Symbols?

Do you know about the new Power Rangers series? It’s called Power Rangers Samurai. I glimpse it every now and again on NickToons/Nickolodeon; it’s somewhat nostalgic in that they use a theme song reminiscent of the original Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers. That and I watched the Japanese Mahou Sentai Magiranger (which was remade into Power Rangers Mystic Force) and I mistakenly forgot that the English version doesn’t usually compare…

But anyway, the premise of the story is that there are 5 young people raised in the way of the Samurai. They make mention, I think, of family lineage tracing back to ancient Japanese Samurai. The Rangers use Power Symbols passed down from parent to child to fight the evil Master Xandred’s minions (pronounced ‘Zandred’).  For example, they write 超, “super” to summon their Zords. And each Ranger uses the Power Symbol of a specific element to transform:

火 – Red Ranger, Fire
水 – Blue Ranger, Water
天 – Pink Ranger, sky/Heaven
木 – Green Ranger, tree/Forest
土 – Yellow Ranger, Earth
光 – Gold Ranger, Light

So, here’s my small point of contention: they actually call them Power Symbols. After just a few weeks of Japanese class, all my classmates called these kind of ‘symbols’ by another word: kanji, which is the Japanese word for this writing system. It’s hard for me to imagine that people who have Japanese heritage would call these kanji “symbols”. Their parents’ parents’ parents would have called them kanji and it makes sense that the term, so specific to their Samurai heritage, would be retained.

But that’s just me… I know the writers and producers have to make it so their target audience wouldn’t look at the screen and say, “Huh?” And having to provide a definition of “kanji” might be undesirable compared to just using the easily recognisable term “symbol”. I realise, though, that English speakers tend to do that; we don’t call foreign-language writing systems with such terms as “letters” and “words”.

Granted, my Japanese teachers do not use the term “letter” when referring to the language; they use the word “character” (字, ji, in Japanese). Understandable; it’s a completely different kind of system. It is phonemic, meaning you match sound to character; there isn’t really “spelling” in Japanese, once you hear it, you basically can write it. Hebrew speakers, on the other hand, do use the word letter (אות, ōt).

Two Facebook conversations helped me to come to the conclusion that we tend to call non-Latin-based writings “symbols”. Here, I posted a random Hebrew word I learnt:

Maybe...

אולי

And here, I posted another. Morfix is really a good resource. The Hebrew ads are sometimes good incentive to look up a random word I see but don’t recognize.

הארי פוטר

I’m somewhat anal about certain things.  But it was cool to see this theory of mine in action.

~Ken

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5 Responses to Symbols?

  1. Heh, well I kind of have to snicker at the fact that you’re complaining about bad writing in a Power Rangers show.
    Ever since a few weeks ago, when you pointed it out to me, I realized it did sound… almost bigoted that I refer to unfamiliar characters as “symbols” (especially Hebrew letters, which function more like our characters than Japanese ones). It’s like I view foreign characters as alien hieroglyphics. So you have an interesting point here. I am humbled!

    But I wonder, maybe it’s kind of like how music teachers want you to refer to a song as a “piece.” It’s just a broader term that works for more situations, like “character.” Do you think that, say, Hebrew or Japanese speakers would be offended by my saying “symbol”? Probably varies from person to person, right?

    Interesting indeed!

    Like

  2. read.robin says:

    Aren’t symbols taken as ‘things that have meaning’? It’s not exactly denigrating the language, so much as using an umbrella term for things you don’t quite understand. Roman letters/words are symbols, in the same way that Russian and Korean characters are.

    But I do think that people ought to try a little harder to understand the different cultures we have to share our world with. It’s not fair for us to be so blasé about their language when they’re so hyped up about ours.

    Great post!

    Like

  3. Pingback: Symbols part 2 « Mr. Multilingual

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