How Japan gave the world tsunamis

Posted on 11 March 2011


The massive tsunami off Sendai certainly did not just affect Japan (click to enlarge)

Today’s events in Japan will likely ricochet around the news for the next few days: as with events such as these, the death total will never be “final” as too many people will have been swept away – never to be found.

The 8.8-magnitude (MW 8.8) earthquake hit just off the north-east coast, off Japan’s Tōhoku region.

The British Geological Survey in Edinburgh is saying it was the sixth largest earthquake ever recorded.

The “megathrust” earthquake hit off-shore and caused a 10-metre tsunami that has devastated vast swathes of the country.

The word tsunami, which literally means “harbour wave”, actually comes from the Japanese words tsu (harbour) and nami (wave) – IPA: [tsɯnami]).

It’s unsurprising that the word come from Japanese – they have a long history of large tidal waves initiated by underwater earthquakes due to the highly seismic nature of the area.

(Actually, I shouldn’t have used the term ‘tidal wave’, as tsunamis have nothing to do with tides.)

Ten per cent of the world’s active volcanoes are in Japan: it’s known as an area of great “crustal instability” and is part of the Pacific “Ring of Fire” (in Japanese: 環太平洋火山帯 – translating something like Pacific belt of fire).

Japan sees around 1,500 earthquakes of various magnitudes a year (most noteworthy quakes are MW 4-6).

What’s more interesting from a linguistic point of view is that the majority of the world’s languages have adopted the word so easily.

The majority of languages that have a word other than tsunami are from the very same Ring of Fire – from the Philippines (Acehnese – ië beuna, alôn buluëk), Singapore (Tamil – aazhi peralai), Indonesia (Defayan – smong; Sigulai – emong).

Given the fact that Japan experiences this type of natural disaster so regularly, it’s unsurprising that we borrowed their word for it.

As a word, I think it contains sounds that are readily acceptable for a lot of languages. Nothing overly complicated. Three globally common vowels (if you take [ɯ] as its rounded counterpart [u]). Three globally common consonants (OK, [ts] is an affricate).

English, Welsh, French, Spanish and German have tsunami; Russian, Ukrainian and Serbian have цунами/цунамi (tsunami); Arabic has تسونامي (tsunami); Urdu has سونامی (sunami).

Even Albanian has cunami (tsunami).

To my ear at least, there’s something exotic and primal about the sound of the word. It’s almost like a mythical creature – a living monster-like entity from a book.

And I’m not sure about you, but I’m not convinced I could bring myself to say that a ‘smong’ had killed thousands of people.


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