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ON DICTIONARIES

ONE OF MY more obscure secondhand bookshop acquisitions was a French-Greek dictionary. It’s not completely useless, as I know a little French, albeit much less Greek. Perusing it got me thinking about other foreign language dictionaries, with the resulting tidbits from one place or another. 

Western Languages. The ordering of a Western Language dictionary is straightforward. Just follow the appropriate alphabet: Roman characters A, B, C, … Z; Cyrillic А, Б, В, …Я; Greek A, B, Γ, … Ω.

This reminds me of the 2020 North American hurricane season having so many events that meteorologists ran out of Roman letter names and shifted to Greek. My modest suggestion at the time was to name subsequent hurricanes after climate change deniers. 

Japanese. Japanese has three character sets. Loosely, Kanji is used to express basic concepts. Hiragana is for modifying grammar. Katakana is reserved for foreign loan words. There’s also Romanji, rendering Japanese syllabary in the Roman alphabet. 

Words in my Japanese/English dictionary are arranged in two ways: the number of strokes to write the character, with those of a given number of strokes arranged in terms of radicals. 

The Modern Reader’s Japanese-English Character Dictionary, by Andrew N. Nelson, Tuttle 2004.

As described in The Modern Reader’s Japanese-English Character Dictionary, identifying the radial of a simple character depends on the nature of its strokes: vertical, horizontal, and so on. A complex character contains more than one radical, and various schemes are offered to determine which of its radicals fix its dictionary placement.

Front inside cover of The Modern Reader’s Japanese-English Dictionary.

Nelson provides a seven-page Appendix on “The Radicals Classified by Position.” Characters which are also radicals can have anything from one to ten strokes. Subsequent identification involves whether a radical is found inside, at the left, right, top, or bottom of a character. What’s more, some characters have “corner” radicals, northwest, northeast, southeast, or southwest.

Looking up a Japanese word is a non-trivial operation. Consider 日本. The radical 日 has four strokes (its left vertical downstroke, an inverted L to the right, and two cross strokes). This is character No. 72 in my dictionary’s chart of radicals. Pronounced jistu, nichi, or nitsu, its meaning is “sun,” “Sunday.’ 

Definitions adding a second character run for another column and a half. Midway through is 日本, pronounced Nihon, meaning “Japan.”

If I want to play etymology, the five-stroke 本 is a variation of radical no. 75, 木, boku, moku, “Thursday.” For 本, the  dictionary sends me back to a variation of radical No. 1, 本, pronounced hon, meaning “book, this, the same, true, normal” and also the counter for long things (akin to how we count specific things in dozens, pairs, and the like). 

On Pronunciation. Non-trivial though learning Japanese is, at least its pronunciation is straightforward: Japanese is spoken essentially in a monotone, to the extent that Japanese people learning English are taught about our rising tones in questions and other subtle changes in intonation. 

I’m reminded of My Fair Lady’s Henry Higgins using a xylophone to teach Eliza “How kind of you to let me come.”

Mandarin Chinese. The digmandarin.com website describes the subtlety of Mandarin pronunciation. First, it cites Pinyin, the Romanization of Chinese syllables, akin to Japanese rendered in Romanji. However, the tonality of Chinese gives this language a special enrichment.

There are four main tones and one neutral tone in Mandarin: high and level, rising, dip and rising, and falling. The neutral tone is very light and quick.

This and the following image from dig Mandarin.

The website offers an example of the Mandarin syllable ma.

When is mother not a curse?

Pinyin tonality is identified by Mandarin Tone Marks. There’s a detailed description of this at web.mit.edu

The Mandarin Dictionary. Most Mandarin-English dictionaries use Pinyin, and thus are alphabetized in the English-language fashion. By contrast, Mandarin dictionaries arrange words by means of strokes and radicals.

I believe I’ll go back to my French-Greek. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2021

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