Fun With Vocabulary

The Japanese love to do what programmers would call overloading their language. Words mean different things depending on context. The kanji characters they got from China usually have at least two ‘readings’, or pronunciations: the on reading (loan word close to the original Chinese pronunciation, the way we use Latin words), and the kun reading (a Japanese word close to the original Chinese meaning). In Western terms, imagine that the Romans had a special symbol for a horse. An on reading would be equine. A kun reading would be horse. Then the symbol might be paired with another one to give the meaning horse holder, and be pronounced assistant.

But even a simple character can have many more readings, and meanings, than that. For example, the character 分. If you go to nihongodict, it will say that:

1. 分 is read ぶん and is pronounced bun and means part/division (the u is like a oo, as in Dan’l),
2. 分 is read ふん and is pronounced fun and means one minute, or 60 seconds,
3. 分 is read ぶ and is pronounced bu and means one-tenth of a wari, or 72 seconds.

And what, might you reasonably ask, is a wari? Well, among many other things, a wari (わり) is a sumo match, which, if you do the Wiki, you will find lasts no longer than twelve minutes, not counting the bowing and throwing of salt and stamping parts. So a tenth of a wari is 72 seconds.

See what fun you can have with vocabulary?



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