Orthography jokes are the slickest jokes

To a linguist, at least. And other than one majestically terse line from Sakaguchi, nothing in the new series of Gintama has tickled me more.

Already we’re back to the same old tricks. Gintama typically deals in references that transcend generations (Doraemon, Gundam, etc.), but the opening of the new series provided us with a play-by-play parody of a viral press event video from last summer. (Find the full story here.)

 
Okay cool, but this is just context for this scene’s corresponding bookend, coming at the conclusion of the two-episode arc. As predicted, they do discuss the change to the new logo. It is the same two kanji as ever, with an additional ° (rather than the ‘ of the last series). Gin provides the hiragana, a more phonetic spelling, as if this will help with pronunciation.

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This does not help. This is actually not a real spelling of anything; that circle (called maru) is nonsense masquerading as sense. Here’s how.

Most hiragana are /CV/ syllables, consisting of a consonant and a vowel ([ka], [ki], [ku], [ke], [ko], for example); five are a vowel only ([a], [i], [u], [e], [o]); one is a syllabic nasal (/N/, which is not always [n] exactly but may morph its place of articulation depending on . . . oh, never mind).

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Notice how [k] and [g] both happen at the back of your tongue, but only [g] makes your throat vibrate? That’s the difference between voiceless and voiced consonants. In the Japanese syllabaries, /kV/ syllables may be turned into /gV/ syllables simply by adding tenten, the little ” marks, which you are seeing in action in that first character in the sign above—[ki] plus ” making [gi].

Any voiceless consonant syllable in hiragana may be turned into a voiced counterpart in this way. Including /hV/, which in Japanese does not have a direct phonetic counterpart, but instead turns /hV/ into /bV/. And adding maru makes /hV/ syllables into /pV/ (which, for the nerdy, is the actual voiceless counterpart to the voiced /bV/ and is perhaps the root cause of all this maru mess). This only works on the /hV/ set, no other set uses maru.

But in the image above, it’s been stuck on a /tV/ syllable. That circle is now acting something like a dot on a ‘t’—it’s complete nonsense. Yet Gin challenges Shinpachi (who was acting like a little shit in that introductory segment, to be fair) to pronounce it.

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Tenten on /tV/ make /dV/, and Shinpachi is using this information to try to make some kind of comparable amendment with the maru. But the result is, of course, not to Gin’s satisfaction (BUT AS A LINGUIST I CAN SAY THAT’S A PRETTY DAMN GOOD NON-IPA TRANSLITERATION OF WHAT I HEARD, JUST SAYING), so he makes him try again. Shinpachi immediately finds a(nother) problem.

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Which is even more impossible than that last thing. The maru is now on [n], which is, by its very nature, already voiced and cannot accept even tenten, let alone maru. SHUT UP IT’S FUCKING HILARIOUS.

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