December 18, 2018

Vol. 6 (End): Window Culture Studies—Towards Further Linguistic Explorations

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 this final volume, he concludes the series by identifying how window culture can be further explored.

1. Introduction

In this series of entries, I classified words that mean “window” in the four languages of Japanese, German, English, and Italian based on their origins and examined them from the perspective of comparative linguistics. In this final entry, I would like to discuss what research themes the field of comparative linguistics can offer to further deepen the study of window culture in the future.

How can we determine whether a window has taken root in a particular culture? One way is to look at how the functions of the window as a physical architectural construction have developed and expanded. We also cannot overlook the process through which the word for “window” has acquired different meanings and how it has been reconceptualized. For instance, as discussed in the previous entry, the word “window” in the English expression “a window of the world” no longer describes an actual architectural window. The word has taken on the meaning of “a contact point with the outside world”, and the expression as a whole is used with the idiomatic meaning “to look outside the bounds of oneʼs own society”. In other words, in the English language, windows are understood to be an interface between a house and the outside world, and the concept has been put to use in different situations.

Languages reflect real-world phenomena, history, and society. They can also bring about change and innovation to the real world. In my linguistics-based study of window culture, I have aimed to examine how the evolution of architectural windows has been reflected in languages, observe what effects windows have had on the linguistic activities of various peoples, and understand the process through which windows have taken root in the cultures of these people. I would like to now consider potential subjects for further research, which will also include points that I could not pursue due to limitations of page space.

2. Comparing Etymologies of Words for “Window”

By comparing words for “window” in other languages that have not been discussed in this series, one should be able to further develop the etymological classifications and also grasp a better understanding about the past and current situation of window cultures in different linguistic areas.

If one looks at Spanish, for instance, one will find that the word for “window” is “ventana”, which originated from the Latin word “ventus” [lit. “wind”]. Despite sharing the same Latin origin, the Spanish word is completely different from the Italian word “fenestra” and French word “fenêtre”. What could be the reason for this? Elsewhere, if one looks at Turkish, one will find that windows are called “pencere”. This is a word of Persian origin that literally means “the fifth way leading from four walls”. What function of the window formed the basis of this word? There are still many interesting questions to explore.

One could also add to the conversation by focusing on dialects within a particular language. In the regional dialect spoken on my home island of Tokunoshima (Kagoshima Prefecture) in the Amami Islands, both “eyes” and “holes” are described using the same word “mï”. This tells us something about the underlying basis behind the formation and extended meanings of the Japanese word “mado” [窓, “window”]. The word “mado” originally meant “eyeʼs door”. In other words, windows were initially likened to the body. It later came to be used in new ways in expressions such as “目は心(魂)の窓” [lit. “the eyes are windows to the heart (soul)”] while still being based on the windowʼs function of admitting views. In contrast, in the expression “窓が開く” [mado ga aku, lit. “a window opens”], which is used to describe the occurrence of a loss, the window is likened to a hole that is meant to be closed. This does not mean that windows were suddenly likened to two completely different things. The character “窩” [ka] in “眼窩” [“eye socket”] had the meaning “hollow” or “cavern” from the beginning. Furthermore, there are many expressions in Japanese that describe the eye as a hole in the body, such as “節穴” [fushiana, lit. “knot hole”], which is used to describe an eye that fails to see important things. From this we can appreciate that the way eyes are perceived in Japanese has influenced not only the formation of the word for “window” but also its reconceptualization.

3. Caricatures Based on Idioms

Most idiomatic expressions are used metaphorically. That is to say, they are expressions that allow us to make abstract phenomena intuitively understandable by drawing on more familiar concrete ideas. Newspapers often contain caricatures that play on this characteristic of idioms. Another possible research subject could be to compare such caricatures in different languages. I will provide one example here.

