That’s a Hummer


After all these years of learning Japanese, there are still times when I get thrown. And sometimes it is really simple stuff that gets me. Today a first grader with a tiny body and a smaller voice came to the office seeking the school nurse, who happens to be away. Painfully shy though she was, one teacher decided she should go to the front of the room and explain her medical need to the Vice Principal.

Checking on her condition, the Vice Principal asked her several times, something that sounded like, “Hanauta?” Hanauta (鼻歌・鼻唄) is a word I know well – it means ‘humming’ – however, in this context it made no sense. Perhaps the VP was asking if she’d like to hum while waiting, or if she was humming to intensely and injured herself. (Personally, I really hate those humming injuries; they’re the worst.) Of course, he was really asking her, “Hana o utta?” (鼻を打った?) which means, “Did you hit your nose?”

The problem here is that, when people speak very quickly, speech gets blurred. In English add more liaison as we speak faster, as in, “I wanna go to the store. D’you wanna go with me?” In this Japanese sentence, because there are so many vowels together, they just get blurred together. Also, the double consonant – particularly difficult for English speakers to hear under the best conditions – is tough to pick up.

Similarly, my wife speaks quickly whenever she is complaining about mosquitoes. “Ka ni sasareta!” (蚊に刺された) Sometimes, especially in longer sentences or when I’m surprised and not paying attention, I get confused and think she’s talking about crabs – kani. I wonder for a moment, “What is a crab doing in our 4th floor apartment?”, before I realize what’s going on.


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