Life Sounds
Part II: Phonology

   The kana syllabery-the schedule of basic Japanese word-sounds represented by the kana character set-constitutes an elemental table of the sounds associated with language. In the same way that a mirror reflects three-dimensional depth, the face of this table reflects both universal phoetic principles and the dynamics of the human vocal anatomy.

   The syllabery describes the evolution of word-sounds along a strict geometric trajectory and following a precise set of rules. And just as the pentacular aspect of the alphabetical order (Character Sound & Number, Volume 2 Issue 3) has remained concealed from Western society for as long as the alphabet has been in use, the significance and value of this remarkable key to phonetic order continues to go virtually unrecognized, even in its country of origin.

Language is central to life. And since language is fundamentally phonetic, we can say that the phonology of language is also the phonology life.

Conventional phonetic theory, in my opinion, is far to awkward and cumbersome to add meaningfully to a dialogue concerning language as the phenomenological aspect of life. Citing Occam's razor, I propose that the description of word - sounds as contained in the Japanese kana syllabery better serves that function. This issue makes the case for the kana syllabery as a table of fundamental life - sounds ( meihaonhyo ), a universal standard that puts the relationship between sound and meaning back on solid ground.

Steve Earle

EDITOR Steve Earle
Mitsunori Hatta
Shizuru Kikuchi
Kaoru Kuriyama
Yuko Nagano

   This discussion is best undertaken in the first person: I ask that you voice these sounds out loud as we go along. Inherent in this request is the implication that you choose an appropriate time and place. You don't need to be particularly loud, however you probably want to sit up straight and breath deeply. In a physical as well as ontological sense, these sounds resonate deeply, originating from the same abdominal power and vocal resonance characteristic of the closed syllable n.

   In fact, abdominally grounded vocal resonance is the defining quality of this sound-set. It is the essential characteristic that distinguishes the elemental word-sounds and has everything to do with determining which sounds show up within the kana syllabery. Conversely, consonant combinations occurring in English and other languages that do not appear in this table are omitted because they lack sufficient vocal resonance and the openness it implies.

   Take the sound sh, common in English, as an example: Used as a continuous sound-as in shhh!-sh is not vocal. It carries little power and no vocal resonance and therefore has no place within the table of word-sounds. Shi as a momentary sound, on the other hand, is resonant, and does occur within the table of basic sounds. Furthermore, shi is an open syllable; wash, fish, and push are all closed.

   Let me be clear that this argument does not advocate cultural chauvinism, nor does it suggest that the phonetic characteristics of different languages should be held to some obscure standard. Whether a sound is open or closed implies nothing regarding its usefulness in a linguistic context. English, as a language made up of predominantly closed syllables, contains any number of sounds outside of those described by the kana syllabery, yet English is hardly deficient in its ability to communicate (the simple observation that the phenomenon of open and closed syllables can be discussed with equal precision in either English or Japanese is ample proof).

   What can be stated fairly, however, is that open syllables are elemental to phonetics (syllables need to be opened first before they can be closed) and nowhere is that elemental phonology captured so precisely and so completely as in the Japanese kana syllabery. In that sense, the Japanese word-sounds are a direct reflection of the original


The vowel sounds in the Japanese kana syllabery are full and uninflected. Constants of spoken language, these sounds are universally recognized and the most natural to pronounce.

The examples given below assume normal American pronunciation. Listen for the core vowels in the words given and drop any changes or inflections; you should be able to extend each of these sounds indefinitely with no change in quality.

a: Pronounced like the central vowels in harp, shop, and palm.
i: Pronounced like the vowel in he, be, and knee.
u: Pronounced like the central vowel in shoe, two, and flu.
e: Pronounced like the central vowel in head, said, and stem.
o: Pronounced like the o in poem and the central vowels in hoe, smoke, and tone.

phonetic order inherent to universal expansion (Character Sound & Number, Volume 2 Issue 3). By comparison, many, if not most, of the sounds of English are later linguistic developments-a statement that is, of course, born out by the relative ages of English and Japanese.

   Let's begin: The phenomenon of sound begins with the colsed, internal ayllable n (Character Sound & Number, Volume 2 Issue 3). When n lets go it transforms itself into its antithesis, the most open of the open syllables. a is both the first sound in the kana syllabery and the sound of the first letter in the alphabet; it is the opening upon which all other word-sounds follow.

   Not surprisingly, the cry of a baby at birth is phonetically similar to a. When a baby cries, it does so as an act of totally subjective and uncontrolled expression. This original mode of expression- emotional, not verbal-is reflected in a, the original verbal utterance. The openness of the syllable a is its distinguishing quality: a is the opening up of expression through which the entire phenomenon of language flows.

