The Cha-Cha-Cha: 茶 • 차 • ちゃ

At the Association of Asian Studies (AAS) conference several years ago, I attended a small panel discussion whose goal was to identify areas of overlap in East Asian languages. The panel leader began the talk with the observation that European languages are so inter-related that even ones as superficially disparate as his native English and adopted Russian shared many cognates, especially in specialized language. As an example, he uttered 5-6 words in Russian from the field of linguistics, which we all in the audience immediately recognized even though, by a show of hands, none of us spoke Russian.

Similarly, I have a minor in Spanish. Before a trip to Brazil a few years ago, I found a free website that teaches 12-15 ways to tweak Spanish to turn it into passable Portuguese. It worked really well. After an investment of 30 hours, I spoke halting but understandable Portuguese. Mother Latin splintered to bits and evolved into a passel of modern European siblings that all bear a striking resemblance to each other in a process that occurred well within recorded history and, all things considered, not long ago. A student of Spanish picking up French, having learned that Sp. haber is Fr. avoir, only needs a little luck to guess that Sp. deber is Fr. devoir. Know a little Latin, and the whole thing gets quite easy.

In Asia, Mandarin is the grand anchor of one large language family that doesn’t include Japanese or Korean. Scholars don’t even consider the three to form a Sprachbund, a “federation of languages” that may be genetically unrelated but, like human neighbors, rub off on each other through close contact. Scholars don’t even agree on whether Japanese and Korean are in the same family, and even those who do reckon they split apart well more than two millennia ago. While a student of Spanish, knowing the word ‘haber’, has a decent shot of guessing the word’s cousin in French (avoir), Italian (avere), and Portuguese (haver), a student of Chinese can’t even assume that Japanese or Korean approach the concept of ‘having’ the same way.

I hope that’s not a downer, because where I’m going is that I don’t think the situation is as hopeless as all that. China was a massive and sustained exporter of loan words in all directions, so much so that even if you can’t make leaps that predict a word in another language, you can use these relationships in a highly mnemonic way. If a person who knows one Asian language can leverage that easily to learn 200 words (or characters) in the language of a neighboring country, that’s a win, right?

So today I’m starting a new project, which is to identify a body of a couple hundred frequently occurring words (or characters) in Chinese, Japanese, and Korean. I’ll start with an easy one that’s virtually identical in all three: tea. Chá (second tone, ‘rising’) is also ‘cha’ in Japanese and Korean. (Newcomers to Japanese, you usually say ‘ocha’ in Japanese. The o- is just an honorific prefix that’s stuck onto lots of words. Don’t sweat it: ask for ‘cha’ in a restaurant, and your waiter will understand.)

As a project (whose working title ‘cha-cha-cha’ for better or ill has stuck in my head), I’ll focus mostly on Chinese, Japanese, and Korean. By way of an aside, in an age of political tension, I make a habit of listing those three languages alphabetically. In this project, however, I’ll list cognates in the order Chinese-Korean-Japanese because Korean pronunciation of loanwords seems (to me) closer to Chinese than Japanese, as, for example the Chinese character 东 (東) dōng was borrowed into Korean as 동 ‘dong’ but into Japanese as ‘tō’. But while I focus on those three, Chinese loanwords certainly found their way into SE Asian languages as well, and, in this case ‘cha’ has cognates not just across SE Asia: Tagalog ‘tsaa’ (pronounced ‘cha’), Thai ชา ‘cha’, Lao ‘cha’, but also in South Asia (Hindi चाय ‘chāy’) and the Middle East (Farsi چای ‘chāy’, Arabic شاي ‘shāy’).


Read about the “Cha-Cha-Cha”

The spread of the word ‘tea’, which most languages borrowed from ‘cha’ or else from the southern Min (Simp 闽, Trad 閩) pronunciation ‘te’, is of such interest to professional linguists that a language’s word for ‘tea’ is very often captured in the World Atlas of Language Structures database, a free online language database you can read about under the “Cool Language Resources” tab here. If you’re interested, you can read about the history and spread of tea in Tuttle’s Tea: The Drink that Changed the World by Laura Martin, which, like many of our books, is now available in ebook format.

Less-Commonly Taught Languages and Music on Radio Free Europe/Radio Free Asia

48053100463740LThanks to everyone who entered the origami raffle! The winner of Trash Origami, which teaches you how to “up-cycle” magazines, gift-wrap and other household papers into cool origami projects was Angela in the Philippines. As always, you can purchase the book on Tuttle’s website using the discount code OMNIVORE, which knocks 35% off the price of the book. That’s usually cheaper than Amazon.

ReikoButterflyThe authors, Michael LaFosse and Richard Alexander, just sent us the folding instructions for the Reiko Butterfly, dedicated to Reiko Chiba Tuttle, the wife of our founder, Charles Tuttle, who would have been 97 this month. Michael and Richard did a beautiful job designing the folding instructions. To download a PDF, just click on the butterfly on the right. If you entered the raffle, I’ll email you a copy.

This morning, my penpal in Moscow, Tamar, introduced me to a great language resource to share on this blog. She wrote to tell me about Radio Farda, a Farsi-language radio service that’s part of Radio Free Europe/Liberty Radio. The service provides programming in many less-commonly taught languages. Even though I couldn’t find any language lessons there per se, it’s a great, free way to get some exposure to the sounds and phonology of languages like Farsi, Armenian, Georgian, Kazakh, and Afghan (Pashto). You can see a full list of their services at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.

