steepholm (steepholm) wrote,

The Winged Rabbits of Tokyo

When Borges came up with an imaginary Chinese encyclopedia in his essay on John Wilkins, dividing animals into various overlapping categories, he was probably just parodying Wilkins' own necessarily arbitrary taxonomy in his Real and Philosophical Character (1668). There are plenty of examples there that might have given rise to Borges' famous list:

(a) those belonging to the Emperor, (b) those that are embalmed, (c) those that are tame, (d) pigs, (e) sirens, (f) imaginary animals, (g) wild dogs, (h) those included in this classification, (i) those that are crazy-acting (j), those that are uncountable (k) those painted with the finest brush made of camel hair, (l) miscellaneous, (m) those which have just broken a vase, and (n) those which, from a distance, look like flies.

For example, Wilkins divides dogs according to both breed and use, which might have been perfectly sensible in those pre-Linnaean days but contained the seeds of contradiction and ambiguity, and hence of self-destruction for his beautiful, brittle language, where to name a thing is to place it precisely on a taxonomic chart. I've read Wilkins' book not only in a reprint but also in a folio first edition (they have one in the bowels of the University of Bristol), so I've had the chance to look at the pull-out diagram he provides of the Ark, in which, using the dimensions given in Genesis and working from the assumption that all the species now living in the world must have been able to get aboard, he proves that his language's schema too is sufficiently spacious to provide a linguistic berth not only for all known animals but for those yet to be discovered in the New World. It's awesome, ingenious, and mad.

Which brings us to the Japanese counting system - which could certainly have supplied Borges with material if Wilkins had fallen short. It's not the fact that there are so many counters that strikes me (I rather like that), as that they too are replete with overlaps and ambiguities. When does a small animal (counted with h/b/piki) become big enough to be counted with to? Machines are counted with dai - except when they are able to fly. Books, magazines and comics get one counter, but newspapers another. A page has one counter when it's in a book, but another when it's torn out. And so on. And, most charmingly, rabbits are counted with wa, like birds* - supposedly so that Buddhist monks would be able to eat them without breaking their vow to abstain from animal meat. I remember that European Christian monks had a similar trick, counting some animal or other as a fish so that they'd be able to eat it on Fridays and during Lent. (But what was that animal? I can't for the life of me remember. An otter is the obvious candidate, but I can't imagine that makes very good eating. Give me a nice brown trout any day.)

* Either because a) their ears look like wings, b) they stand on two legs a lot of the time, or c) the word usagi is made up of u (cormorant) and sagi (snowy heron).
Tags: language, nippon notes
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