Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Beats vs. Syllables

Vincent made a comment about syllables in my previous blog. Apparently, this issue had been a hot debate among linguists, and according to Kindaichi Haruhiko, Kamei Takashi, also a Japanese linguist, named “beats” for the smallest units of Japanese spoken sound to avoid mix-ups.

Kindaichi also wrote an interesting debate among French linguists. One French linguist said, ““Epe” could be divided into two, “e” and “pe.” Another French linguist said, “The first unit was up to the point of closing lips when pronouncing “p,” and the second unit starts at the point of opening the lips. Still, other French linguist said, “Discussing what point is a divider is as though we’re trying to reach an agreement on where the bottom of a valley is. Therefore, the discussion is nonsense.”

What a relief! Some western people agree with Japanese sentiment. For me, the syllable concept is totally confusing. Now I know why I couldn’t figure out the rules of English haiku. More knowledge helps. Don’t you agree? Besides, I couldn’t find written haiku rules on the Web. You might say, “Rules are not important.” Yes, that’s been my motto. From the perspective of cannot-help, I’m absolutely on your side. Otherwise, we can’t enjoy other cultures.

For a record, I think the 1953 version of “Japanese” by Kindaichi Haruhiko has erroneous data on syllables by a foreign linguist. So I checked them with the 1988 version of the same book. Sure enough, the data in question was completely gone. I’m just letting you know that I’m reading old books. But the two-volume 1988 version is not necessarily better than the single 1953 version. If any of you are interested in detail, please let me know. Otherwise, I won’t disturb you with more details.

In summary, the spoken Japanese has a relatively small number of clear beats, and the syllable concept doesn’t apply.


Vincent said...

I'm not attacking Japanese linguists, merely speaking up for the English language. It is clear from everything you have said that "syllable" is exactly the right word, and "beat" is therefore unnecessary. It may be that Japanese has different rules of syllabification. In which case it will help to set them out, in comparison to English, say.

English rules of syllabification are clearly stated, I believe. I can say that with confidence because Microsoft (not that I approve of them, or take them as a linguistic authority - most certainly not!) have produced an automated mechanism for hyphenation. You may know that when text in Latin characters is printed "justified", words often have to be split across two lines, and the hyphen indicating the split can only be inserted on a syllable boundary. If a machine can do it, the rule is clear - at any rate in English.

In French the rules would be different, regardless of what the "other French linguist" said. Books in French also use justified text, requiring hyphenation just as in English.

Vincent said...

Apologies for my argumentative tone, dear Keiko. I am constantly at war with native English speakers who misuse the language, but I pick my targets: not the ones who have not been taught properly, but journalists, especially in the BBC, who ought to know better.

"If any of you are interested in detail, please let me know." Well, I am, if I haven't offended you with all this arguing.

keiko amano said...


I appreciate your comment. This is very interesting subject, and I had to do some research. Please don’t worry. Besides, I’d like to know my English misuse so that I can prevent it.

First, according to page 67 of the 1953 edition of “Japanese, “Kindaichi Haruhiko wrote the following statement. Mario Pei (I don’t know the spelling because it’s written in Japanese.) stated that French speak 350 syllables per minute, Japanese, 310, and English, 220. In the 1988 edition of the same book, the author eliminated the above information. Why? I think it’s because the syllable concept doesn’t work with Japanese language, and it throws his beat concept off. Besides, he probably doesn’t want to say Mario Pei is wrong.

Page 87 of the 1988 edition, Kindaich wrote the definition of beats. He said that beats are the smallest units that the speakers of the language are aware. He wrote the word, beat, followed by the word, syllables in parenthesis. This is a conflict. But I can see why.

I picked up a few linguistic books today, and I only found more conflicting statements on beats and syllables even in the books that were published in recent years.

It seems each expert defines their words in relation with English or other European language experts because Japanese have been learning Linguistics from west. One of the problems is writing Japanese in alphabets. We do not separate か, but we have to write “ka.” か is one of the smallest sound units of Japanese language. Since Linguistic study began in west, Japanese scholars tried to adhere to the rules of west, but the Japanese language is not like European languages with needs of spelling words and hyphens.

I think Japanese experts have been trying hard to explain but not very successful. And I think instead of more explanation, they should have persuaded and solicited their own definition of beats to the world.
I could be wrong. Maybe there could be new studies already done and have better definition and explanation been invented. In that case, I’d like to know it.

According to “Language” by Sapir, the beginning of chapter 3, he said, “a single unit of sound can never be by itself an element of the language.” Well, he is wrong. The Japanese language has the smallest units with many meanings.

In Japanese, we can form words with combining different letters like かき(persimmon)、けいこ(Keiko). It is also true that one letter (beat) like あ(a)can also be a word, and it has 13 different possibilities. Each entry has unique meaning or meanings.  You might like to call it a syllable, but you’ll have problem understanding Japanese once you keep the syllable concept. You’ll see why.

Below, I show you some samples.

The number of entries a meaning
Beat in the dictionary of one entry

あa 13 secondary
い i 48 stomach
う u 19 rabbit
えe 32 picture
おo 15 tail
かka 60 mosquito
きki 69 wood
くku 25 pain
けke 22 hair
こko 51 child

This will go on to the 48th hiragana.

keiko amano said...

The bottom list didn't appear right.

The first column is "Beat."

The second, "The number of entires in the dictionary."

The third, " one meaning of one entry."

Vincent said...

A beat is a mora, yes? I have been looking up Wikipedia & it says "A syllable containing one mora is said to be monomoraic; one with two moras is called bimoraic."

it explains that in japanese haiku you have to count moras not syllables.

Vincent said...

"For example, the word Nippon (one of the pronunciations of 日本, the name for "Japan" in Japanese) has four moras (ni-p-po-n); the four characters used in the hiragana spelling にっぽん match these four moras one to one. Thus, in Japanese, the words Tōkyō (to-o-kyo-o とうきょう), Ōsaka (o-o-sa-ka おおさか), and Nagasaki (na-ga-sa-ki ながさき) all have four moras, even though they have two, three, and four syllables, respectively."

keiko amano said...


About mora, I think you have correct idea. I read it before, but it wasn’t explained well, and I didn’t trust the Web. But I checked it today in the library and the web. And today, I asked my Sanskrit teacher about mora. He said it was for the length of the sound. Kyo can be きょ or きょう. You’re right that Tokyo is pronounced Tōkyō which is close to to-o-kyo-o. But we write as とうきょう which is written as to-u-kyo-u. When we pronounce it, it sounds close to to-o-kyo-o. So there are more detail but the idea of mora is to show how long each sound.

Anyway, I found many documents I should read up on Japanese. I have so much to learn. I’m excited though that I found a very interesting book on Japanese today. In the recent years, scholars made a leap in the study.

Thank you for your comment.