This week is the fourth sound from the second column, ‘ke‘, represented in hiragana as け and in katakana as ケ. There is also a lower case ‘ke‘ in katakana, , which will make an appearance in Sunday Soundcheck 11 the week after next. Why will ‘ke‘ appear when I’m discussing ‘ga‘, you ask? Well, come take a look when I write that up.
Today I came across a Japanese word which is easy to find and doesn’t appear in most textbooks. Probably you wouldn’t slide it into just any conversation, unless you are an architect or an accountant, but here it is:
keta (けた) – which means ‘beam’ or ‘girder’. There are a lot of low bridges in Japan. The sign I saw said けた注意, literally ‘mind the beam’, or more commonly ‘Caution Low Clearance’ in America. I asked my friend why it was in hiragana. Her first response was, “There is no kanji for that.” I expressed doubt, as I often do, and she considered it further before answering again, “The kanji for that is very difficult.” Both of those are valid reasons why some things are spelled out in kana.
When I hear the words ‘kanji’ and ‘difficult’ in the same sentence, my natural response is to dive into my dictionary; usually with great haste. I was surprised when I found it, because it is not so difficult and I have seen it in other places fairly often. It is indeed not on the list of ‘common-use kanji’ (常用漢字), for which we use the term jouyougai (常用外), but it is commonly used. We see it used in math to represent ‘figures’, ‘columns’, and ‘places’. In those cases, the kanji is preferred because it is compact, but on a sign warning drivers, readability takes preference. One would hate to see a driver, pondering the meaning of a sign, run into the low beam; hence hiragana is used here. The kanji for keta is 桁 .
I was surprised not to find a lot of foreign words beginning with ‘ke‘. Place names like Cambridge and Kentucky come up, but those aren’t necessarily used in everyday conversation. Some folks do use Kentucky to mean KFC, which is very popular at Christmastime. Here are a few words, all from English:
kea (ケア) – is the romanized form of ‘care’. This word has risen in popularity as the family structure becomes more westernized. There are a lot of retirement homes and other types of care providers popping up.
keesu (ケース) – is a ‘case’. This is commonly used in ‘pencil case’ or ‘violin case’, but it not generally applicable. For example, brushes are kept in a fudebako (筆箱), or ‘brush box’. These are circumstances where a Japanese word could be used, but I think the choice falls on the language of the modifying word. It is used enough that one could probably say something like fude keesu and not be misunderstood. Other uses can be: glass cases for display; a situation, like a test case; or a grammatical case.
keeburu (ケーブル) – is the English word ‘cable’. With the spread of high technology come new words. Sometimes it is easier to adopt a word from another language for that use. A lot of computer terms are taken from English because a lot of early computer innovation took place in America and a lot of computer users are also there.
Next week is the end of the ‘K’ column, but it will make a return engagement.