The caricature above was printed in a daily newspaper in Italy. It is based on the idiom “uscire dalla porta e rientrare dalla finestra” [lit. “out the door and back through the window”, meaning “a problem that will not go away”]. Congress members, who are criticized for receiving excessive political funding, are shown leaving through the door on the 10 euro note and returning through the window on the 20 euro note. There has been a long-standing debate in Italy about reducing the amount of funding given to political parties, but it has not brought about any policy change. If anything, the amount of funding has only increased. This caricature makes a critique on this situation (from Corriere della Sera, May 26, 2013).

4. Comparing Proverbs Containing the Word “Window”

Proverbs reflect various factors related to a particular linguistic area, including the everyday wisdom of the people, geographic conditions, cultural factors, and economic factors. While Japanese proverbs such as “桑の葉を軒や窓に刺しておくと落雷しない” [kuwa no ha wo noki ya mado ni sashite okuto rakurai shinai, “lighting will not strike if mulberry leaves are fixed to the eaves and windows”] and “金神の方向に窓を開けると悪い” [Konjin no hōkō ni mado wo akeruto warui, “it is bad to open windows in the direction of the Konjin”] may seem to be unique to Japan when compared alongside Western languages such as German and English, one may find that there are similar sayings in other linguistic areas in Asia. A more in-depth investigation into the regional variations of proverbs that exist within the different linguistic areas will undoubtedly help us better appreciate the versatility and diversity of windows.

In our global age, linguistic cultures are also interacting across their language borders, and it is becoming increasingly difficult to distinguish between native and foreign expressions. However, one can argue that the various linguistic cultures will not necessarily become homogenized because they pick and choose what expressions to adopt in their own ways. Based on this point, one can say that the theme of comparing and contrasting different languages still remains relevant and meaningful today.

5. Windows in Other Linguistic Cultures

Windows appear commonly not only in things such as caricatures but also in texts composed of multiple sentences, such as jokes and stories. The following is an example of one such joke.

There are two men crossing a hot desert. One man is carrying a car door (i.e. a window frame). When the other man asks him why he is bringing such a heavy thing with him, he replies, “Itʼs so that we can roll down the window when it gets too hot”.

It goes without saying that the punch line is premised on the windowʼs function of providing ventilation.

In the previous entry, I noted how there is a viewpoint in Western linguistic cultures that sees windows as contact points with the outside world or as boundaries between the safe interior and the dangerous world outside. From this, one can conjecture that the level of joy Western readers imagine Hansel and Gretel feel when they arrive at the house made of confectionery after wandering through the forest is much greater than what Japanese readers might imagine. Likewise, the same can be said about the level of despair readers imagine the characters feel when they find out that a witch occupies the space on the inner side of the windows. The Grimm tale Hansel and Gretel betrays these expectations that people in Western linguistic areas commonly hold in regard to windows. The relief of arriving at the house turns out to be short-lived, as there is no hope to be found within its windows.

The caricature above was published in a daily newspaper in Germany when there was an outbreak of BSE, or “mad cow disease” (from Badische Zeitung, July 24, 1996). It plays on the Grimm tale Town Musicians of Bremen to illustrate the idea of fear or enemies (infected cows) coming in through the window. Here, again, we see the viewpoint that considers the window to be a boundary with the dangerous world outside.

6. Conclusion

Linguistics is an empirical science. We analyze linguistic sources and form and test hypotheses based on the findings of our analyses. Linguistic research is hinged on the existence of linguistic sources, which can take the form of audio recordings or written text. Currently, there are thought to be 6,000 to 7,000 languages on the planet, but only about a tenth of them have been formally studied. Many of the languages have not been recorded and do not have a written form. Many of the languages face the danger of being lost all together.

The success of any attempt to conduct a study on window culture through a linguistic approach will be determined by how many sources one can lay their hands on. I have only looked at the four languages of Japanese, German, English, and Italian. There is no doubt that the study of window culture can be developed into a deep subject with limitless potential if one were to look at a greater number of languages and pursue further research on various themes such as those mentioned in this piece.

7. References

The following dictionary and the bibliographic sources listed in the previous articles were referenced in the writing of this piece.

Moliner, Maria. Diccionario de uso del espaňol. Madrid: Gredos, 1987.



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.