Rabbit Trails (兎の道): in which the author digresses

I love a good aside, a footnote, an afterthought. A scrawled comment written in the margins. Something too good to be left out, slipped between two commas (or crammed into parentheses when commas can’t contain them). This is my favorite way to learn too: randomly.

I learned a word from a Jdrama a few weeks ago (yes. There are legal places to watch Jdramas now). It stuck out because the scene was so funny. A grade student asked a high schooler to help him with his kanji homework. He asked her how to read this:


The high schooler’s (internal) reaction was, “they teach kanji of this level to middle schoolers?” which was funny enough all by itself. Out loud she said “It’s read うさぎ に つの (rabbit (to) horn).” What followed was a beautiful, if shockingly rude, put down where the kid told her how it was really read (tonikaku→ とにかく) and then went and used it in his very next sentence. You know, as if she might not even know what it means.

Since I saw this episode I’ve been noticing this phrase everywhere. It’s very common, since takes the place of “anyway, in other words, generally speaking . . . ” and a handful of other vague, but  apparently polite enough, transitionals. I finally got around to looking up the kanji today, and sure enough, they mean rabbit and horn respectively, even though their reading is different (for the phrase they use their Japanese readings). I was delighted, and then delighted again when I saw how many variations there were on the phrase. Take out the にand you have 兎角, “various things”. Or it can can mean rabbit horns, which is exactly like hens’ teeth, and comes from a Buddhist proverb: 兎角亀毛, horns on a rabbit and fur on a turtle. 

Knowing this we come back to 兎に角with a different perspective. It’s not some grammatical problem we have to memorize, its plain idiom (which, yes, we still have to memorize).{{1}} [[1]] It’s neither here nor there, but there is nothing funnier than wathcing other nations use their own idioms. Imagine the tense faces of serious men saying “the beans have been spilled sir, Agent X let the cat out of the bag.”  [[1]] Horns to a Rabbit. “Forgetting what was just said as irrelevant to what I’m about to say . . . . 兎に角終わりましょう.”




Letter to a Linguist

Dear Theo,

I know I told you a while ago that I was studying Korean.

I lied.

I was actually doing something diametrically opposed to the very idea of studying, but since that something involved hearing hours and hours of colloquial Korean, I felt the term “studying” was justified.

Not that I didn’t study at all, of course. I looked up how to read Hangul (한글) a few months ago. It was kind of a mistake, because I found out that words I’d been hearing as “kamsamnida” and “bian,” were actually, when using a strict romanji system, spelled “gamsahapnida” and “mian”  (감사핲니다 – thank you, 미안 – sorry). Not being able to differentiate the k/g, ch/j, b/m sounds really threw me off. You know I have problems enunciating in English, I don’t need another language’s issues thrown in. It seemed obvious that Hangul would require actual study to be able to read or write it properly.

Actual study was what I was avoiding.

But fast forward a couple of months to the present and I still spend countless hours loafing around while listening to Korean being thrown back and forth am exposed to the quirky character of the Korean tongue every now and then.  I can no longer point to the measly fifteen words I know and say, “See, I am doing something edifying.” The moment of truth has come. Either I must actually study, thereby justifying my intake, or give up all things Korean.

Except the food. We must draw the line somewhere.

In all honesty, the moment of truth came a few weeks ago, but my inbox was full so I didn’t get it right away. After I did get it, I made a quick pro/con sheet:

Con: involves actual work;  sucess, as unlikely as it is, means eventually admitting you can do work to people you’d rather have think of you as a bum; failure is inevitable unless redefined; it has no benefits but the “joy of learning” because, though knowledge is power, scientist have yet to figure out how to use it to fuel a car 

Pros: You get an excuse to say “buooyol!” (뭬예요 – what,  Romanji – mwoyeyo); you get a chance to learn why all the M’s sound like B’s; You’ve been looking for a good excuse to exercise your researching skills; It’s the only way you can make “well rounded” sound like a virtue.

It was your fairly typical tie, the kind that makes you wonder if your subconcious is just using you as some kind of behavorial experiment, when I realized that starting a new project would mean making a new binder. You know I’ve never passed by a chance to make a binder, and it seemed rather late in the game to stop now. “Besides,” I threw out the infinity decision making, “I can always stop when I want to.”

So, since Thursday, I’ve completed my research and have started using Talk to Me in Korean, which is a completely free site with podcasts, pdfs and (swoon) workbooks. The podcasts are just what you’d expect after listening to JapanesePod 101, only I feel I’m learning more from them. Probably because I know less, but still, it’s an encouraging feeling. I’ve listened to the first ten lessons of level one a few times and am preparing to go through the corrosponding workbook before moving on. I’m stalling because I haven’t practiced my spelling at all as much as I should have, so I don’t really know how to write half the words I’ve learned. I’m loving these podcasts because they help me understand what I’ve been hearing these past six months. Not necessarily the meaing of the words, that’s a given, but the logic of the sounds. I’m pretty used to listening to Korean, so it no longer sounds strange to me – it’s no longer indistinguishable from a Mediterranean language, you could say – but that doesn’t mean it makes sense. The podcast takes all the niggling little observations that the incurable scholar in me has made and ties them all together into a neat little bow. And then attaches the bow to a present. I’m dying to open the present, even though I’m pretty sure there’s no chocolate inside, but I get the feeling it’ll need a few more bows before it’s complete.

Anyway, Crazy,  I know you love languages so I thought I’d keep you up to date about my studies. Sometimes I learn something that’s so small it’s barely even worth mentioning  but it causes me to geek out in the worst possible way. And then there’s the long-winded, introspective looks at my own native tongue which I could hardly share with the World at Large. So yeah, you’ll be hearing from me again shortly. Don’t leave town.


B. Sixer

P.S. If your name was Shirley, I’d say you’re Shirley mine ^_- My New Job is filling my head with bad, bad puns. “Bi”-yane.