November 27, 2018

Vol. 5: A Contrastive Linguistic Analysis of Words for “Window”—Based on Comparative Analyses of Japanese, German, English, and Italian Idioms

Yasunari Ueda

Linguist Yasunari Ueda looks into the origins of words that mean “window” from around the world to explore the process through which the concepts of the word have expanded over the ages. In Volume 5, he reexamines the four languages discussed in the previous articles through a contrastive linguistics approach.

1. Introduction

Up to this point, I have looked at words that mean “window” and expressions that contain the word “window” in Japanese, German, English, and Italian separately. In this entry, I will examine idiomatic expressions in these four languages from a contrastive linguistics viewpoint. In any language, the meanings of words are extended based more or less on the same principle and through a universal cognitive process. I will begin by focusing on this point to identify window-related idiomatic expressions in each of the languages. I will then consider the similarities and differences between the four languages.

2. The Polysemous Nature of Words for “Window”

In modern Japanese, the word “窓” [mado, “window”] does not simply mean “a hole opened in a house to admit light and views”. It is a polyseme that has come to be used with alternative meanings over time. For instance, the entry for the word in the Shin-meikai kokugo jiten [New Lucid Japanese Dictionary] published by Sanseido lists as examples the expressions “まどをこわす” [mado wo kowasu, lit. “break a window”], “社会のまど” [shakai no mado, lit. “window to society”], and “目は心のまど” [me wa kokoro no mado, lit. “the eyes are windows to the heart”].

When we say “break a window” in Japanese, the word for “window” more often than not to describes the glass pane set into a window (in linguistic terms, such figures of speech in which the whole is put for a part is known as a synecdoche). The expression “window to society” is a slang metaphor used to describe the zipper of a manʼs pants. The expression “the eyes are windows to the heart” is also a metaphor, and it relates the human eye to the windowʼs function of admitting views.

The words for “window” of the other languages are also polysemous. Their meanings are expanded through the cognitive process by which particular phenomena are related metaphorically to windows (or certain functions of windows) and formed into idiomatic expressions.

3. Comparisons of Idiomatic Expressions Containing the Word “Window”

When a word takes on different meanings, its initial new meaning will be grounded in the human body. It will then usually take on further meanings that shift from being based on a spatial viewpoint to a temporal viewpoint and from being concrete to abstract.

3.1. Expressions Grounded in the Human Body

– “窓を開ける” [mado wo akeru, lit. “open the windows”; used to describe how the closed eyes and blocked nostrils of a smallpox patient reopen] (Japanese)

– “窓を下ろす” [mado wo orosu, lit. “close the windows”; used to describe how the eyes and nostrils of a smallpox patient become swollen shut] (Japanese)

– “blaue Fenster davontragen” [lit. “carry away with a blue window”; meaning “to escape a difficult situation with a bruised eye (i.e. minor injuries]”] (German)

– “a bay window” [used with the meaning “potbelly” based on the rounded protruding form of a bay window] (English)

– “fare una finestra sul tetto” [lit. “make a window on the roof”, meaning “to have foresight of future events”] (Italian)

Expressions that liken windows to parts of the human body can be found in all four of the languages. Most liken windows to the eyes. The Italian expression above suggests that we can have a better view of things from a higher position based on the fact that our eyes are positioned on the highest part of our bodies. The English expression, in contrast, likens the window to a belly.

3.2. Expressions Grounded in a Spatial Perspective

View Function

Expressions focused on the view function of windows include the aforementioned Japanese expressions “window to society” and “the eyes are windows to the heart”. The following are German examples.

– “sich zu weit aus dem Fenster lehnen/hängen” [lit. “lean/hang out the window too far”, meaning “to stand out too much”]

– “weg vom Fenster sein” [lit. “to go away from the window”, meaning “to disappear from public attention”]

Both the notion of being able to see too much of a houseʼs interior from outside through a window and the notion of no longer being able to see what was visible are treated negatively in these expressions.

The following English and Italian expressions are instead focused on the perspective oriented towards the outside from the interior. Both idioms describe the act of displaying things in the window to be seen from the street as a sign of vanity.

– “window dressing” [meaning “appearance put on for show”] (English)

– “mettere alla finestra i fatti propri” [lit. “put oneʼs business by the window”, meaning “to show off”] (Italian)

Contact Point with the Outside World

A window set into the wall of a house is seen as a point of contact between the houseʼs interior and the outside world based on its function of admitting views.

– “Da guckt man nicht drum zum Fenster hinaus” [lit. “one does not look out the window”, meaning “not worth mentioning”] (German)

– “zum Fenster hinausreden” [lit. “speak out the window”, meaning “to talk in vain without success”] (German)

– “einen zum Fenster herein erstechen” [lit. “to stab someone to the window”, meaning “a hollow threat”] (German)

– “mangiare la minestra o passare dalla finestra” [lit. “eat the soup or go out the window”, meaning “a choice between two things”] (Italian)

– “a window on the world” (English)

The interior of a house is understood to be a safe place where one has control. In contrast, the world outside the window is seen as a dangerous and unpredictable place. It would therefore be meaningless for someone who is inside to talk out a window. Likewise, it would be meaningless for a pursuer to attempt to stab someone who has taken refuge in the safety of a house. The Italian expression takes its meaning from the understanding that it is still better to eat a plain soup containing only vegetables than to risk stepping out into the dangerous world beyond the window. The English idiom is also based on the idea that the window is an interface between the inside and outside worlds. There are no expressions based on this idea in the Japanese language.

