The rabbit girl and the obsolete ゐ

Hey, happy December, and happy official official start of the Christmas/holiday/whatever you want to call it season.  Here’s a post that has nothing to do with any of that.  I mentioned before that I’m doing some Japanese self-study, and now I have some dumbass 外人 ideas about this language that, up until recently, I only slightly understood mainly through reading untranslated doujins.* And if one of those ideas happens to have a connection to games, anime, manga, or the usual kind of thing I write about on this site, I might just post about it like I’m doing now.  Whether you’re fluent, studying, or neither of those, I hope you find it interesting.

For several years, I’ve had the hiragana and katakana down, the two Japanese syllabary writing systems that are used to write out anything that’s not written in kanji, the character-based system derived from Chinese. The largest part of my study by far is of these kanji, of which there are over 3,000. Learning the kanji is a great undertaking, but not as difficult as many people think: the kanji themselves are composed of pieces called radicals, and once you realize how these pieces work, the task of learning the characters they make becomes quite a lot easier.  Still not easy — not even close.  But easier.

However, I’m not talking about kanji today. Today I’m talking about ゐ, a now-obsolete kana, or syllabary character. As the name of the writing system suggests, most of these kana represent a syllable instead of a lone vowel or consonant, the exceptions being the long a i u e o sounds and the lone consonant n. I learned about ゐ well before even properly learning my hiragana, however, thanks to Touhou Project, a shoot-em-up series made by independent game developer/music composer/guy drinking beer in his basement ZUN. One of the most popular games in the series was Touhou 8, subtitled Imperishable Night, which dealt with aliens called Lunarians and moon rabbits causing the moon to stay in the night sky into the day, which somehow causes the world to fall into a permanent night (also, just like in every Touhou game, all these characters are cute girls just like chief protagonists Reimu and Marisa, even the moon aliens.) No, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, but none of the plots to the Touhou games make much sense.  You don’t play these games for their plots anyway.

A typically cute depiction of Tewi. You’d never guess she would ever try to murder you by firing hundreds of magical bullets at you. (source: poronegi, pixiv)

The connection to my language study comes with the introduction of Tewi Inaba, an Earth-native rabbit girl who acts as a mid-level boss in Stage 5 and dumps bullets all over the screen at you for a few rounds that you either have to dodge or waste your limited number of bombs on to clear. Tewi isn’t a very important character in the game — while she is distinct from all the common enemies around her and can be a pain in the ass to fight, she falls short of the honor of having her own boss theme, at least in her initial appearance in Touhou 8. However, her name is interesting from a linguistic perspective. Tewi’s name is written last name first in the Japanese fashion as 因幡てゐ, her last name in kanji, and her first name in hiragana: て, te, and ゐ, wi.  In 1946, however, the Japanese government decided wi wasn’t a syllable they’d need anymore since it had disappeared from common usage long before. Thus ゐ got the boot along with ゑ (we).  Since wi is no longer a sound used in Japanese, even Tewi’s name is pronounced when spoken as “Tei”.

So the question remains: why did ZUN use ゐ in Tewi’s name when it’s not pronounced that way anymore? The answer may lay in the setting of the Touhou Project games. Gensokyo is a piece of Japan that for centuries was populated with youkai, mythical beasts that have magical powers they can use to help or harm humans (very often the latter.) In 1885, this land was finally sealed from the rest of Japan with a magical barrier by Yukari Yakumo, an extremely powerful youkai, to protect the youkai within from the outside world, and ever since the human and non-human residents of Gensokyo have had to try to live side by side. Back when Gensokyo was sealed off, therefore, ゐ was still an official part of the Japanese language, so maybe it’s not strange for it to be used in Gensokyo.  Add to that the fact that despite her looks, Tewi is supposed to be over a thousand years old, and her name’s now-obsolete spelling makes more sense.

If you squint you can see the obsolete ヰ in the company’s name printed on the bottle, but not in the loanword “whisky” printed above it. (source: Hispania – own work, CC BY-SA 4.0.)

Either that or ZUN was just doing whatever he felt like doing with the characters’ names. Maybe I’m reading too much into it. After all, the wi syllable isn’t quite dead and buried in our modern world.  ヰ, the katakana counterpart to ゐ, is still used in a few brand names like the Japanese distillery Nikka Whisky, and both hiragana and katakana forms hang onto life in the character sets of the Okinawan and Ainu languages, though those are on the decline and nearly extinct respectively. Small comfort indeed. ゐ now has so little going on that Tewi herself is mentioned in the introduction of the kana’s Wikipedia page as one of the few remaining common usages of the character. The poor kana is relying on being featured in the name of a Touhou character.  Isn’t that rough?  At least Tewi is one of the more popular characters, but still, a long way to fall.

