and how these changes
are made, but adult native speakers of Japanese seem to instinctively
know how to do it correctly, much as we English speakers instinctively
know how to use ‘a’ and ‘the’ correctly.
I picked kick or keri as an example for two reasons. The first reason
is because the kicks come up often in our training. It’s a good
place to start to become aware of how words combine in Japanese. The
second reason I picked this as an example is because it just won’t
do to be going around talking about geri. In Japanese geri means diarrhea.
Just to sidetrack a bit, this is also an occasion for me to remind you
to get your pronunciation right for this word. If you want to speak about
giri or obligation, do make sure that you are not inadvertently pronouncing
it as geri!
Because the Japanese language has limited sounds there are many words
that sound the same. Kumo means spider and cloud. Hashi means chopsticks
and bridge. It’s usually obvious from the context which word the
speaker is referring to. And when the language is written it is clear
by the kanji (Japanese character) which word it is. If two Japanese are
chatting and the word is not clear, you’ll often see them clarify
it by writing the character in the air or on their hand, or by giving
another example of the character in a different word.
In the martial arts world, here are some examples of things that change
Karami --> garami ex. Ashi-garami
Harai --> barai ex. Ashi-barai
Tachi --> dachi ex. Heiko-dachi
Kamae --> gamae ex. Hotoke-gamae
Tsuki --> zuki ex. Jodan-zuki
The last example, tsuki, is not a very good example to give you, but
it gives me an opportunity to point out that these things are not always
clear. You will hear both jodan-zuki and jodan-tsuki. If those around
you are using zuki in combination, that’s fine. But when it stands
alone, it probably should be tsuki.
Lastly, I would not want to give you the impression that syllables that
begin with these sounds –G, Z, D, B and P-- are always only seen
due to combination. All of them stand alone as well. For example, the
bu of budo is always bu. The getsu of hangetsu is always getsu. And the
also the do of budo, karate-do, judo etc. is always do…. At least
in Japanese. It is, however, a long sounding do (dou) but we’ll
get to that on another day!
About the Author:
Sara Aoyama is a 1974 graduate of the University of Kansas, where she
majored in Japanese Language and Literature. She spent over twelve years
living in Japan where she dabbled in a number of other arts such as Ikebana
(flower arranging), cooking, and Shamisen. While living in Kyoto, she
was able to see many hidden aspects of Japanese society. Currently she
lives in Brattleboro, Vermont where she trains in Shorin-ryu Karate.
Currently she continues her studies in Kishaba Juku karate under Sensei
George Donahue and is also a student of Tai Chi Chuan. She is a freelance
Japanese-English translator. Most recently, she translated "The
Art of Lying" by Kazuo Sakai, MD., and “Karate Kyohan” by
Kaicho Tadashi Nakamura. Aoyama is a regular contributor to FightingArts.com.