I was talking with my friend Yutaka the other night, sitting at the counter of my favorite bar listening to some tunes by The Who from their BBC sessions LP. He just took a trip to Tottori Prefecture, and though I’ve never been to 鳥取県, I’ve heard about the sand dunes and camels. The first time I saw pictures I had a hard time believing it was Japan!
I couldn’t say the word for ‘dunes’ even though I’ve heard it before when that area has come up in conversation. This time I made a point of asking him how to say it, and took the time to see what the word’s components are. As is so often the case when I do this, I learn a lot and discover some unexpected connections, and easy ways to anchor my new knowledge to things I already know on some level.
砂丘（さきゅう）means dune in Japanese. The first character means sand, すな。When my friend told me this much, my eyes lit up as I realized that it’s the same reading as in 黄砂（こうさ）。黄砂 might well not be familiar to you if you don’t live in Japan or neighboring countries, but based on the information in this paragraph, you might be able to understand and pronounce it. Hint: the first character is the kanji for a primary color.
Could you get the color and maybe the reading, too?
黄砂 literally means ‘yellow sand.’ It makes its way to Japan and neighboring countries from China via high winds and makes a nuisance of itself by causing allergy-like symptoms like sore throats and doing damage to car finishes, etc. The word comes up in conversation here when strong winds pick up. As desertification has spread in China, the amount of yellow sand has increased.
The word for dune, 砂丘 uses this same reading. My friend added that the second syllable means hill, or おか。so dune is literally ‘sand hill.’ When I started writing this post, I got a surprise, though. I’d expected 岡 to pop up when I wrote the word in hiragana, because I’m familiar with that kanji for ‘hill’ from last names like 岡本、and places like 岡島. This kanji has eluded me to this point, but 丘 is on my radar screen now.
A third example of this reading of the kanji for sand is the one I’d overlooked when I started writing this post, and I only realized it because my Japanese teacher pointed it out when I shared the draft with her. 砂糖！Sugar. I’d totally overlooked this reading because I’ve come to see that word as a unit that means sugar, and hadn’t examined the kanji individually for years.
If you don’t have this reading for 砂 committed to memory yet, you might use its English meaning, ‘sand’ as a mnemonic device to help you lock it in. Think of the first two letters of ‘SAnd’ and you’ll never forget the さ in the words above!
Funny how as my kanji knowledge grows, the most familiar old characters and words like 砂糖 offer up new discoveries.
One of these days I’ll get to the dunes of Tottori! Have you been there?