One Foot at a Time (1) 後夏降麦来



In the next few posts, we will be looking at the various shapes in kanji that came from a footprint or footmark.  Kanji differentiate two directions of walking, forward and backward/downward. We have seen a few kanji that had a forward facing footprint earlier in the kanji 止歩正 and 政. In this post we will look at a backward or downward footprint.

forwardbackwardfeetDirection of footprints:  How did ancient creators of writing in China differentiate the two directions of walking? In the table on the left, the top row shows the development of forward footprint shapes, and in the bottom row for a backward or downward footprint. I am assuming that where two lines crossed was where the toe was. Based on that assumption we can say that the kanji 止 was a left foot and the bushu chi 夂 was a right foot.

(1) The kanji 後 “behind; back; later”

History後rFor the kanji 後, the top of the first bronze ware style on the left had a crossroad (彳) and short threads (幺) and the bottom had a forward footprint (止) and a backward footprint (夂). But the forward footprint was not in the second sample nor in ten style. Short threads meant smallness. By waking in small steps one became behind and arrived later. From that the kanji 後 meant “behind; back; later; late.” In ten style, 夂 “backward foot” became 夊 “dragging foot,” but in kanji it became 夂. It seems that even though夂 “backward foot” and夊 “dragging foot” had different meanings, sometimes they were used interchangeably.

There are three different kun-readings , /ushi(ro)/, /a’to/ and /nochi’/.  They appear in words such as 後ろ (“behind” /ushi(ro)/), 後ろ前 (“with front side back” /ushiro’mae/), 後ろめたい (“to feel a guilty conscience” /ushirometa’i/);  for /a’to/, 後で  (“later; at later time” /a’to de/), 後になって (“after it happened” /a’to ni natte/), 後ずさりする (“to move backward” /atozu’sari-suru/); and for /nochi’/, 後ほど (“sometime later” [polite] /nochihodo/) and その後 (“after that” [polite/writing] /sononochi/). There are two on-readings: /go/ is in 食後 (“after meal” /shokugo), 十年後 (“ten years later” /juunengo/) and /koo/ is in 後半 (“second half” /koohan/ and 後輩 (“a junior in seniority” /koohai/).

(2) The kanji 夏 “summer”

History夏In the kanji 夏, in bronze ware style the top was the head of an official with a headdress on, which appears in many kanji related to a head, including 頭 “head” and 顔 “face.”  Below that he had some adornments in his hands and a downward foot at the bottom. He was dancing in a festival showing off fancy step work and hand movements. From a festival in summer it meant “summer.” In kanji, the two hands were dropped and fancy footwork remained. The kun-reading is in 真夏 (“midsummer” /manatsu/), 夏場 (“during summer” /natsuba/).  The on-reading /ka/ is in 立夏 (“beginning of summer on calendar”/ri’kka/).

(3) The kanji 降 “to fall in the sky; come down.”

History降rFor the kanji 降, in all of the ancient writing, the left side had a pile of dirt raised high, indicating a high place. A dirt wall served as a boundary. This bushu is called kozatohen, and it meant “ladder, boundary, high land.” The right side, in both oracle bone style and bronze ware style were two footsteps facing downward-  a right footprint (the top) and a left footprint (the bottom). In ten style, the bottom footprint was placed more sideways. This shape appears in 韋, a component of the kanji 偉, 違 and 圍 (囲), which we will look at in the next post.  So, with a kozatohen and two downward footprints coming down from the high place, the kanji 降 meant “to fall (from the sky)” and “to descend.”

There are three different kun-readings: /hu’(ru)/, /o(ri’ru)/ and /kuda(ru)./  They are in words such as 雨が降る (“it rains” /a’me ga huru/), 雪が降って来た (“It has started to snow ” /yuki’ ga hutte-kita/); 電車を降りる (“to get off a train” /densha o oriru/), 階段を降りる (“to walk down the stairs” /kaidan o ori’ru/); and ライバルチームを降す (“to win over the rival team” /raibaru-chi’imu o kudasu/). Quite often for /oriru/ and /kudasu/, a simpler kanji 下 is used. The on-reading /koo/ is in 下降する (“to decline” /kakoo-suru/), それ以降 (“since then” /sorei’koo/), 降参する (“to surrender” /koosan-suru/) and 降雨量 (“amount of rainfall” /koou’ryoo/).

Shirakawa (2004) says that a kozatohen was a ladder from which a god descended to the earth. A couple of words do contain the meaning that 降originated from the god descending from heaven. Some of our readers may be familiar with the word /amakudari/ 天降り, which meant a retiring high-ranking government official landing a lucrative job in a private industry that relies on his strong ties to the government. Just like the phrase “a revolving door” in the U. S. it is not used in a complementary context. Another word, by no means a daily word, but nonetheless in the media in the last few years, is 降嫁 (“a royal princess marrying a subject” /ko’oka/.)

(4) 麦 “barley”

History麦In the oracle bone style of the kanji 麦, the top was a barley plant, and the bottom was a downward footprint. In all the styles through the time of kyujitai before the post-war language reform, a barley plant and a downward footprint in the shape of a katakana /ta/ were recognizable. Barley plants grow early and in early spring a farmer treads on the seedlings that pushed up from the ground. In Japanese it is called 麦踏み (treading on barley) and in haiku tradition, it signifies early spring. A downward/backward walk signified that a farmer walked back and forth.

The kun-reading /mu’gi/ is also in 麦茶 (“roasted barley tea” /mugi’cha/). It is a summer drink with no caffeine (if it is pure barley.) In my childhood memory of summer every morning when I walked into the kitchen there was a huge kettle with mugicha in a cloth bag that my grandmother had set up, giving sweet, roasted smell in the air. When I drank freshly made mugicha, there was always a hint of sweetness without sugar. As the day wore on, the sweetness strangely disappeared. Nowadays in a life of convenience, mugicha comes in a prepackaged tea bag that you even do not have to boil, but the price is that it does not have the aroma from my childhood memory. The on-reading /ba’ku/ is in 麦芽 (“malt” /bakuga/).

(5) 来 “to come; upcoming”

History来Speaking of a barley plant, all three styles of ancient writing for the kanji 来 were a barley plant. If you compare with those for 麦, you would think that having downward footprints makes more sense for the meaning “to come,” because someone is coming toward you. Apparently very early on in ancient time, those two writings got mixed up and switched the use of!

The kun-reading is tricky, as any beginning Japanese student knows. The verb inflections  in Japanese are quite regular and are not difficult to learn, except 来る “to come” and する“to do.” So, there are four different kun-readings: 来る (“to come” /ku’ru/), 来ない (“not come” /ko’nai /), 来て(“come!” /ki’te/), and 来る (“upcoming” /kita’ru/) when used as adjective.  The on-reading is in 未来 (“distant future” /mi’rai/) and 将来 (“near future” /sho’orai/).

In the next post, I am continuing with a story of two footsteps in one kanji. [July 5, 2014; partially revised on December 5, 2016.]


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