Unofficial Entryway

– “es sind Fenster in der Stube” [lit. “there are windows in the room”, meaning “unwanted listeners are present”] (German)

– “come in by the window” [meaning “to sneak inside”] (English)

– “certe cose, cacciate dalla porta, rientrano dalla finestra” [lit. “some things are chased out the door and re-enter from the window”, meaning “a nuisance that will not go away”] (Italian)

A window located inside a room rather than on a wall would be out of place. The German expression takes this meaning of “out of place” and applies it to people, and it is used to describe an unwanted guest. The English and Italian expressions describe the idea of something occurring unexpectedly in a negative sense by comparing it to an intruder who enters from the window (as opposed to the proper entrance).

Opening/Closing Function

The only expression found to be focused on a windowʼs ability to be opened and closed is the Japanese expression “窓が開く” [mado ga aku, lit. “a window opens”, meaning “a loss”]. This expression equates windows, or holes, to the idea of loss, and it is used to negatively describe instances where something that is supposed to be closed opens.

Ventilation Function

One function of a window is to ventilate the air inside a building. The following German expression has the meaning “open the window and ventilate the room because it is filled with the smell of self-praise”.

– “Machʼs Fenster auf, Eichenlob stinkt” [German: lit. “open the window, it stinks of self-praise”; said when people brag or aggrandize themselves]

Source of a Draft

In Italian, there is an expression that advises people to beware of drafts: “aria di finestra, colpo die balestra” [lit. “the air from the window blows like a crossbow”, meaning “the draft is detrimental to oneʼs health”]. There is also an Italian idiom that describes places where sunlight shines through the clouds as “una finestrata di sole” [lit. “a sunny window”]. While people in the warm southern European climate make extensive use of the windowʼs functions of admitting light and air, these expressions teach them that the light and air can be problematic at times depending on oneʼs location and the weather conditions.

3.3. Expressions Grounded in a Temporal Perspective

In English, there is the expression “a window of opportunity” [meaning “a short period of time during which an opportunity is available”]. It describes a specific segment within the continuous stream of time as an open window through which an opportunity can be grasped.

An expression that describes two phenomena occurring in the same space and time interchangeably is known as a metonymy. The following can be said to be one such expression: “go out (of) the window” [meaning “to lose something (e.g. hope, anticipation, confidence, etc.)”]. Its logic is that something should be considered lost if it disappears out through the window. Its departure through the window signifies the breaking of any temporal causal relationship or adjacency.

4. Conclusion

The three languages of German, English, and Italian share a commonality in that windows are seen as contact points with the outside world. This speaks of how important it was for people in Europe to protect themselves from conflict and theft by building sturdy homes that separated the inside from the outside. In contrast, houses in Japan historically had engawa (perimeter walkways) running along the edge of rooms, and one could enter from the garden simply by opening the windows. It can be said that people in Japan had a looser idea about the separation between the inside and outside.

The Japanese language is distinctive for how it has expressions that emphasize the windowʼs ability of being opened and closed. This is likely tied to the fact that the Japanese word for “window” originated from the expression “eyeʼs door” [目の戸, me no to]. The cognitive basis on which the word formed has an influence on how its meanings are expanded.

One expression that is found in English but not in German or Italian is “the window of the soul”. While the same expression also exists in Japanese, its origins are unknown, and it may have originated from English. The English language also has more abstract idioms that are based on a temporal perspective (as discussed in Part 3.3). One such expression is “the windows of heaven” [meaning “a hole in the sky from where rain falls”], which has its origins in Hebrew. The uniqueness of English can be attributed to the fact that it has been used in a wide range of regions and has evolved through the influence of various cultures.

German and Italian are two languages that go out of the way to give advice regarding ventilation and draughts. In this we can see how the languages have been influenced by the rich geography and sometimes severe weather conditions of the two countries.

These things show how the various languages have their own unique characteristics. Even the origins of their respective words for “window” were not the same to begin with, as each language placed focus on different functions of windows when naming them. It can be said that the evolution of actual windows and the expansion of the meanings of the words used to describe them have taken place interrelatedly while being influenced by historical, cultural, and geographic factors.



Yasunari Ueda
Born 1948 on the island of Tokunoshima in the Oshima District of Kagoshima, Japan. Graduated from the Department of Philosophy in the Faculty of Letters of Kobe University and received a masterʼs degree from the Hiroshima University Graduate School of Letters. Taught as a teaching assistant and lecturer at the Faculty of Humanities of Chiba University, an assistant professor at the College of General Education of Kyushu University, and an assistant professor at the School of Letters of Hiroshima University before becoming a professor at the Graduate School of Letters of Hiroshima University in 2001 (retired in 2013). Doctor of Letters. Specialist of modern German studies. Known particularly for his research on Japanese and German idioms, the linguistic theories of Karl Bühler (1879–1963), German sociolinguistics, and applied linguistics (foreign language education). Currently working on making proposals for vocabulary learning based on the findings of his comparative research on Japanese and German idioms.