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Japanese Diary 25: Translating the Impossible
I learned this word today - 珍紛漢紛 (it's pronounced "chinbunkanbun").

Apparently it's Japanese for "double Dutch" (though that's an unfortunate equivalent, since the Dutch were in fact the Europeans whom the pre-Meiji Japanese were the mostly likely to be able to talk to in their own language, being their sole trading partners for more than two centuries prior to the arrival of Commodore Perry). The English naturally used the Dutch as the epitome of incomprehensibility because they were near neighbours and rivals. Shakespeare employed a similar idea when he had Casca coin the phrase "all Greek to me" of Cicero, while the Greeks themselves invented "barbarian" (or so I've always heard) in imitation of the babbling and incomprehensible languages of nations beyond the Greek world.

This makes me curious about "chinbunkanbun", not least because it uses the same pattern of repeated plosives as "barbarian", but also because the third kanji (漢,"kan") is typically used to refer to things of Chinese origin. It occurs in the kanji for "kanji" itself, which means "Chinese characters". It's tempting to wonder whether 珍紛漢紛 is effectively a way of saying "double Chinese".

The French do, in fact, say 'it's Chinese' (or Hebrew).

I didn't know that - thanks! (I suppose there's a similar implication in the idea of "Chinese whispers".)

Edited at 2014-08-25 09:49 am (UTC)

There was a great post about this phenomenon a few years ago on Language Log, including this graph showing the hierarchy of incomprehensibility between different languages. Judging from what you say here, though, the graph isn't yet complete, as there is no arrow flowing from Japanese to Chinese (though a lot of other arrows do end up at the latter).

Thanks - that looks fascinating! Chinese and Greek seem to top the table for proverbial incomprehensibility, don't they, with Spanish, Turkish and Hebrew leading the peloton. Presumably the reasons have at least as much to do with the nature and extent of contact with other language speakers as with anything intrinsic to the languages themselves. Though from that point of view it's strange that English has only one arrow pointing to it - from Chinese, with the cryptic label "chicken intestines".

I'm not at all sure about my Japanese word. Although 漢 does indeed mean 'Sino-', as it were, when used as part of a larger word kanji often appear to simply represent sounds rather than meanings. I don't know whether that's the case here.