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This question is the result of a conversation with Chocolate in chat, and also this Japanese calendar I have that lists the months according to the traditional Japanese names.

For some reason, there exists some discrepancy about the literal meaning of 水無月 and 神無月. What is the correct meaning verbatim as it relates to the Japanese language other than that these are specific months? (I am not asking for names "June" and "October").

One translation due to the 無 character acting as a "negative identifier"(?) (否定の接頭語) meaning "nothing/non/un/not" and such:

神無月 - "the month when there are no gods"

水無月 - "the month when there is no water"

A second translation exists stating that 無 acts as an ateji (当て字, 宛字) for 「な/の」. This would result in a slightly different meaning:

神無月 - "the month of gods"

水無月 - "the month of water"

It seems that there are a variety of sources that take either side. What would be the appropriate literal meaning for each of these words? In addition, does 無 act as an 当て字 or as 否定の接頭語?

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You should make it clear that by "meaning", you mean the "literal meaning" or the "original meaning" as the "meaning" of these words in the ordinary sense would be (lunar) "June" and "October". –  sawa Jul 26 '12 at 2:19

2 Answers 2

up vote 9 down vote accepted

At this point, there is no final, airtight answer to the question of whether the /na/ in /kaNnazuki/ and /minazuki/ is related to /nai/ ("nothing", "no ~") or /no/ (genitive particle) because the matter has not been settled definitively.

We can say that the "genitive particle" explanation (giving "month of water" and "month of gods", rather than "... of no water/gods") is preferred by the majority of contemporary specialists in Japanese historical linguistics. The "... of no water/gods" interpretation is generally rejected as folk etymology, and the same genitive /na/ is argued to be visible in other words, such as:

  • minato "harbor" = /mi/ "water" (cf modern /mizu/) + /na/ + /to/ "door"
  • nunato "sound of jewels" = /nu/ "jewel" + /na/ + /oto/ "sound"

(Normalizing OJ morae to NJ equivalents because details not important here)

... But there are also modern linguists who disagree with this analysis. For example, in Alexander Vovin's Descriptive and Comparative Grammar of Western Old Japanese, the /na/ in the above words is analyzed as a plural marker:

4.1.2.1.4 Plural marker -na There is another plural marker -na in Western Old Japanese that is not productive: it survives predominantly in compounds. Traditional Japanese analysis defines it as a genitive marker in some cases [...] and as a locative suffix in other cases [...], but a closer examination reveals that it has nothing to do with either the genitive or the locative. This plural marker also survives in modern compounds like ta-na-gokoro "palm of the hand(s)," mi-na-giwa "water front," ma-na-ko "pupil of the eye," etc. From the examples below it becomes clear that -na follows stems of nouns designating paired body parts [...] uncountable nouns [...] and two temporal nouns [...]. Such usage seems to be in perfect agreement with the above proposal that -na represents a relic plural marker.

... And so, Vovin believes that /minato/ means "waters' door" and /nunato/ means "jewels' sound", with the /na/ indicating plurality rather than a genitive relationship. Now, you don't have to believe that Vovin is correct. (I don't, for reasons that are complicated and not relevant here.) But the fact that he is able to mount a reasonable argument for his viewpoint indicates the thinness of the evidence we have for how the construction arose: multiple non-crazy theories can explain what we see in the historical record.

(Incidentally, don't know if Vovin has ever voiced an opinion on /kaNnazuki/ and /minazuki/ but based on his other writings my guess is that he would probably go with "month of the gods (pl)" and "month of waters (pl)", seeing traces of genitive /no/ in the voicing of /tuki/ rather than in the /na/.)

There are also other theories, e.g. the argument that the /kaNna/ is related to /kaminari/ "thunder" and so on. These are minority viewpoints too.

