Broken English: Seen But Not Heard (Part 2)

So yeah! In my last post on the “unspeakable” foibles of language, I was talking about ate-ji. And then I finished. To summarize, they are kinda neat, kinda annoying, but often serve as a testament to a man or woman’s mastery of kanji. They’re kind of like puns if puns had dignity.

Today I want to talk about the other thing I mentioned in the last post–“fake furigana.

So first I should probably explain furigana for the noob crowd. Basically, in Japanese you’ve got three writing systems: Hiragana, Katakana, and Kanji. Hiragana and Katakana are what they call “syllabaries,” which is kind of like alphabets, except that each character is a whole syllable, like ka or u or chi or go. Mastering the syllabaries is a simple matter of memorizing some 46 characters (each), which really isn’t that hard at all, given the distinctive vibe possessed by many of these characters; I swear, some of them just inherently look like the sounds they make. か is totally ka and there’s no unseeing it once you’ve seen it.

Kanji, on the other hand, are not syllabic, alphabetic, or phonetic in any way. They are symbols with meanings attached, and since there are a lot of things with meanings in this universe, there are thusly a lot of Kanji. I will grant that there are not as many Kanji as there are things in the universe, but really there may as well be. In Chinese, which is the origin of Kanji, there are tricks to discerning the general pronunciation of a given Kanji, but since Japanese corrupts the original pronunciation of these Chinese characters, those tricks are often unreliable, and Japanese also shoehorns its own wa-go (natively Japanese words) into Kanji, so that many Kanji have multiple pronunciations–one Chinese-derived one, one or more Japanese ones.

Example 1: The Kanji 木 means “tree” and in Japanese derives the pronunciations boku and moku from the Chinese pronunciation mu. Additionally, the natively Japanese word for tree, ki, can also be applied to this kanji.

That’s a rather rudimentary example. Before you start feeling special for having learned something today, bear in mind that any despicable little puke in the first grade would know that in Japan. You should be ashamed.

Meanwhile, there are some Kanji that have so many different readings in Japanese that they have literally inspired suicide.

Example 2: The Kanji for “life,” 生, has like, a bajillion readings, including shou, sei, ki, nama, umu, umeru, umaru, ikiru, ikasu, haeru, hayasu, naru, and nasu. Then there are nearly 25 other readings used solely for people’s names.

With all this reading confusion, it makes sense that even native speakers would need a little help sometimes. In comes furigana, which is nothing more than little Hiragana or Katakana characters written above Kanji to indicate their reading. It’s kind of like the equivalent of giving the phonetic spelling of a word, and it looks like this:


So that’s furigana. You see it pop up in a lot of comics geared toward a younger crowd since young people are less likely to be able to read a given Kanji. More obscure vocabulary may also be accompanied by furigana even in adult-oriented publications.

What you see a fair amount of nowadays, though, is that an author will intentionally include furigana that doesn’t indicate the actual reading of the Kanji, but rather provides some unspoken meaning that lurks beneath the surface of the initial word.

Example 3: In Fist of the North Star, you might see the name “Raoh” written out, and then above it would be furigana that say something like “The King of the Fist,” the implication being that his name and his reputed stature are interchangeable. It could also be something more subjective. Someone could shout, “That damn Raoh!” and over the name “Raoh” might be the word “Asshole.”

In this way, furigana or “fake furigana” may act as a literary device which allows the author to embed an unspoken meaning into a given word. It’s similar to when we type “(read: [blank])”, except a touch more natural. And, as it turns out, there’s no way to do it in speech.

A great example of “fake furigana” can be found in the comic Homunculus, which follows the psychological adventures of Nakoshi, a man who has the ability to hallucinate symbolic visual manifestations of people’s psyches when he covers one eye. In the first volume, he encounters a brutish yakuza thug, who at first takes the form of a giant mech. But prolonged interaction with the thug reveals that beneath the bullet-proof chrome surface. . .

. . . is a vulnerable little boy.

Pointing this out causes the thug to burst into tears and Nakoshi gets away with both his pinkies still intact.

Later, Nakoshi begins to see all people in the forms of these bizarre, twisted manifestations, or “Homunculi”. Nobody is who they seem on the surface–everyone is a warped version of the truth. The dialog gradually begins to reflect this through the author’s escalating use of fake furigana. In the later chapters of the series, many conversations are thoroughly riddled with fake furigana as Nakoshi and we the readers realize that even the words we speak have hidden truths lying beneath the surface. Thanks to the furigana, we are privy to the actual meaning behind the words the characters say, thus becoming Homunculus-seers ourselves. It’s a brilliant use of the medium of manga, and I reckon it would take a very daring director to attempt to adapt this story for film.

Underneath all that sexiness hammers her hideous heart.

I promise I’m getting to a point that is in some way pertinent to English, the language I’m speaking. But it’ll have to wait until another post. ‘Til then then.

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