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Ways to ‘spell’ Japanese out loud

by Mark Schreiber

Special To The Japan Times

I dial a number and ask to speak to my literary agent, Mr. Suzuki.

Moshi-moshi. Suzuki Masatoshi-sama oraremasuka?

Sumimasen ga, okyakusama wa?

Literally “Excuse me, as for the guest?” That is the speaker’s polite way of asking “Who should I say is calling?”

Shuraibā to mōshimasu” I tell her.

Eh?” She interjects. “Doraibā (driver) desu ka?” “Furaibā?

“No, no, chigaimasu” I say, rolling my eyes, “It’s SCHREIBER… Shoe. Rye. Bahhh. Shuraibā …”

Even when I enunciate my own name carefully, some people still become confused by the unfamiliar combination of sounds and get it wrong.

If I am physically present, as often or not I am handed a notepad and pen, and invited to write my name out for them.

It’s not only me, of course. Once a European friend named Daniel phoned my office, and left his name with my assistant. She transcribed his call as having come from 第二エール (daini ēru, Yell Number 2).

In his humorous and enlightening 1968 book “Japanese in Action,” the late Jack Seward demonstrated how he “spelled” out “Suwādo” orally, by saying: 「雀の『ス』に蕨の『ワ』を伸ばして、床屋の『ト』にダク点」(“Suzume no ‘su’ ni warabi no ‘wa’ wo nobashite, tokoya no to ni dakuten,” “You take the ‘su‘ from suzume [sparrow], the ‘wa‘ from warabi [bracken] and extend the vowel, [and] onto the ‘to‘ of tokoya [barber shop] put dakuten [double quote marks, which turn the "t" into "d"]).

I suppose I could come up with something similar, but it’s easier to fall back on my given name, Māku. Just for fun, I might tell my listener it is 温泉マークのマーク (onsen māku no māku, the symbol mark used to indicate hot springs). The “onsen mark” is not a kanji but almost everybody knows it. It looks like this ♨.

But in some situations, such as speaking on the telephone, it’s occasionally necessary to “spell out” a kanji verbally. This is typically done by naming the character’s classifier (also called radical). For instance, the character for 休み (yasumi, rest) can be explained as ninben ni ki (a tree beside the person classifier).

The ninben is modified from 人 (hito, also read jin or nin), which is tilted so that its right “leg” is vertical. In 休 (yasumi, also read kyu), you can see a person on the left, who has found a shady spot beneath a tree to take a rest.

Becoming familiarized with the names of classifiers is a gradual process, and sometimes can be fun. I was reminded of the antics of the five-man comedy team known as The Drifters, whose popular variety show 八時だョ!全員集合 (Hachiji da yo! Zen’in shugō!, It’s 8 o’clock, let’s get together everybody) ran on TBS TV from 1969 to 1985.

Among The Drifters’ goofy routines was a series of primary school classroom skits under the title 国語算数理科社会 (kokugo, sansū, rika, shakai, national language, math, science, sociology) — equivalent to English’s “3 Rs.” In one episode, the group’s perennially grouchy “teacher,” Chosuke Ikariya, quizzes the students on the names of kanji classifiers.

He first pointed to four characters 人、水、糸、手 on the blackboard, and asked a pupil to name their classifiers.

She correctly responded, “ninben, sanzui, ito-hen, te-hen (the classifiers for person, water, thread and hand).”

This was followed by 目、木、心、言, and another pupil responded, “me-hen, ki-hen, risshin-ben, gon-ben (the classifiers for eye, tree, heart and speech).”

Then the teacher showed these four, 馬, 金、玉、食, and this time wacky comic Ken Shimura raises his hand and the following dialog ensues:

Teacher: Hai, Shimura-kun, (All right, Shimura-kun).

Ken Shimura: Uma kintama kū (Eat a horse’s balls).

(Teacher and pupils react in astonishment)

Teacher: Nandayo sore wa… (What are you talking about?!)

Ken Shimura: Datte, asoko ni kaite aru desho… (Well that’s what you’ve got written there!)

Teacher: Sonna koto aru ka, kono bakamono ga! (Is that what you think? You dunce!)

The correct reply of course should have been uma-hen, kane-hen, tama-hen and shoku-hen — the classifiers for horse, metal, jade and food. Shimura tickled his audience by purposely misreading kane-hen and tama-hen as kintama, meaning testicles, and changing shoku to , meaning to eat.

  • http://www.facebook.com/yifat.vered Yifat Vered

    loved it:) and always love shimura ken:)…but this is a great piece for japanese learners!