So, the summary:

  • Most modern historical linguists believe that this is a genitive /na/ and the words mean "month of water" and "month of gods". It is probably safe to call this the current scientific consensus. This doesn't mean that it has been proven correct -- just that most scientists (linguists) in the field consider it the most likely (or least unlikely) explanation.
  • Many older sources, and indeed the standard kanji used to write the words, support the opposite interpretation, "month of no water", "month of no gods". There are even communities who have built up traditions around this interpretation, like Shimane prefecture. This is why there are plenty of sources who argue for this interpretation, even today.
  • The actual construction is very old, predating the first written Old Japanese, and so there is no evidence showing its evolution. Thus, it is possible that both of the theories above are incorrect, and an entirely different explanation like Vovin's is the right one.
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Very interesting! Does Vovin also have anything to say about the -tsu- morpheme appearing in, say, まつげ? –  Zhen Lin Jul 26 '12 at 15:29
    
This is very interesting. Is there any reason that you picked Vovin's explanation on it? Or is that just because you have access to that resource? I wonder if there is any other predominant view. –  Chris Harris Jul 26 '12 at 18:43
    
@ZhenLin He calls it a "genitive-locative case marker", but warns that the /tu/ in words like /taka.tu.sima/ and /topo.to.hito/ is a different morpheme which is, in his opinion, originally some sort of copula. –  Matt Jul 26 '12 at 20:09
    
@Chris I picked Vovin because I remembered he had an idiosyncratic but well-argued view about this /na/, basically! –  Matt Jul 26 '12 at 20:13
    
Er, /topo.to.hito/ = /topo.tu.pito/, 遠人 –  Matt Jul 26 '12 at 23:25

10月 is 神無月. I think that the original meaning of 神無月 is

神無月- "the month when there are no gods". 

In Japanese ancient story , all the gods attend the meeting that held in Shimane prefecture (島根県-しまねけん)in (10月)10th lunar month. So there is no god in other parts of the country. But , for the people of Shimane prefecture(島根県-しまねけん),(10月) 10th lunar month is 神在月. The meaning is

神在月- "the month when there are so many gods". 

Because there are many gods in their prefecture .

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Note that in this case neither 10月 or 神無月 can be translated to October. This is a lunar calendar (陰暦), not a solar (陽暦) one. Hence, "the 10th lunar month" is more appropriate. –  Dono Jul 26 '12 at 3:18
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I've heard that story too, but some sources claim that it's a 俗説; wiki states:一番有力な説が神無月の「無・な」が「の」にあたる連体助詞「な」で「神の月」とする事である。出雲大社に全国の神が集まって一年の事を話し合うため、出雲‌​以外には神がいなくなると言われるのは、後付けの中世以降、出雲大社の御師が全国に広めたと俗説とされる。 –  Choko Jul 26 '12 at 4:18
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Although this is a possible answer, it needs to be rephrased in a way that addresses the question about the role of 無 specifically. As of now, it has related information, but none of that which supports a claim about language. –  Chris Harris Jul 26 '12 at 5:00
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For those whose Japanese reading comprehension is not at a decent level (no way to say that without sounding condescending, but I'm not trying to be), here is the English Wikipedia of @Chocolate's comment above: "Kannazuki or Kaminazuki (神無月, "Month of the Gods"). The 無 character, which normally means "absent" or "there is not", was here probably originally used as ateji, that is used only for the sound "na". In this name the na is actually a possessive particle, so Kaminazuki means "Month of the Gods", not "Month without Gods" (Kaminakizuki), similarly to Minazuki, ... –  istrasci Jul 26 '12 at 14:28
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"... the "Month of Water". However, by false etymology this became commonly interpreted to mean that because in that month all the Shinto kami gather at Izumo Shrine in Izumo province (modern-day Shimane Prefecture), there are no gods in the rest of the country. Thus in Izumo Province, the month is called Kamiarizuki (神在月 or 神有月, "Month with Gods"). This interpretation is the one commonly cited in western works. Various other etymologies have also been suggested from time to time." -- See actual Wikipedia entry for references. Edit: Should have been Minatsuki, not Minazuki. –  istrasci Jul 26 '12 at 14:34

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