   This expression learns control in the shape of the subsequent vowels, the culmination of which is the vowel sound o. a and o are complementary opposites: Where a is subject, o is its object. o is the potential of a fully realized. Where a is wantonly expressive, o is sculpted, fully shaped and rounded. (My use of metaphors here applies strictly to these sounds in their rolls as phonetic values and not as words. In contrast, each of these sounds as a word-sound encompasses a field of meaning far broader than can possibly be embraced metaphorically: Where, in written Japanese, each ideograph represents a different aspect of meaning, there are some thirty-seven different ideographs that can be read a and over one hundred different ideographs for the sound o. This is a subject for another time; what I am describing here is the place of these sounds within the phonetic scheme.)

   Within the family of language sounds, the syllables ending in a -ma, ba, and da, for example-since they are the easiest to pronounce, are learned earliest in a child's development. The o

sounds -mo, bo, and do, for example-demand a certain degree of self-control and awareness, and are learned later.

   a and o strike a mean half way between each other in the vowel u. u is the mean in every sense of the word; it is the stuff that all of the other vowels are made of.

   Not only is it the sound that all the other vowels are made of, it is also the sound they fall back into. u is the direct extension of n. As the central vowel, it represents the basis or core of the word-sounds.

   u is the path of least resistance. To prove this, begin with the closed mouth n sound. Sit up straight, take a deep breath, and make a long extended - nnn... You should feel it resonate in your nasal cavity. With experimentation you will find that the most effortless way to make this sound is to close off the vocal air-stream by touching the tip of the tongue to the forward roof of the mouth; this way the lips need be only very lightly touching or even slightly apart.

   Now, while continuing this sound, allow your tongue to relax, returning to a neutral position within the lower half of the mouth. The results will be self-evident. Stripped of all other activity, and with mouth and tongue in an open position and fully relaxed state, vocal sound always returns to u. This u, when it opens wide becomes a; when it rounds itself becomes o; and in either case, when it relaxes, resolves back to u again.

   It also becomes, when the tongue presses against the lower front teeth, i, and when the tongue is retracted and welled up, forcing u toward the top of the mouth, it becomes e. i is the working aspect of u; that is, if u is the sound of least resistance, i is the sound of greatest activity. e, as it rides on the back of the tongue, is the conditional or situational aspect of u.

   If n is the sound of preconditional ( closed) being, u is the sound of fulfillment or manifestation of being (the character , read u, means being or existence). u is the fulfillment of the preconditional self-seeking motor force behing creation carried through to an open, outgoing state. The other four vowels are aspects of this fulfillment: a is its open aspect; i is its working or functional aspect; e is its situational or conditional aspect; and o is its cumulative or objective aspect. u is the grandmother of all vowels and the vowels are the mother (boin- literally, mother sound (s) ) of all language sounds.

   The character for child shi, as in shiin, child-sounds-the term for the syllables to the left of the vowels biginning in consonants-is a composite of ryo, to complete, and-hajime, to begin: A child is a new beginning occurring on top of, or as a result of, a completion -the biological completion of a new unit of life and the fulfillment of a fundamental imperative on the part of its parents (in the same way that the parents bear the child, the child makes parents of its progenitors). Most appropriately, the appearance of the child sounds is a new beginning occurring on top of the completion and fulfillment of the universal expansion.

   Mention of a "father sound" is conspicuous in its absence. In the usual schedule of Japanese word-sounds, where n appears in the upper far-left corner of the table (see Character Sound & Number, Volume 2 Issue 2), the identity of the father sound has remained hidden. The ontological arrangement (Character Sound & Number, Volume 2 Issue 2) proposed by Odano Sensei, on the other hand, brings to light once and for all the significance of n as the father vibration. n is the seed: The child sounds are conceived through the impregnation of the vowels with this primordial vibration.

* * *

   I will come back to the child sounds in a moment. Let me first take the discussion of the vowels to the domain of the alphabet. If the kana syllabery illuminates the relationship of the vowels to each other and to the other sounds phonetically, the alphabet does the same numerically. This is a whole discussion unto itself, so I will necessarily stick to highlights and proceed with restraint.

   A, E, and I all occur within the first ten letters of the alphabet: A is the first, E is the fifth, and I is the ninth. (You may want to compare the naming of the letters in English with the pronunciation of the corresponding vowels in Japanese.) Now add one, five and nine. The total, fifteen, is the number of O-the letter corresponding with the sound we described as object and associated with culmination.

