A Hundred Gourds 4:3 June 2015

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Go-Shichi-Go: How Japanese and English
Syllables Differ

by Michael Dylan Welch

A central characteristic of haiku in Japanese is go-shichi-go, the pattern or rhythm of 5-7-5. This pattern has been described in Japanese haiku as being composed of “syllables.” As a result, haiku in English is widely taught as also following a pattern of 5-7-5 syllables. However, it’s an error to believe that English-language haiku should have the same number of “syllables” as Japanese, or even count syllables at all, because what the Japanese count is significantly different from what we count—quite simply, 100 yen is not the same as 100 dollars. Because of how Japanese and English syllables differ, and because of other language differences, counting 5-7-5 syllables is an urban myth for haiku in English. Furthermore, the promotion of this myth has been to the detriment of targets such as the season word, cutting word, and objective sensory imagery, which are actually more important in any language than merely counting syllables, yet are almost never taught.

A chief difference between syllables in English and Japanese is how short all syllables are in Japanese, and how variable they can be in English. Consider, for example, the name “Jo” (the feminine name, omitting the silent “e” used in the masculine name). All Japanese syllables are essentially like this word—very short, with the mouth staying in just a single position for the duration of the sound (whether counted for the sake of haiku or not). Even when a Japanese word has multiple syllables, each one is very short. Two common words in English that are like Japanese words in this respect are “area” and “radio”—short words with lots of syllables. But of course we have longer syllables with consonant clusters, as in “strengths,” which Japanese never has. In fact, when Japanese borrows words from English and other languages, it adds syllables to it, as demonstrated by the Japanese pronunciation of “Christmas” as “kurisumasu”—taking the word from two syllables to five.

Now consider the following progression, in which the initial “Jo” sound has additional sounds added to it in English, all while still keeping the word to just one syllable:

joys (voiced “s” sound)
Joyce (unvoiced “s” sound)

In contrast to “Jo,” notice how the mouth moves when you say “joy.” In saying the word slowly, you can feel your mouth move from the “o” of “Joe” to the long “e” ending sound of “joy.” You begin the word by pursing your lips roundly as if to kiss, and then widen your mouth broadly into a smile to make the end of the “oy” sound. The sound moves from “oh” to “ee” in becoming “joy,” yet this is still considered to be just one syllable (likewise, the word “fire” is just one syllable even though the mouth may move from “fie” to “er” in saying it, and “hour” is just one syllable too, though the mouth may move from “ow” to “er”—and these words are indeed technically just one syllable, despite beliefs to the contrary, for the same reason that “joy” is one syllable).

Then, when you add the “s” to make “joys,” you add an extra ending to the word, a voiced “s” sound (actually a “z” sound). Yet still the word is just one syllable. It’s the same, too, when you add an unvoiced “s” sound to make the name “Joyce.” But English doesn’t stop there. You can add a “t” sound at the end of “Joice” to make “joist.” Yet still the word is one syllable.

We are already far removed from the single mouth position that makes up practically every single Japanese syllable, yet we can do still more in English. We can add an “s” at the end to make “joists”—yet the word is still just one syllable. It would be a stretch to add a possessive to this plural, but we might even write “joists’s.” This usage is nonstandard, but some people may treat the possessive plural that way. As such, the addition of yet another letter (if not an additional sound) demonstrates in the extreme how malleable English-language syllables can be compared with Japanese. Whether that’s still just one syllable might be murky, but I believe linguists would say that it is.

The progression here illustrates how variable English syllables are, making seventeen-syllable haiku not only longer in sound duration but also capable of packing in a lot more information than Japanese haiku. As Patricia Donegan notes in Haiku: Asian Arts & Crafts for Creative Kids (Boston: Tuttle, 2003), “In Japanese, seventeen syllables makes about six words, but seventeen syllables in English usually makes about twelve words or more. . . . So, in English, seventeen syllables, in most cases, would be too long for haiku”. As Gary Snyder said in a 2007 interview with Udo Wenzel , “I don’t think counting 5,7,5 syllables is necessary or desirable. To reflect the natural world, and the season, is to reflect what is.” The point is that by using a 5-7-5 syllable count in English, one is violating the Japanese form rather than preserving it, not even taking into consideration the way syllable-counting routinely overshadows or even entirely obscures other targets for haiku poetry. For this reason, the vast majority of poets writing literary haiku in English do not follow a 5-7-5 syllable count, but instead have explored a number of alternatives, which include the following, among others:

1. One breath (whether in one line or three, or other variations).
2. Short-long-short (usually in three lines).
3. Other symmetrical syllable patterns (shorter than 5-7-5).
4. A two-three-two beat pattern (counting accented syllables).
5. Organic form (not to be confused with so-called “free” form).

