January 01, 2004


I like Chinese character idioms and other people seem to like them too, so here's one for the new year. The last day of the year in Japanese is /o:misoka/, which is literally "big 30th day". The analysis is /o:/ "big", miso "thirty" and /ka/ "day", where /miso/ can be decomposed into /mi/ "three" and /so/, an allomorph of /to:/ "ten". /miso/ is the archaic native Japanese word for 30. At one time, /misoka/ was the term for the 30th of any month, and the 31st was called /o:misoka/. Nowadays, one says /sanzyu:itiniti/, with all of the components borrowed from Chinese, for the 31st of other months.

[o:misoka] is written like this: 大晦日. The first character means "big" and has the native reading /o:/. The last character means "day" and has /ka/ as one of its native readings. It's the middle character 晦 that is an idiom. The number thirty is usually written like this: 三十, with two characters, "three" followed by "ten". There is also a single, shorthand, character meaning "thirty" 卅. So the middle character in /o:misoka/ isn't the character for "thirty".

Actually, the character 晦 has the basic meaning "darkness". Its Sino-Japanese reading is /kai/ as in 晦朔 /kaisaku/ "the last day of one month together with the first day of the next". Its native reading is [kura], which shows up in the verb /kuramasu/ 晦ます "to disappear, give the slip to". It is also read /tugumori/ "dark of the moon" whence "end of the month". So the characters make sense. The old word for the 30th literally means "dark day", "end of the month day". But the semantic decomposition reflected by the Chinese characters doesn't correspond to the morpho-phonological decomposition of the word.

Posted by Bill Poser at January 1, 2004 01:37 AM