Words & Stuff

hh: Five, Seven, Five (Reader Comments and Addenda)

(17 March 1998)

Elliott points out a linguistic error I made (where C stands for Consonant and V stands for Vowel):

The katakana and hiragana aren't quite syllabaries. Each symbol stands not for a syllable, but for part of a syllable called a mora (Latin for "delay"). A mora is famously defined by James McCawley as "that which short syllables have one of, and long syllables have two of". In Japanese, a short syllable (CV, like "ga" or "ko") is indeed written with a single kana symbol. But a long syllable (CVV, like "gaa", or CVN, like "kan", or CVC like "kap" in "kappa") takes two symbols -- one for the CV and one for the extra bit. Native Japanese speakers have a very strong sense of how many moras a word or phrase has, but none at all of how many syllables (at least, my Japanese classmates are like that). I, a native English speaker, have a strong sense of syllables but none of moras, which is why I can't hear the meter in Latin verse. My friend Jen Smith once pointed out that it can't be completely true that Japanese speakers lack a sense of syllables, since some conventions in personal names seem to involve syllable count (four-syllable names are masculine, for instance). But the verse is based on moras, and the kanas are really mora-aries.

I knew most of that at one point, but had forgotten. Thanks for the explanation, Elliott! I guess that explains that old Japanese lament "O tempura, o moras."

Ahem.

Anyway, Elliott also recommends checking out John Cho(et alia)'s Spam Haiku Archive for "[t]he best haikus being written in English as the twentieth century draws to a close... The page has become too famous for its own good, almost, with clueless people contributing really bad stuff, but it's worth reading the early ones at least." I've never been a fan of Spam in any form, and I don't have permission to reprint these, but take a peek at the site if you're not averse to poetry about pink stuff in cans.

Finally, Elliott reminds me to mention Jim's haiku-limerick, which Elliott calls "THE BEST English haiku of our era."

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Jed Hartman <logophilia@kith.org>