   The number fifteen is composed of the numerals one and five. Allow me to digress briefly into the field of number theory: Because addition is characteristic of the universal expansion-the process that leads from one to many-all numerical process is a function of addition. Multiplication is accelerated addition. Subtraction is negative addition, and divesion is its negative acceleration.

   Thus, numbers are predisposed to combine through the process of addition. And all numbers, no matter how large, are represented through the combination of just ten original numerals. The digital representation of numbers through placement of numerals in numeral strings is also a form of addition: Notice that any number of more than one digit can be read as both a composite and a number string-fifteen, and one and five.

   That second reading, even in its grammatical construction, invites completion in the form of "One and five equals six." Through the process of addition, any multiple digit number, when read as a number string, can be resolved into one of the nine fundamental numerals. (There is no resolution back to zero. See Character Sound & Number, Volume I Issue 1 for a discussion of zero: Zero is not subject to the same arithmetic processes-addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division-as the other numbers because it is not, by strict definition, a number. Zero means no number.)

   Thus, to bring the value of O down within the same single-digit ranks as A, E, and I, add one and five together, giving six. This operation now makes it possible to add the values of A, E, I, and O without exceeding the numerical limits of the alphabet. The total is twenty -one, the value of U.

   Also note that the total value of all five vowels without any reductions is fifty-one. Fifty-one is also the number of basic sounds, including n, in the kana syllabery.

   Moreover, fifty-one points specifically to the fifty-first sound in that syllabery-the "father sound" n. The digits five and one can be read i and hi in Japanese ( ihi is also ihi, to speak or say), and these two kana characters placed together, side by side, form the ideograph ka, meaning to ransform. In other words, the fifty-one word-sounds are the result of the transformation of the fifty-first sound n.

   Five plus one (six) is the number of continuous sounds -the five-mother sounds plus the single father-sound n.

* * *

   If language without vowels is inconceivable, the idea of a language without consonants is equally absurd. While the vowels, together with their closed antecedent n, are definitive statements of the continuity associated with absolute being, the vowels alone are hardly up to the task of creating the infinite world of distinctions associated with an expanding evolutionary universe. Thus, the culmination that is the delineation of the vowel sounds-the completion ryo that ends in a new beginning-hajime-sets the stage for the birth of the sounds of language.

   I will pursue the development of the child-sounds through the middle or u rib of the table: u, ku, su, tsu, nu, fu, mu, yu, ru, and (w)u. In the same way that u is the central or mean aspect of the vowels, the central rib of the syllabery is the fundamental aspect of the child-sounds, and furthermore, what is true of the mother-sounds is also true of her children: ka is the opening of ku; ki is the working or functioning of ku; ke is the situation or conditioning of ku; and ko is the culmination or object of ku. These essential distinctions hold true in each vertical column of the table.

   I need your participation for this to work. Voice each of these sounds out loud. Please do not take my word for any of this; the description (my description) is no substitute for the experience (your experience).

   As we have established, the innate disposition of the sounds produced as a result of the infinite expansion is outgoing-away from a closed state and toward an open one. The new sounds formed in this process derive from the fragmentation of the preconditional closed state n into a number of registers or stops formed with the tongue, and later the lips, along the surface of the vocal cavity. The first of these sounds is ku.

   Say ku. Notice where ku registers, off the back of the tongue and toward the back of the mouth.

   Now pronounce the next sound, su, and notice the difference. su is formed by compressing the vocal air- stream between the forward section of the tongue and the forward roof of the mouth. Thus

the movement or change between ku and su, in terms of the vocal anatomy, represents one giant-step forward.

   Ku and su are followed first by tsu, registering off of the tip of the tongue pressed even further forward in the mouth, then by nu, the tongue now all the way forward behind the teeth.

   With nu, the pervasive background noise, n, makes a momentary appearance-an opportunistic peak into the foreground-in the guise of a child sound occurring just midway in the table.

* * *

   Suffer me yet another digression. For although this is not the place, nor even the proper medium, to relate the positioning of these sounds to their respective meanings, I find it difficult to pass on the opportunity. Remember that i, we said, is the working or functioning aspect of u (u itself the fulfillment of n). i is also one reading of the number five (also noted in the discussion of the number fifty- one and the character ). Now, the sounds na, ni, nu, ne, and no are the fifth column in the table of fifty sounds. We can say then, that the fifth column as a whole-all five sounds-can be taken to be the working function of n.

