Friday, April 11, 2014

Bird-calls and Colours Across Cultures 鳴き声や色+言語と文化

I've written very briefly before on how birds are given different names in Japanese and often kanji characters as well. Well, it's not just the names we give to birds that differs across languages, it's also the birds' language itself; their vocalisations. This was brought back to mind when I found a lovely picture book in the Kyoto Seika library today illustrating the different calls of Japanese birds.

Perhaps the most well known bird call in Japan is that of the Japanese bush warbler, uguisu in Japanese. This little harbinger of spring cries 'ho-hokekkyo'. I had learnt this in a class before ever hearing the real thing and on comparing the two...well, it required some mental aerobics.

Other birdcalls in the book I was leafing through today include:
* the black Kite (tonbi)  English "shrill whistle" or "whinnying call" becomes (ready for this?!) "pi-hyororororo…"
* a Japanese robin (komadori) cries "hinkarararara"
* a Japanese Paradise flycatcher (sankoucho), get this, chirps "tsukihihoshi-hoi-hoi-hoi"!
and one last one,
* the brown-headed thrush sings "kyoron, kyoron, chiriri"

* トンビの「ピーヒョロロロ」
* コマドリの「ヒンカラカラララ」
* サンコウチョウの (これが一番面白いかな!?) 「月日星ホイホイホイ」

I suppose in English it's just as difficult. In bird identification books you often read equally abstract descriptions such as "a high pitched pink-pink" or "abrupt, guttural screeches".確かに英語にも鳥の鳴き声を言葉に表現するのが難しいですね。鳥類本には「低いスクリースクリー」とか、「高調子のピンッピンッ」という曖昧な説明をよく見ます。

Even among Australian-English speakers, there's huge variations in how someone describes the scream of a Cockatoo, for example, so it's no wonder it differs across languages and oceans. It makes sense that someone with a different linguistic background and different set of sounds in their alphabet would put a sound down in language in a different way. I wonder what birds call in something like French?!オーストラリア英語をしゃべる人の中でも、例えば、オウムの鳴き声を色んな言葉で表現します。そう考えたら、違う言語又は違う国では鳥の鳴き声を違う言葉で書くのは当たり前ですね。もちろん、音を自分が慣れている母国語で表します。フランスなどの鳥は何の鳴き声かとは気になりますね。
Japanese colours...いわえる「日本の色」
I had also been pondering this question of language in terms of colour names. I was given a book recently on "Japanese colours". The book has pages upon glossy pages of colour swatches and gives their names in Japanese (mainly in kanji) and then gives some history of why this name came into use. It's probably just because I am looking in from the outside, but these kanji names are often whimsical and beautiful. 
For example 京都紫 Kyoto Purple, 小豆色 Red-bean paste, 金茶色 golden tea/golden brown, 鶯色 Japanese warbler green... (ho-hokkekyo anyone?)

例えば、京都紫、小豆色、金茶、鶯色 (ホーホケキョだね) など。

LtoR: Kyoto Purple, Red-bean, Golden Tea, Uguisu 左から京都紫、小豆色、金茶、鶯色 
I have some hesitations when Japanese people proudly tell me about "Japanese colours" as if they are something unique borne of Japanese culture. Colours are colours, just a result of reflected light hitting a certain wavelength. So-called Japanese colours are just those that have, for various reasons, been favoured in Japanese culture. いわゆる「日本の色」についてちょっと疑問を持っています。日本の文化から生まれた独特なものだという自慢しているように言われると、うーん、そうなん?って思います。
colours are just science. who's to say this isn't Uluru, Eucalyptus Green and Wattle Yellow?
is it an earthen wall or ready for tea dunking? 
これは「生壁」? それとも  「クッキー」?
Given the same colour-swatch, an English painter, for example, would no doubt have his own name to describe that particular shade. In fact, this painter might even give a name for that colour that comes from such a different angle that it's laughable. How about "生壁色 freshly rendered earthen wall" being turned into something like "biscuit"? 日本の色のサンプルを見たら、例えば、イギリス人の絵師は違う名前で表現するでしょう。それに、イギリス人が使う色名は、おかしいほど全く違う歴史や意味を持つ場合が多いと思います日本の文化に根している「生壁色」は英語でBiscuit(クッキーの意味)というですし。

Despite being almost the exact same shade, see the linguistic chasms between "young bamboo green" and "parrot green" or "Japanese mugwort" and "olive" or even more simply put, "tea" and "coffee"? Isn't colour an interesting way that cultures overlap and then shear away from each other?

I sat in on a lecture last year by the widow of a famous Japanese painter who made his work using oil paints (introduced to Japan). She raised an interesting point that a pigment colour is the same, whether it is mixed with oil to make oil paint, a binder to make acrylics, powdered to form water colours or mixed with animal glue to form Japanese 'iwaenogu' pigments.
We are all making artwork with the same set of colours, just utilising them in different applications and, as you can now see, with different names.

The names for these birds, colours and birdcalls are just differing references based on our own cultural and linguistic backgrounds. And they are all the richer for them. 鳥名、色名、鳴き声は、文化や言語に基づいて異なっているけれども、それこそ豊な世界ではないかと思っています。

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