Thursday, April 26, 2012

位 (on the enumeration of spectres).

Chuckling about the kanji 位 (くらい kurai, イ I). It seems pretty standard; it's ninben (person) plus tatsu (standing or building), and it carries meanings of rank and hierarchy -- thrones, crowns, decimal places, social standing, grades, tiers, etc. What gets me is its other function: the counting particle used for spirits of the dead! That's funny superficially -- "How many ghosts, exactly?" -- but it also raises an interesting point about counters. Are ghosts people (nin)? If not, then what are they? Would referring to them as つ offend them? And how would one enumerate, say, the ghosts of animals? Or fish? What if you wanted to talk (poetically) about the ghost of an era or a song?

Reminds me of something I read somewhere, years ago, about someone's (perhaps facetiously) expressing humility by using the 匹 counter (hiki, for small animals) to refer to himself -- "I am but one small animal!" Suggests an entire range of expressive possibilities that aren't available in languages that lack counting particles.

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