Saturday, January 16, 2010

Let's enjoy Japanese: That's a first

Another interesting thing about Japanese is that often you can take a kanji (or word) and just smoosh it together with a number of other kanji/words to form all kinds of cool compounds. One prefix that you'll see used quite a bit is 初(in this case はつ、 hatsu). 初 means "first" or "new" and is used to indicate something to which either of these adjectives applies. Here are a few examples:

初 + 雪 (ゆき, snow) = 初雪 (はつゆき, hatsuyuki), "first snow"

Last week there was a slight dusting outside, which I guess was a big deal since it doesn't snow too often around here. I overheard some excited teachers in the staff room exclaiming "あっ、初雪です!" - "Oh, first snow (of the winter/year)!"

初 + 詣 (もうで, pilgrimage) = 初詣 (はつもうで, hatsumoude), "first shrine/temple visit of the year"

The first pilgrimage of the New Year usually occurs on New Year's Day or in the week or so following. It's my understanding that while Japanese used to visit shrines, these days temples are visited as well.

初 + 恋 (こい, love or passion) = 初恋 (はつこい, はつこい), "first love"

Interestingly, this one seems to hold a slight but important difference of meaning in Japanese. It might be better to translate it as "first crush." I wasn't aware of this until last night, actually, when I was out with an American friend and some Japanese. Someone asked my friend and I about our 初恋, and we both answered that ours were in college. One of the girls remarked something like "ちょっと遅いじゃない?" - "Isn't that a little late?" After a short, confused discussion we realized that we were working with two different definitions of "first love."

There are a number of these "hatsu" compounds out there. Keep your ears open and perhaps you'll be able to exclaim "初耳ですね!" (Hastumimi desune) - "This is the first time I've heard it!"

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