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Archive for April, 1992

Gates Ajar – Spring 1992

Monday, April 27th, 1992


Ranald MacDonald’s account of his stay in Japan was written from memory many years after the experience.  Many of his Japanese artifacts were lost; the one concrete thing brought back from Japan and appended to his account of his adventures is his glossary of Japanese words.

We are fortunate that Professor Kenji Sonoda has recently taken the trouble to reconstruct the list of words as MacDonald originally had them.  It is understandable and inevitable that misspellings slipped into the list after Malcolm McLeod worked it over twice.  One of the most difficult things in the world is to work with words in a language with which one is not familiar.  One would suppose that these discrepancies would have come to light in 1923 when Lewis and Marakami assembled the manuscript we have today.  Nevertheless, we now have Professor Sonoda’s reconstruction which will stand as a valuable linguistic tool.

We have relatively few sources available to tell us how Japanese words were actually pronounced in pre-modern times.  As Professor Sonoda points out, the major sources are Carl Peter Thunberg (1743 – 1828), Walter Henry Medhurst (1796-1857) and Ranald MacDonald.  There are important differences in these lists which are instructive.  Since Medhurst got his words from a dictionary, he provides us with official readings as opposed to the way people actually spoke the words.  Thunberg compiled his list on the basis of how he heard people say the words.  He traveled extensively in Japan, but from west to east, from Nagasaki to Edo and back.  Ranald MacDonald also compiled his list on the basis of what he heard, but he traveled the entire length of the country from the northernmost tip of Hokkaido to Nagasaki in the south.  Although much of his journey was by boat, they put to shore at regular intervals so that his vocabulary will surely show a variety of dialects not found in either Medhurst or Thunberg.

The important thing, of course, is having an accurate version of what Ranald MacDonald heard and recorded.  Professor Sonoda has given us that.

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