In practice, these alternative approaches come much closer to the traditional form in Japanese than does 5-7-5, and are employed in concert with other vital targets. One may still write successful 5-7-5-syllable haiku in English, provided that one also hits those other targets, but if one does so, each resulting poem remains significantly longer than traditional haiku in Japanese. Most of these alternatives, by the way, presume a three-line form for haiku in English, and even that is a Western adaptation (haiku are written in a single vertical line in Japanese).

A point to make about the “short-long-short” approach to English-language haiku is that even that is not as simple as it may seem. Compare the following two nonsense poems:

through stressed strengths
radio ion
screeched borscht twelfths

audio gaga
stretched through stressed wrench
pitiful solo

The first one is “short-long-short” in terms of syllables, but not visually. And the second one, in terms of syllables, is the opposite: “long-short-long”—but again, not visually. So even the seemingly simple goal of writing in a “short-long-short” pattern (which is part of haiku’s “rhythm” in Japanese) can be problematic in English, which is one of the reasons I aim at organic form for my own haiku, letting the content, sounds, and poetic effects guide the form—a form that must, in effect, be reinvented with each new poem.

Something else to know is that our use of vowels and consonants differs greatly from Japanese usage, too, as can be seen when comparing English to romaji, not the kanji, hiragana, and katakana writing systems used in Japanese. For more information about this, see “The differences between English and Japanese”. English has words such as “catchphrase,” with six consonants in a row, or “queueing,” with five vowels in a row, which Japanese never comes close to. Rather, in Japanese, every consonant is pronounced with a vowel sound, except when the letter “n” appears at the end of a word, in which case that letter is counted as a separate sound (which is never the case in English). For example, the Japanese would count the word “sign” as having three sounds (sigh-ya-n), whereas it’s just one syllable in English (this example comes from Kōji Kawamoto’s The Poetics of Japanese Verse, Tokyo: University of Tokyo Press, 2000). “Scarf” is also one syllable in English, but counts as four sounds in Japanese (su-ka-a-fu) (this example from Abigail Friedman’s The Haiku Apprentice, Berkeley, California: Stone Bridge Press, 2006). Likewise, “haiku” is two syllables in English, but counts as three sounds in Japanese (ha-i-ku)—a fact that Harold G. Henderson pointed out as early as 1934 with his book on haiku, A Bamboo Broom (New York: Houghton Mifflin).

While the sounds counted in Japanese are tallied independently of their orthography (whether in Japanese characters or their romaji representations), English is a very complicated language to spell, leading even native English speakers to misunderstand syllables, such as thinking that a word such as “stacked” is two syllables when it reality it is just one, even though it may look like two syllables (see my essay, “What Is a Syllable,” at Graceguts). As already mentioned, misunderstandings also lead some people to believe that words such as “hour” and “fire” might be two syllables each, when they’re not—a fact easily confirmed by looking for a raised dot between syllables in most dictionaries, online and off.

There are many additional reasons why 5-7-5 is an urban myth for haiku in English. For example, Japanese words nearly always tend to have more syllables per word than their English counterparts (compare “hototogisu” to “cuckoo”), thus making Japanese haiku use up their syllables more quickly with less content or information than is possible if you write 5-7-5 syllables in English. Consequently, haiku in English with as many as seventeen syllables often come across to the Japanese as long and wordy (indeed, one sometimes has to entirely lop off one of the three lines in a seventeen-syllable haiku in English to make the content fit go-shichi-go when translating into Japanese). The irony is that it’s often the Japanese themselves who unwittingly promote 5-7-5 syllables for haiku in English, because of hasty or inaccurate assumptions, or through failing to realize the linguistic differences between the two languages.

Japanese haiku poets also talk of “composing” haiku rather than “writing” them. The distinction emphasizes the value of rhythm and music in haiku as a brief lyrical poem. The rhythm of go-shichi-go is very important in Japanese haiku, and it’s easy for them to assume that this rhythm should be equally important in other languages. However, the use of syllables is fundamentally different in each language. What’s being counted is not the same in English and Japanese. The rhythm of go-shichi-go simply cannot be applied automatically to English—again, 100 yen is not equal to 100 dollars. That rhythm is not inherent in English, at least in terms of syllables, so it is incumbent upon those of us who write in English to be mindful of rhythm and sound in other ways.

These reasons should, I hope, be ample evidence for poets—and teachers—to no longer aim at 5-7-5 syllables as a target for haiku in English. And if these reasons were not enough, it’s also worth noting that even in Japanese haiku the 5-7-5 pattern is not followed stringently by everyone. A significant number of haiku by the Japanese masters depart from this pattern, and a significant number of more recent master haiku poets such as Santōka (among many others) have paid no attention to the pattern at all. While the majority of Japanese haiku poets do follow go-shichi-go, if some of their leading poets pay little or no attention to 5-7-5 even though they have good reason to follow that pattern in Japanese, why would haiku poets writing in English follow a pattern based on a misunderstanding? Quite simply, and for all time, the urban myth of 5-7-5 needs to be done away with for English-language haiku.


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