   This distiction comes alive when ideographic meanings are attached to these same sounds: na, name or word; ni, carries or is carried by (the question nani, what?-the function of inquiry- carries or is carried by names or words); nu (also read yatsu or yakko ), manservant, rascal, or clown (man, humanity); ne (oto), sound; no, working or function. Man (humanity) nu is the rascal or clown whose inherent questions (curiosity) nani-carried by or carrying ni names or words na -are endowments of the functioning no of sound (word-sounds) ne. With the fifth column, the working aspect of the father-sound n, humanity enters fully into the picture.

* * *

   The sounds ku through nu map an outward progression of the tongue along the roof of the mouth. With nu we exhaust those possibilities: The tongue has made its way all the way forward and has nowhere left to go.

   The next register, therefore, occurs fully off of the tongue and outside of the mouth cavity on the fleshy underside of the lips. This is fu (fu in Japanese is an airy f, the lips never fully close; notice that the aspect sounds of fu are ha, hi,

he, and ho).

   Next, the positioning of consonant registers now having reached the farthest extremity of the human vocal anatomy, the lips seal firmly over the top of the air-stream, this time on their dry outer edge. This is mu.

   In this way, the occurrence of the child sounds, so far, charts an orderly progression of vocal stops at locations further and further forward in the mouth and at smaller and smaller intervals. As best I am able to determine from my own crude calculations, this trajectory along the surface of the vocal cavity and lips describes a geometric spiral, the same spiral found in nature in everything from nebula to conch shells and pine cones. Conjecture though this may be, it also predicts what happens next.

   Having no more options in terms of outward movement, u now doubles back on itself. It does so first in its working or functional capacity as i. i sounded against u becomes yu. Likewise, ya, (y)i (i against i is transparent; the y is silenced), (y)e (y again silent), and yo.

   From yu, u moves to its situational or conditional aspect, e. This next change is not immediately apparent, however this makes Odano Sensei's insightful recognition of the principle behind this change all the more compelling. As it requires some explanation I request your indulgence.

   The ninth column of the kana table is ra, ri, ru, re, and ro. In this case the sounds and their

English spellings are not exact equivalents. The spellings are not incorrect but they are, to an English speaker's ear, misleading.

   Taken in the global context, r is one of the more elusive consonants. In French it is pronounced further back in the throat than k. In German, and in some English accents-Scottish for example-it is rolled. In American English it is slurred. And in proper English, as well as in the highly improper English of my native New England, it is often glossed over or reinvented as a vowel (local pronunciation of Harvard Square as a case in point). I mention all of this simply to suggest that the variety in r's existence may say something about its essential nature.

   The Japanese pronunciation of the sounds ra, ri, ru, re, and ro sound, to a native English speaker's ear, more like l's than r's. They are formed with a single tap of the tongue to the forward part of the palette somewhere roughly halfway in between the English pronunciation of r and l. Nonetheless, subtle though it may be, the r quality of these sounds is unmistakable. What these r sounds have in common with those mentioned above-the quality that distinguishes r from l-is that they "ride" on the tongue.

   Even this functional description of r-that is, its description as a sound that "rides" on the tongue-is similar to the description we applied to e as the situational aspect of u.

   ru is e sounded against u. The "against" is the critical element. The evolutionary geometric spiral has now turned inward on itself and e is actually sounding back on top of, or in opposition to, the outward sounding of a, i, u, e, and o. The inward-turned e and the outward-sounding vowel ( each of the vowels in turn) are compressed, momentarily, into a single sound, creating a new vocal stop.

   If you try to do this-to pronounce e and u together, e and a together, etc.-the results should be quite obvious: In order to make the two vowel syllables into one, the tip of the tongue flicks upward, taping the palette to become ra, ri, ru, re, and ro.

   wa, wi, (w)u, we, and wo require far less explanation. Their construction is self-evident: As even its name implies, W is a doubling up of U, and thus, the final tenth column is a return to the mean. wa is u against a; wi is u against i; (w)u is u against u (the w becomes transparent); we is u against e; and wo is u against o. The grandmother of all sounds has come full circle, residing here as a momentary child- sound. The universal movement manifest through these periodic changes comes to rest as a microcosmic image of itself (o is oo, meaning large, and wo is wo, meaning small).

* * *

   In addition to the fifty basic sounds there are twenty voiced and five contra-voiced derivatives. The voicing of ka, ki, ku, ke, ko produces ga, gi, gu, ge, go; the voicing of sa, shi, su, se, so produces za, ji, zu, ze, zo; the

voicing of ta, chi, tsu, te, to produces da, ji, zu, de, do; and the voicing of ha, hi, fu, he, ho becomes ba, bi, bu, be, bo.