In East and SE Asia, similar services are available under the auspices of Radio Free Asia, which includes news in print, video, and audio form in languages like Burmese, Lao, Khmer, Tibetan, Uyghur, and Vietnamese.

The Language of Origami


Reiko Chiba Tuttle, circa 1960, at the American Library Association

Charles E. Tuttle was only half of the team who built Tuttle Publishing. His partner in work and life was his wife of almost 50 years, Reiko Chiba Tuttle. Known for her wry and self-deprecating sense of humor, Reiko was the warm, personal focus of Charles’ life-long passion for Japanese culture. The inspiration and deft-hand behind hundreds of Tuttle books that taught the US and the world about Japanese culture, history, language, and arts, Reiko would have celebrated her 97th birthday on January 24.

To mark the occasion, I have the pretty amazing privilege of unveiling a birthday gift to Reiko. This spring, we’re publishing a new book called Origami Butterflies, a collection of original designs by master folders, best-selling authors, and traditional paper-makers Michael LaFosse and Richard Alexander of Origamido Studio. To celebrate the completion of the book and Reiko’s life, LaFosse and Alexander dedicated a unique butterfly named in Reiko’s honor.


The “Reiko” origami butterfly by Michael LaFosse and Richard Alexander

A recent article in the Annals of Foreign Language, a quarterly journal of the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL) underscored the mnemonic power of learning a foreign language in connection with something else you have an interest in. You might know (or be), for example, someone who bombed in high school French but who, thanks to an interest in haute cuisine, uses words like bain-marie, mirepoix, and velouté like a native. To honor Reiko’s birthday and her butterfly, and in the spirit of learning words in the context of a past-time, I thought I’d review some basic origami terminology.

Origami 折り紙
The first element in the word origami comes from the verb oru (折る, fold), hence the basic polite conjugations of orimasu “fold”, orimashita “folded”, and orimashō “let’s fold”. The second element is kami (紙, paper), although here the ‘k’ is voiced and becomes ‘g’ through a process called “rendaku”. The change isn’t entirely foreign to English; think about how the ‘tt’ in “letter” sounds like ‘d’. So “origami” means “folding paper”.

As an aside, China and Korea both also have paper-folding traditions—the Chinese invented paper. The term there is also “folding paper” (zhézhǐ in pinyin), and it’s written 摺紙 in Traditional characters, where the second character is identical to the Japanese. In Simplified characters, the word is written 折纸, where the first character is identical to the Japanese, but the three dashes in the lower left-hand corner of the second character have fused into one line. A big thank-you to Janet in the UK who helped me sort this out. She contributed some very illuminating comments to this blog that I’d encourage you to read.

In Korea, one says 종이접기 (jongi jeopgi). It’s written phonetically in hangul now but in the past would have been written in Chinese characters, only in reverse: 紙摺, which is “paper folding” instead of “folding paper”. As loanwords, neither zhézhǐ nor jongi jeopgi have gotten as much traction as origami yet, but you can find websites dedicated to them. In the meantime, rather than write “Chinese origami”, it’s more common to say “Chinese paper-folding” or “Korean paper-folding”.

In origami there are two basic folds: the yama-ori (山折り, mountain fold) where the crease points up, and the tani-ori (谷折り, valley fold) where the crease points down. The second element in each word (ori) is exactly the same ori as in origami. In front of that come the everyday Japanese words for “mountain” (山, yama) and “valley” (谷, tani). These words are both extremely common in Japanese family names. You hear yama in Yamashita (below the mountain), Yamada (mountain field), and Murayama (village mountain). Readers of the NY Times will recognize tani in the name of Pulitzer Prize-winning critic Michiko Kakutani (corner valley).

My favorite fold name is the 蛇腹折り (jabara-ori), which means “snake-belly fold”. In English, alas, that’s become an “accordion fold”, which has a whiff of a pizzeria. Another fold whose meaning was twisted in English was the Japanese “cushion” fold (座布団, zabuton, or, literally a “sitting futon”). In English, that’s a “blintz”, which, even worse, is named after an Eastern European pancake that’s more often rolled than folded.

48053100463740Many origami folds start with one of four bases. If you’ve ever folded a crane, the first 5-6 steps of a crane constitute a “crane base”, from which you can complete not just the crane but many other birds or shapes. The four bases are the crane (鶴, tsuru), the iris (あやめ, ayame) or frog (蛙, kaeru), the fish (魚, sakana, remember that from two weeks ago?), and the gate (とびら, tobira).

Last, if you’ve ever heard of kirigami, that’s the art of paper cutting. It’s written 切り紙, where the first element comes from the verb kiru, to cut. (If you’re not a Japanese speaker yet, all Japanese verbs end in -u; e.g., oru, “fold”, kiru, “cut”, yomu, “read”, kau, “buy”.)

To keep with the origami theme, this week we’re raffling off a copy of the most recent best-seller by Michael and Richard, Trash Origami. In it, they show you how to “upcycle” things like used gift wrapping paper, catalogs, circulars, and other paper that would otherwise go to waste. If you’d like to win the book, click here to email me and put “Origami” or “折り紙” in the subject line. As a bonus, everyone who writes gets the folding instructions for the Reiko butterfly!