October 30, 2010

In Japanese, White People Have No Experience

What? The post title sounds like what-ism? Wait, I haven't even talked about the black people part. Hello? Did you just hang up in the middle of my blog post? How do you even do that?

This time I am going to talk about something that was one of those things where I turned to the J girl I was dating and was like, I bet x is true about the Japanese language. And she was like what are you talking about. And then I looked it up and was all, yeah I was right! Kind of. For the dumb luck reasons. And then she's like, huh.

See there is this word, 素人 (shirouto) that means beginner, and this other word, 玄人 (kurouto) that means expert and they are antonyms. Know that the 人 in both of them means person. Based on their pronunciation*, I figured that they were at one time written as the much more intuitive 白人 and 黒人. Of course, if you can read simple Japanese you know that 白人 and 黒人 mean white person and black person respectively, and these days they refer to races. But back in the day they referred to beginners and experts.

From the sources I looked into, it's not clear how 白 (white) became 素 (foundation) (I had just figured it was to avoid confusion once white dudes started visiting Japan, but don't see any support for or against that). 素 could refer to the baseness of the beginner. The character for white used back in the day referred to a white-painted performer (I would hazard they mean geisha-like performers).

I also folk-etymologized myself into thinking that one gets a little dirty with experience. Nah, they just used the opposite kanji character than that of white.Gogen says that 玄 has "profoundly not plain" nuance, as opposed to 黒 (black). Even though Gogen wasn't sure about why they switched up the white kanji, it's cool with the reason for the black one.

白人 and 黒人 came along later, I guess, but it's amusing to this white boy to note that 白人 is still listed as being both a racial classification and a reference to beginners even to this day. Also, prostitutes. 黒人 is just a race. Or at least a skin color; I don't know if it implies geographical or anthropological concepts. Race is kinda silly and divisive concept anyways.

*: To summarize phonetic and kanji changes:
白人 shirohito -> 白人 shirauto -> 白人 shirouto -> 素人 shirouto
黒人 kurohito -> 玄人 kurouto

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  1. Also makes me think of martial arts, with a white belt being the most inexperienced and black a master (or experienced, at least).

  2. That's also the first thing that came to my mind when reading this post.

  3. The idea, with the whole martial arts belt thing, was that as the white belt aged it would become more and more dirty, eventually in old age attaining a blackened hue. Is what I read somewhere. Not sure how substantiated that is, but it's a nice idea.

  4. I agree with gdawg. I studied a little Southern Praying Mantis and at a certain point you were presented with your first belt, which was white. The point was to practice with it at all time. As you sweated more, bled and generally messed it up over the years it would become darker, indicating your level of dedication and experience.


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