Monday, January 12, 2015

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How do tell the difference between NOSE (hana, はな, 鼻) and FLOWER (hana, はな, 花) in Japanese?

Regardless of whether you are a complete beginner at Japanese or very close to being fluent (perapera, ぺらぺら), the pronunciation of hana (はな), which can mean either nose or flower in Japanese, is a very interesting topic. In fact, it is one that that I have been thinking about a lot lately, the reason for which I will tell you about a bit later, but for now, I’m sure you just want me to get on with the answer. 

Perhaps you have heard that you can easily tell the difference between the words by where the emphasis is placed. Some teachers, books and websites will say that ‘nose’ is pronounced HAna while ‘flower’ is pronounced haNA. Confusingly, some say the exactly opposite. 

Then there will be the teachers, books and websites that say it has nothing to do with the emphasis but everything to do with the pitch difference. ‘Nose’ starts out high, and finishes low, while flower starts off low and (*inhale helium*) finishes high. Listening out for these pitch differences and the pronounciation of words takes Japanese from being one of the most difficult languages to learn, to almost (*breathe in entire helium balloon*) impossible. 

And this is without considering that people from the Kansai region of Japan (Osaka, Kyoto and the surrounding area) often pronounce words exactly the opposite to their Kanto (Tokyoite) compatriots. 

But would you like to know the answer. Would you like to know a tried and true method that will probably most likely work in perhaps 100 per cent of situations – the answer is CONTEXT. 

For example, if you are in a Japanese business meeting and you are told that you have something coming out of your flower, and you are not holding any flowers, please please please, to avoid any further embarrassment, get a tissue out and discretely wipe the middle of your face. 

Or alternatively, if someone asks you to go out and pick a dozen noses, under no circumstances should you go out and pick a dozen noses, until you have made absolutely sure that you have understood the correct emphasis and pitch difference, and you have specifically considered your geographical and linguistic location in Japan. While I accept that the Japanese do some pretty crazy things (just google Japanese game shows), but in this situation, context will almost certainly resolve the issue. 

There is nothing amazing about hana and hana, they are just one example of Japanese homophones. All languages have them, and they are great for puns and jokes and for writing interesting but pointless blog posts. Other Japanese homophones are kumo which can mean spider or cloud (Watch out, there’s a cloud on your back), or hashi, which can mean chopsticks and bridge (Don’t leave your bridge stuck in the middle of the rice, and under no circumstances should you suck your bridge) (That Ramen restaurant gives you extra noodles if you bring your own bridge). There are other Japanese words which are not true homophones, but sound very similar for Japanese students, such as chizu (map) and chiizu (cheese) (Can you put a bit of map on my sandwich?), biiru (beer) and biru (building) (Can I buy you a building?), or biyouin and byouin (hospital) (He was hit by a car and rushed straight to the beauty parlour), but for a Japanese native, these are absolutely clear. 

So why have I been thinking so much about the difference in Japanese between nose and flower. Well on 1 January 2015, my wife gave birth to our third child and we named her Hannah. She weighed 4.58 kilograms (10 pounds 2 ounces) and I like to think of her as my beautiful little nose, oops I meant flower.


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