RE: The Currency Symbol of China

From: Ben Monroe (
Date: Tue Oct 01 2002 - 03:50:50 EDT

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    Barry Caplan wrote:

    > Wow ! I brought Ben out of lurk status after 6 months!

    Wow, someone still remembers me after 6 months. I hope it isn't because
    I left a bad impression or seriously annoyed someone (smile).
    As I'm sure many are, I have been busy with work and other projects.
    I am quite interested in many of the topics here, but am afraid that I
    am often out of my league for many, so often I do not have anything to

    > For instance, IIRC, Isabella Bird wrote in her (British) English
    travelogue in the early Meiji restoration era (1878 AD)
    > of travels to Yedo (now commonly called "Edo" in the literature, and
    known by its modern name to all as "Tokyo"). She called Tokyo "Tokiyo".

    Just a small correction. The Meiji Restoration was in 1867 (some
    historians view it as 1868 though).

    For those who read Japanese, an interesting exchange regarding the
    spelling of "yen" (and many other topics) occurred in 1998 and 2000 on a
    bulletin board at the following site. The various posts were collected
    and put together here:

    I have written a _brief_ summary of interesting points regarding "yen"
    in English below.
    Some of the topics we have already discussed.
    There are many, many other broad topics such as /wi, we/ --> /i, e/ and
    other such changes which I do not intend to get into.
    (Please note that these are not my postings or ideas. Some I agree with;
    others I don't.)

    - the yen currency began in 1871
    - a foreigner introducing minting technology at that time found it
    easier to say "yen", so that is how it was written
    - it is easier for westerns to say [ye] than [e]
    - romanization of "en" could be easily mispronounced by English speakers
    as something close to "in"; to avoid this, "y" was prefixed
    - common romanization for /e/ at that time was "ye" so "en" just was
    written as "yen"; the Christian texts used "ye" for /e/. Even though
    [ye] gradually became [e], the spelling system did not change
    - Chinese currency is called "yuan" and due to that influence, it is
    called "yen" in Japan
    - there are many foreign languages that have common words with the same
    spelling as "en", so there was a need to avoid this. French and Spanish
    has an "en" meaning "inside (something)" and Dutch has an "en" meaning
    "and then". [I really do not know. I am just repeating what it says
    - English speakers seem to hear "yen" instead of "en"

    > I also think (but I could be wrong) that "ye" is not one of the
    characters in the famous Buddhist poem that
    > uses each of the kana once and only once, and establishes a de facto
    sorting order by virtue of being the only such poem.

    Kenneth Whistler was kind enough to respond to this already.

    Kenneth Whistler wrote kana distinctions in the Iroha poem:

    > i ro ha ni ho he to
    > chi ri nu ru wo
    > wa ka yo ta re so
    > tsu ne na ra mu
    > u wi no o ku ya ma
    > ke fu ko e te
    > [^ that is one ]
    > a sa ki yu me mi shi
    > ye hi mo se su
    > [^ that is the other -- probably should be (w)e ]

    Yes, it is and should be /we/. What makes this poem so important is that
    it shows a contrast between /i/ and /wi/ and a contrast between /e/ and
    /we/. However, by this time there is no contrast between a /e/ and /ye/,
    indicating that at this time the distinction between these two sounds
    were not made anymore. These two sounds are usually thought to have
    merged into [ye] (of course being written with "e"). In addition to what
    I wrote before about this merging, Moto'ori Norinaga (1730-1801; one of
    the four great "kokugaku" (linguist isn't quite right; perhaps
    philologist is closer) scholars) noticed that the Heian poetry, which
    was in various 5-7- patterns, would occasionally have an extra mora
    (called "jiamari") in the 5-line resulting in 6 mora. He noticed
    specifically that this "jiamari" occurred in mora ending in /a, i, u,
    o/, but not /e/. He speculates that this /e/ in old texts was different
    from the other vowels; i.e., not a vowel, but actually [ye]. (I do not
    think the concept of "glides" or semi-vowels was an issue back then.)

    > [Attributed to middle Heian, around A.D. 1000.]
    > BTW, the translation of Kukai's iroha poem at that link leaves much
    to be desired, though the various version

    Yes, it is traditionally attributed to Ku[u]kai (774-835). (He is also,
    incorrectly, traditionally regarded as the creator of hiragana.)
    However, during the era that he lived, both /e/ and /ye/ should have
    been distinguished from each other, but they are not in this poem. This
    implies that it should have been written roughly after 950 or so. Also,
    the style of the poem is known as "imayou" also indicates a date after
    Kuukai lived. The oldest source of this Iroha poem that I know of is
    from the "Konkoumyou saishouou kyou" sutra of 1079.

    Another important poem often used as evidence for sound distinctions is
    the "Ametuti no kotoba" (or "Ametsuchi no kotoba" if you prefer). It
    dates from 967. Like the Iroha poem, it uses 48 kana each once with the
    exception of /e/ repeated once. Again, one /e/ is taken as [e] and the
    other as [ye]. It is important to note that in the same collection,
    these two /e/'s are sometimes confused with each other, which should be
    expected since 967 is just around the time that the distinction between
    /e/ and /ye/ most likely disappeared.

    Ben Monroe

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