I called my Japanese teacher a cow: the importance of kanji

June 12th, 2013By Category: Uncategorized


When the older Japanese lady who is your language teacher turns to you in class, clutches both her breasts and announces:

私は牛ではありません (watashi wa ushi dewa arimasen)
I am not a cow

You know something has gone terribly wrong.

We were studying expressions for giving and receiving. Rather than having a single term for each event, Japanese has multiple permutations depending on whether you or the gift giver are the subject of the sentence and what social standing the gift giver or receiver is with respect to you.

For instance, if you were to give a gift to your friend, you would describe your action with あげます (agemasu). However, if you were to generously hand a present to your subordinate of a younger brother, you would use やります (yarimasu). Likewise, when boasting about how your boss gave you a box of おみやげ (omiyage: a souvenir gift) and would undoubtedly be popping the question any day now, you would choose いただきます (itadakimasu).

It was in practising the second of these that I inadvertently implied my teacher bore a confusing resemblance to a bovine.

The object of the fateful exercise was to look at a set of pictures in our textbook and describe the depicted action using the appropriate verb. My image showed a mother feeding her baby a bottle of milk. Despite the organisation of most young family households, the baby is linguistically described as being of lower social standing that its parents. The required phrase was therefore:

赤ちゃんに ミルクを やります (akachan ni miruku o yarimasu)
I give the (subordinate) baby milk

In the above, the word for milk is literally ‘milk’; it is written in katakana, the phonetic Japanese script for foreign words, and pronounced in a (passingly) similar way to the English. However, there is a Japanese word for milk, ぎゅうにゅう (gyuunyuu), which until this particular day, I had believed was completely interchangeable with ミルク. My assumption was that the English word had simply come into use later as truck loads of British tourists arrived in Japan and demanded tea. As a result, the answer to the exercise I gave was:

赤ちゃんに ぎゅうにゅうを やります

I replaced the Japanese word rather than use the adopted English one! Was I not a star student?

Unfortunately in Japanese, ぎゅうにゅう only applies to cow’s milk, not human baby milk. Ergo, I had implied the producer of said baby’s milk was in fact a large farm yard animal. Admittedly, I could have been implying that only the mother in the textbook picture looked like a cow and not in fact my Japanese teacher, but her demonstrative response did rather ensure I would not forget this important distinction.

And since I’ve shared this, I can justify my embarrassment in hoping that neither will you.

While my mistake could be waved away as an unavoidable error for someone who had not been around Japanese-speaking lactating mothers, the truth was that this error was avoidable if I’d looked at the Japanese more carefully.

I have written the above in hiragana, the phonetic script for words of Japanese origin, but the noun for milk is more usually transcribed with its Chinese (or kanji) characters: 牛乳. The first of these ‘牛’ means ‘cow’ which is a giveaway as to its more specific meaning.

The moral of this story: it is hard to learn three writing systems, but sometimes great truths can be found that prevents you calling your teacher a cow.

Author of this article

Elizabeth Tasker

Elizabeth is a science researcher living in Sapporo on the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido. Originally from the UK, Elizabeth keeps her own blog about day to day exploits in the hope that writing them down will result in them one day making sense.

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  • Bevan Jones says:

    Funny story! I once caught a Japanese person using the phrase やぎ牛乳 as she stumbled over the unfamiliar concept of goat’s milk. I thought that was pretty funny because, while I didn’t know the word for goat’s milk, I was pretty sure goat-cow’s milk couldn’t be right. Having read this article, I couldn’t resist looking up what the native Japanese term would be for mother’s milk. Apparently, it’s 母乳 (ぼにゅう), literally, mother-milk.

  • Jerfareza Daviano says:

    Well, what do you know, on several occasions just like you I was thinking both ミルク and 牛乳 are interchangeable.. Now I know..

    Lucky I didn’t say that to my teacher though =D

  • Elizabeth says:

    Thanks everyone! Sharing such problems somehow makes it less embarrassing…!

  • Cynthia Popper says:

    This article RULES lady. I have SO much to learn it’s stupid.

  • leslie nguyen says:

    haha to this article [=

  • Elizabeth says:

    Most disconcertingly, people in my lab always laugh if I use Japanese. I’m told this is a perfectly normal response and they’re just surprised that I’m not speaking English.

    …. but since this incident, I’ve begun to wonder if this isn’t because I’m actually accidentally telling my boss that his underpants look pretty.

  • Sara @ GaijinMom says:

    My mind is blown by this “ah ha!” moment. Now I’m wondering how many other issues would clear up if I just learned/used the kanji…