06 April 2007

"k*ik*n" or, In Japan, single-letter errors are fatal

I've been observing for awhile that Japanese is far more sensitive to single-letter mistakes than English. In English, while there are some words that are only a single letter apart (e.g., ball, bell, bill, bull), usually there's quite a distance between words. If you try to change the third letter in 'ball,' 24 out of the 25 possible changes are gibberish; only "bail" is a real word.

In Japanese it's quite the opposite, and because of some recent vocabulary I learned I came across a great example: k[ae]ik[ae]n. That is, take two-syllable words in Japanese where both syllables begin with k, one syllable ends with i and the other with n, and the vowel in the middle can be a or e. There are four such possible words, and it turns out all four are real words:

会見かいけんkaikeninterview, audience (as in "audience with")
快感かいかんkaikanpleasant feeling *

* In fact, かいかん has another full homonym, 会館, meaning "meeting hall"

And it keeps going. If you reverse the syllables and go for k*nk*i, there are four other possible words, all of which are also real words in the language:

県警けんけいkenkeiprefectural police
見解けんかいkenkaiopinion, point of view

This definitely starts to show why the Japanese are so fond of wordplay and puns; the language is just full of opportunities to use single-letter errors for humor! But man it's tricky when you're learning.

No comments: