Books on Japanese etymology?
August 30, 2008 6:42 PM   Subscribe

Are there any layman-accessible, English-language books or (less preferably) websites on Japanese etymology or the development of Japanese?

If there's anything like etymonline for Japanese, I'd love to see it, even if it's Nihongo only. But I'd prefer a reference book.

I'd also like to read how Japanese culture is expressed in their language; for example, how "sen" can refer to the future and the past, and other such counter-intuitive facets of Japanese.

I love English etymology, and if I can start to understand Japanese word roots I know it'll be a big boost to my fluency.
posted by Citizen Premier to Education (6 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: I should note that I'm not exactly a layman, as I've had 2 years of Japanese, so any books that assume a moderate knowledge of Japanese are acceptable.
posted by Citizen Premier at 7:01 PM on August 30, 2008 [1 favorite]

email , at the online etymology bookstore
posted by docmccoy at 9:35 PM on August 30, 2008

I'm interested in this, too. Keep us posted on what you find.

While you're at it, can you recommend some interesting books on English etymology?
posted by phaedrus441 at 2:27 AM on August 31, 2008

I'm not sure if this qualifies, but I've found "Remembering the Kanji" by James Heisig to be useful in figuring out how to break down the more complex kanji into their building block parts. I know the book is more for memorization vs. accuracy, but for the most part, it stays on track. Might be a fun flip through.
posted by ikahime at 8:23 AM on August 31, 2008

I too am interested in this. You might e-mail Matt at No-sword; I'm pretty sure he'd know about books on Japanese etymology.
posted by languagehat at 10:17 AM on August 31, 2008

Best answer: Wow, I can't believe I missed this one.

- is a pretty good etymology site online.

- 日本語源大辞典 (Nihon gogen daijiten), general-edited by Maeda Tomiyoshi (前田富祺), is a fantastic dictionary of Japanese etymology. Its methodology involves listing all the proposed derivations for terms, so it has a bunch of crazy nonsense from the pre-modern era mixed in with the serious academic stuff. Where possible, there's also an editorial note explaining what's most likely and why. If you want to read about Japanese etymology in Japanese, you really should own this book.

- 岩波古語辞典 (Iwanami Kogo Jiten), chief-edited by Ono Susumu (大野晋) is a dictionary of Old/Classical/etc. Japanese (古語) rather than of etymology, but Ono does include etymologies where possible. He is quite proactive about including more recently proposed possible links to Korean etc., and generally keeps his, uh, unorthodox theories about Tamil safely out of the picture.

- 語源海 (Gogenkai) by Sugimoto Tsutomu (杉本つとむ) is a really good "single editor"-style book on etymology. It's divided into sections and then in dictionary order, and contains plenty of usage citations. Downside: Only interesting etymologies are included. (Great for browsing, not so great as a reference book unless the word you're after happens to be in there.)

Because there isn't as much material to go on as there is for Indo-European languages, there is a lot of nonsense out there about Japanese etymology, some of it taken quite seriously at the time. All of the above books contain personal opinion to a certain extent. (In fact, NGD is nothing but personal opinion.) I try to triangulate from as many sources as possible.
posted by No-sword at 1:38 AM on September 7, 2008 [1 favorite]

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