Again, I hope that was interesting.  Don’t know if I’ll write more of these posts or if I’ll make this a regular feature; I’ll just make it up as I go along like I always do.  It may also be a while until my next post — unless you want to read a lengthy, unedited mess of nonsense garbage, I’ll have to take some more time on it.  So I thought I’d post this as a kind of bonus.  Happy December again, and I hope you don’t freeze too much this season if you’re not one of those lucky people in the Southern Hemisphere or the tropics right now.  I’d say you can warm yourself up with some Nikka whisky, but it seems to cost at least 50-60 dollars a bottle.  Must be good stuff. 𒀭

*I’ll leave to your imagination the kinds of expressions I learned from reading doujins, but they certainly aren’t ones you’d say in polite society.

How to misuse your ellipses and infuriate your readers

Have you ever imagined that something as seemingly trivial as a punctuation mark could completely change not only the meaning, but the entire tone of a sentence? Sure you have.

As an example, consider the ellipsis. You know, this thing:

First, let’s establish what an ellipsis is properly used for. You can use it to abridge a quote as long as you retain the meaning of the original. If you’re writing dialogue, you can use it to indicate that the speaker is trailing off or that his statement is left hanging without an immediate response. If you’re writing dialogue for a JRPG, you can use an ellipsis on its own to indicate that a character is brooding and doesn’t want to respond to another character’s questions, or that he’s secretly a bad guy posing really unconvincingly as a good guy, which will be revealed by the game long after you’ve already figured it out on your own.

Set aside the usual questions of whether the periods should be spaced and how many there should be (common usage says three dots, but some style guides like the Bluebook dictate four.) Those rules aren’t all that important. What is important is the meaning of the ellipsis, both intended (by the writer) and perceived (by the reader.) This mainly comes up in writing meant to directly communicate information and ideas – personal emails and messages, office correspondence, etc.

An embarrassing example

Let’s look at an example sentence, first with standard punctuation and then with an ellipsis shoved in its place. In this scenario imagine the person being spoken to has just had his secret collection of My Little Pony dolls discovered by his girlfriend and she told their mutual friends about it (Note: this is not me I’m talking about. I just have some friends with strange interests.) In an email to said guy, one of the friends in question writes:

Don’t worry; nobody thinks you’re weird.

A direct statement that seems to mean what it says. Nobody in their common social circle thinks the My Little Pony-having guy is weird. This statement may not be believable, but at the very least we can infer that the writer himself doesn’t think his friend is weird.

Now compare the above statement with this one:

Don’t worry; nobody thinks you’re weird…

Suddenly the tone of the statement has changed. Those two extra dots suggest the friend is trailing off here, that he doesn’t actually believe what he is saying. Perhaps he’s being sarcastic. Or it could be that he’s serious, but he is dismissing Mr. Pony’s anxiety here as silly. Another possibility is that the writer really does mean what he’s saying, but he simply doesn’t understand that the ellipsis here throws the meaning of his statement into doubt. Therefore, the use of an ellipsis here changes “Nobody thinks you’re weird” from a direct statement of fact or opinion to a statement that could mean a few different things depending on how the writer meant the ellipsis to be read. Even if, objectively speaking, the person on the receiving end should rightfully be ashamed of his actions, this kind of confusion is still a very bad thing.

Okay, I really have no place to talk considering some of my own weird and severely nerd interests.  But I still don't understand the whole adult guys watching My Little Pony thing.  It's one of those ironic hipster things, right?

Okay, I really have no place to talk considering some of my own weird and severely nerd interests. But I still don’t understand the whole adult guys watching My Little Pony thing. It’s one of those ironic hipster things, right?

You see how frustrating the ellipsis can make simple communication? You don’t even have to be a grown man who watches shows for little girls to suffer the ill effects of such confusion. Texts and emails dealing with business matters can, if they use ellipses recklessly, actually hurt business. Clarity in language is vital, especially when you’re trying to get things done.

So what’s the message here? If you don’t want to come off like a passive-aggressive prick, don’t use ellipses to end your sentences. They are not substitutes for periods. When used in place of periods, they cause confusion, frustration, anger, hurt feelings, wailing and gnashing of teeth. Have respect for punctuation. Use ellipses where they’re actually needed – otherwise, give them a break. And if you happen to be a serial ellipsis misuser, it’s not too late to repent your ways.