   When more pressure (intention) is applied to ba, bi, bu, be, bo, these sounds become pa, pi, pu, pe, po. These five sounds are conventioanlly described as half-voiced sounds, handakuon, however this is a misnomer. pa, pi, pu, pe, and po are not voiced at all; rather, they are a product of the function of voicing, at its extreme, turning into its opposite. They are also sometimes described as haretsuon, ruptured sounds, the rupture occurring under extreme pressure. Where ba, bi, bu, be, and bo are wet, pa, pi, pu, pe, and po are dry. Odano Sensei has renamed these sounds, not handakuon, half-voiced sounds, but handakuon, contra-voiced sounds.

* * *

   Together these seventy-six sounds constitute what Odano Sensei has meihaon, life-vibrational sounds. They hold up as a benchmark for the phonetic constirution of not only Japanese but also all languages, accurately describing the phonetic capabilities of the human voice and classifying the sounds of language into their major groups. Again, you need not take my word for this; put the sounds of English up against this table and see for yourself if they don't align themselves with the major groupings as established by the kana syllabery.

* * *

   We have been talking about an auditory medium through a written one. This discussion would be much easier to carry on side by side, and I can only hope that you have been able to follow my imperfect lead. Hopefully you now have a sense of the remarkable order behind the arrangement of this phonetic table. With luck, I have also managed to communicate it with some passion.

   If this explanation has succeeded to impress upon you any measure of the extraordinary logic and economy of design behind the order and layout of the kana syllabery, consider the following. This table has been around in the exact same form for no-one knows how long-at least five thousand years and probably much longer (ancient documents, such as the Tkakenouchi Monjyo, suggest that writing systems have existed in Japan for 20,000 to 50,000 years). It is one of the first things every child learns in school and what determines the order of names in the telephone book. Yet, despite its ubiquitous presence in Japanese culture, historical and current, nowhere outside of my association with Sanae Odano have I ever heard it explained in the way that I have just outlined.

   One might assume that the correspondence between phonic progression in the human vocal cavity and the order in which these sounds occur within the kana syllabery would be obvious: It is not. It is not addressed in textbooks. Nor is it mentioned in ancient documents. It is certainly not to be foound in the lore of kotodama. Outside of the immediate circle of Odano Sensei's students, it remains virtually unknown.

   The intrinsic order of this table is far too brilliant to be a product of human invention. It can only have taken shape directly out of intuitive processes and entered into common usage through centuries of cultural conditioning. Since then it has become an unquestioned institution, in the same way that we accept the order of the alphabet without question.

   The table of seventy-six word sounds (meihaon, life-vibrational sounds) as a guide to the formation of word-sounds is an essential resource-a key to the understanding of our humanity (a fancy way of saying, the understanding of who we are). Considering the profundity of this resource I can only interpret the keeping and preservation of this table of basic, "golden" sounds into the modern era to be a naturally endowed mission inherent to Japanese culture. Just as the analytical and numerical processes characteristic of science and commerce are clearly implied in the Roman alphabet and Arabic numerals that make up the cultural underpinnings of the West, so are the phonetic principles behind human language implied in the kana syllabery.

   I like the word mission because it clearly implies responsibility rather than privilege. The fact that Japan has been endowed with this remarkable resource for safe-keeping reflects only marginally on the Japanese themselves, who-outside of Odano Sensei and the people associated with her-remain as oblivious to the value of the kana syllabery as the rest of the world. The profundity of design behind the scope of human culture and its implications with regard to global evolution, of which the respective missions of Western and Japanese culture are ultimately just parts, far transcends national and cultural boundaries. All of this is nature at work.

   Spculative? Of course. However how else to explain the emergence of these principles now at this critical juncture in human history? The timing is too uncanny to be otherwise than by design, a design in which Sanae Odano appears to play a pivotal roll. The character for secret or hidden, hi, is a composite of shimesu, to show or reveal, and kanarazu, always and without exception: There are

no secrets; that which is concealed is always revealed. All that is ever required to uncover the intrinsic principles of linguistic design is to ask the obvious question, why? By virtue of living the question, Odano has managed to uncover, quite unexpectedly, what has been meant all along to be found.

   Which provides a convenient lead-in to the next chapter of this discussion. The ultimate value of the kana syllabery is the manner in which it supports the unique use of the ideographic characters in Japanese and opens a new linguistic domain where words themselves begin speaking.


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