Year of the Sheep 羊洋達鮮群 – 羊 ひつじ (1)



A Happy New Year. I should have started with this greeting in the last post.  明ける /akeru/ means “a day breaks; a new dawn comes.” The word おめでとう /omedetoo/ is the polite style of the adjective めでたい /medeta’i/ “auspicious.” So the greeting /akema’shite omedetoo-gozaima’su/ that we exchange literary means, “The new year has broken and we celebrate this auspicious occasion.”

History of Kanji 未In the Chinese zodiac calendar, the year of 2015 is the year of the sheep, /hitsujidoshi/ in Japanese. The kanji for the word hitsujidoshi is 未年, not 羊年. The kanji 未 means “yet,” as in 未だやらない (“I am not doing it yet” /ma’da yaranai/). The history of the kanji 未 is shown on the right. In oracle bone style, in brown, and bronze ware style, in green, it had a tree, 木, and, an extra line, 一, at the top to indicate an emphasis on the meaning – The treetop was “yet to grow.” The ten style writing, in red, was more stylized. (We have looked at the kanji 妹, a female member of the family yet to grow, “younger sister” in the November 27, 2014, post.)

The kanji for the animal sheep 羊 is nothing to do with the kanji 未. In fact all the twelve animals for the cycle of 12 years were chosen arbitrarily. Last year was the year of the horse 馬, umadoshi (午年). In our modern life in Japan, the only occasions when most of us even think about those animals are if we discover that someone was born in the year of the same animal — it may be a conversation topic. Another occasion would be in December and January in choosing a design for a nengajo 年賀状 (“new years greeting postcard” /nenga’joo/), or buying an engimono 縁起物 “good luck charm,” such as the one on the right. By the way, Japan celebrates new years day, 正月 /shoogatsu/, by the Gregorian calendar (since 1873.) I used to feel awkward when a Chinese colleague would greet me cheerfully, “A happy new year,” in February, when I was already over the excitement of a new year. Now, what kind of year will the year of sheep be? I hope it is a very good one for everyone. We are going to see in this and next posts that the kanji that contain 羊 are all something good and desirable.

(1) The kanji 羊 “sheep”

History of Kanji 羊In oracle bone and bronze ware styles, it was an image of a sheep viewed from the front – two horns that curved down at the top, and the body. The History of Kanji 牛This image is often in contrast with the image of the kanji 牛, whose horns were upward, as shown on the right.

In the ancient times sheep had many uses. The hide was good for clothing and making a tent; wool for clothing and making yarn; the meat for nutrition; and the horns and bones for making tools, etc. Sheep were also used as sacrificial animals in religious rites. With all these good uses that sheep provided, when used as a component, the shape 羊 usually gives the meaning of goodness and desirability.

The kun-yomi 羊 /hitsuji/ means “sheep” and is in 子羊 (“lamb” /kohi’tsuji/). The on-yomi /yo’o/ is in 羊毛 (“wool” /yoomoo/) and 羊皮紙 (“parchment” /yoohi’shi/). I do not believe that parchment was used in China or Japan. The kanji 羊 is customarily used for 山羊 (“goat” /ya’gi/.)

(2) The kanji 洋 “ocean”

History of Kanji 洋The oracle bone style of the kanji 洋 had one or two sheep in flowing water. The Setsumon’s explanation was that it was the name of a river. The kanji was used to mean “ocean; abroad.” In ten style, water and sheep got separated and were placed side by side, keeping the general rule that the left side gave the meaning and the right side gave the pronunciation.

There is no kun-yomi in the Joyo kanji. The on-yomi /yo’o/ is in 東洋 (“the east; orient” /to’oyoo/), 西洋 (“the west” /se’eyoo/), 洋服 (“western-style clothes” /yoohuku/), as contrasted to 和服 (“Japanese clothing, such as kimono” /wafuku/), 洋風 (“western style” /yoohuu/) and 太平洋 (“the Pacific Ocean” /taihe’eyooo/).

(3) The kanji 達 “to attain; reach; a plural suffix for person”

History of Kanji 逹In oracle bone style, the left side was a crossroad, and the right side had a person and a footprint. Together they meant “to go; something goes without a hitch.”  In bronze ware style, the right side was a sheep to signify the scene in which a lamb was born smoothly. In ten style, the left side was the precursor to the bushu shinnyuu (a crossroad and a footprint together). From something going without a hitch, it also meant “to attain; reach; healthy; skillful.” It is also used as a plural suffix for people.

There is no kun-yomi. The on-yomi /tatsu/ is in 達成する (“to complete; reach” /tassee-suru/), 到達する (“to arrive at” /tootatsu-suru/), 達者だ (“healthy and active; skillful at” /tassha-da/), 子供達 (“children” /kodomo’tachi/) and 友達 (“friends” /tomodachi/.)

(4) The kanji 鮮 “fresh; vivid”

History of Kanji 鮮The bronze ware style of the kanji 鮮 had a sheep at the top and a fish at the bottom. Phonetically it meant “raw; fishy smell.”  Freshness of fish and meat meant “fresh.” It is also means “distinctive; clear.”

The kun-yomi 鮮やかな /aza’yaka-na/ means “vivid (color).” The on-yomi /se’n/ is in 鮮明 な (“clear and sharp” /senmee-na/, 新鮮な (“fresh” /shinsen-na/) and 鮮魚 (“fresh fish” /se’n-gyo/).

(5) The kanji 群  “to throng; crowd; swarm”

History of Kanji 群In the bronze ware style of the kanji 群, the sheep was at the bottom. The top was the origin of the kanji 君. The kanji 君 had a hand (I call this type of hand “a side-ways hand“) holding a stick (on the left), and a mouth underneath. A feudal lord governed people by word and stick. A flock of sheep is meek and easily herded. Together someone herding a flock of sheep meant a feudal load governing a lot of people. It meant “flock; throng; crowd.”

The kun-yomi 群れ /mure’/ means “flock; herd; group’ and is in 群がる (”to crowd; swarm; throng” /muraga’ru/). The on-yomi /gu’n/ is in 群衆 (“crowd; throng” /gunshuu/) and 大群 (“large group” /taigun/.)

There are many more frequently used kanji that contain 羊. We will continue with this topic in the next post. [January 11, 2015]

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