Thursday, February 26, 2009

Liquid Morphemes

Japanese Band Names


Bump of Chicken

Many jokes have been cracked at the expense of Japanese language learners. Namely their difficulty in distinguishing between the 'R' and 'L' sound in spoken English.

Such cheap shots are entirely unfair since these sounds simply don't exist in the Japanese language. Linguists refer to them as the retroflex ('R') and lateral ('L') phonemes of the liquid morpheme.

In any case, the problem works both ways. Japanese has a sound which is a combination of 'R' and 'L'. Thus, a Japanese name like 'Ryoko' should be pronounced with a sound which is somewhere between an 'R' and an 'L' and which is, as far as I know, uniquely Japanese. Most foreigners fail to enunciate this sound correctly, preferring to reduce it to a simple 'R'.

For music fans, one entertaining by-product of this language point is its effect on Japanese band names.

The most famous example is the case of Glay, the Japanese superstars who are known for their androgynous look and outrageous hairdos. They make records too, but I wouldn't bother with those if I were you.

Anyway, the official explanation of the band's strange name is that it was a deliberate mispelling of the word 'gray', intended to represent their style of music, a mixture of rock (black) and pop (white).

The more likely explanation is that, like many of their countryfolk, the band simply confused the spelling and fell victim to the familiar 'R' and 'L' problem.

In the case of Tokyo ska punks Shaka Labbits, the confusion is intentional, since the band wished to combine their favorite animal, the rabbit, with the phrase 'Love it'.

Fair enough, I guess.

An amusing language error was definitely the reason behind the strange name of Tokyo punks Thee Machine Gun Elephant. When they recorded a cover version of a song on The Damned's Machine Gun Etiquette album, a friend mispronounced the name.

Like many western bands, Japanese rockers often pay homage to their cultural heroes when choosing a name. I immediately recognized The Mad Capsule Markets' moniker from a William Gibson novel. T-Bolan were obviously inspired by my teen favourite - T. Rex vocalist Marc Bolan.

It's fun trying to guess the hidden meaning behind the more esoteric Japanese band names. In the case of Chiba rockers Bump of Chicken I like to imagine their name refers to the goosebumps fans feel when listening to their music.

Blankey Jet City's name suggests emptiness and urban ennui, which is quite appropriate considering most of their songs deal with issues like juvenile delinquency and broken homes.

Tokyo metal act Maximum the Hormone inexplicably used to write their name in Latin script, but their sobriquet certainly conjures the testosterone-fueled energy of much metal music. Unfortunately, the band suck.

In some cases, band names serve only to baffle the listener. Tokyo Yankees seem to be confusing music with sports, but other names simply defy understanding. What are The Autopsy Report of Drowning Shrimp about? Or Doping Panda? Coaltar of the Deepers? Guniw Tools? Your guess is as good as mine.

Some Japanese bands have great names. Lunkhead and Melt Banana are particular favorites and their noms de guerre make me want to hear their music. Likewise The Pees. I have a feeling they'd get on rather well with my old band The Pubes.

Everyone has his limits, though. I wonder if HIDE with Spead Beaver or Sound Masturbation really know how their names sound to westerners? And I can assure you I won't be getting together anytime soon with either Bathtub Shitters, Pussy Pudding, Flying Testicles or The Garlic Boys.

1 comment:

Cushion Meg said...

I think your comments are considerate and reserved, avoiding the straight expression of dislike for excess, abusurdity and the ludicrous. I appreciate your thoughtfulness. Agree with you. I would rather shut them out before listening to them.