How Japan gave the world tsunamis

Posted on 11 March 2011

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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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