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Written By: daveski on March 12, 2011 1 Comment

The 8.9 earthquake that hit Japan two days ago, the continuing revelations about the loss of life, the massive water damage, and now the minute-by-minute unfolding of an already bad and potentially horrific situation in a number of nuclear reactors in Japan … these seem to have reduced language to nothing. These are cold, hard, physical facts–reported, broadcast, streamed live by international media so that almost anyone can see. Facts beyond language, and beyond a doubt awful.

Having lived 3 years in Japan, and having developed relationships with friends who have become family, I myself was at a loss for words for the first hours, the first day, listening to the radio, reading stories, consuming images. I doubted whether I should write anything about this other than emails to those I know and love, whether it was appropriate at all to write about it here, write about it now.

And yet, like Bill Poser, professor of Linguistics at the University of British Columbia, and regular contributer to the Language Log, I have been struck by the sound in the airwaves of the radio, the television, and in print of the word tsunami, a lexical item borrowed from Japanese into English (and into many other languages as well).




As pointed out by Poser in his March 11 post “Tsunami“, the word in Japanese is composed of the characters 津 (tsu), meaning “harbor”, and 波 (nami), meaning “wave”. If there were ever any doubts about why these two characters were paired together to make this word, the images of boats strewn among the remains of buildings and other debris in the streets of seaside towns should answer these forever. Perhaps anticipating the interests of his readers, Poser points out that, in English, many people prefer to say “sunami” because “English does not allow syllable-initial [ts]”. He then finds occasion to mention that this is “yet another example of insane English spelling practices”. And continues, “The word could perfectly well have been borrowed into English as sunami.”

Tsunami. How odd, I think as I hear this word again on some overseas television broadcast, and then again on a YouTube video from…somewhere. How unfortunate that we–and all the aspiring writers of English who, as Poser points out, “must memorize the fact that this [s] is written <ts> for no reason at all”–must be troubled with this foreign cluster of consonants. How ironic, too, that this uncomfortable word, bearing so recognizably the trace of its originating language, should now be used by the international media everywhere to describe what is happening hour by hour, minute by minute in its originating country of Japan.


I turn off the TV for a minute, and open the PDF file of the article I had been reading earlier as I try to get some ideas for this dissertation chapter on foreignness. Is “foreignness” a good or a bad thing? What does it mean “to be foreign”, anyway? And how do we use language to enact similarity and difference, sameness and Otherness?

Brian James Baer, professor of Russian language, literature, and translation studies at Kent State University, writes in the most recent issue of the International Journal of the Sociology of Language about the use of foreign words in Russian literature. Entitled “Translating foreign words in imperial Russian literature: The experience of the foreign and the sociology of language”, analyzes translations of Lermontov’s A Hero of our Time and Tolstoi’s War and Peace, asking what happens to words that were foreign in the original when that original text gets translated. As a translator, do you try to keep the foreign words ‘foreign’? If so, when, why, and how do you do it?

Suddenly I remembered that this passage, in which Baer quotes University of Ottawa professor of Translation and Interpretation Rainier Grutman, and then offers his own interpretation of the quote, struck me as particularly poignant the first time I read it. And it seemed to light up my screen as I see it again now, after Poser’s post, after yet another online, on-air “tsunami”:

“Tolerance or intolerance of foreign words can be taken as more than an index of ‘familiarity’ and ‘foreignness’, of ‘Sameness’ and ‘Otherness.’ Reaching far beyond those distinctions, they lay bare the power imbalance between literatures in different languages and/or from different countries” (Grutman 2006: 24). Foreign words, one could say, represent the phenomenon of geographic and cultural displacement on the linguistic surface of the text.

Geographic and cultural displacement on the surface of the text. Hmm. Is that not what we speakers and readers of English, including perhaps Bill Poser and millions of others, resist intuitively every time we struggle to pronounce the “tsu” of tsunami, or when we try to remember to start with the “t” when we write it? Does not the very foreignness of “tsunami” threaten to destabilize the surface of our native English? And, to go further out on a limb, are we not confronted in the Japaneseness of “tsunami” with the specter of our troubled histories, our past wars and occupations, our peace treaties (or should I say “pacification”), military occupation and re-writing of Japan’s political and economic  institutions in the postwar period, and the economic and cultural exchanges that have brought us to where we are today?

As I watched a video of the explosion at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant this morning, I could not escape my own troubled childhood memories of our country’s nuclear pasts and futures, real and imagined. And now, I think, how ironic it is that “tsunami” should be the site of this discussion about the foreignness of a borrowed word (110 comments and counting on Poser’s Language Log post).  How ironic, since this word might also be taken to describe the way in which foreign words themselves spread outward, disrupting the linguistic surfaces of all they touch. And, hopefully, while they do so, also bringing our attention through their odd shapes and sounds back to their originating contexts, to the lives of their speakers and writers, and to our enduring indebtedness to them.

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One Response to “つnami”

  1. AlekZ on: 14 March 2011 at 10:23 am

    Very interesting. I always confront a problem like this with names. In the academic sphere it is always a ‘faux-pas’ to not pronounce an author’s name in the original manner (it is a sign of familiarity with the writer, your level of knowledge). But there are always inconsistencies, like first names do not seem to apply (ex. Walter Benjamin – we say Walter Benyamin, not Valter Benyamin).

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