Words Worth

A 1,500-page Japanese-Malayalam dictionary is released after a 15-year-long effort

Published: 21st April 2019 05:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 21st April 2019 08:48 AM   |  A+A-

albin mathew/Dr K PP Nambiar

At his ninth-floor apartment in Kochi, Dr KPP Nambiar sits with a book of over 1,500 pages. It is a Japanese-Malayalam dictionary, a culmination of a 15-year effort by the octagenerian which was recently released.  The statistics are mind-numbing— there are about six lakh words in it. The dictionary has 53,000 Malayalam words. Each headword has the equivalent of eight to ten words. Initially, Nambiar was writing it by hand and over the years the number of pages, which comprised the manuscript, reached an astounding 3,000. 

He approached several publishers in Kerala but they rejected it, saying they did not have the necessary Japanese fonts and the possibility of sales was poor. Undeterred, Nambiar flew to Tokyo in 2004 and met professors, Jun Takashima and Makoto Minegishi, at the Tokyo University of Foreign Studies. The duo was producing software for linguistic studies. But they told him that the Japanese dictionary which he had been using for reference was 60 years old. But they asked Nambiar to start again and promised him all the help required. After working seven hours daily for several years, the 81-year-old completed his dictionary. 

Last month, at a function in Thiruvananthapuram, Culture Minister AK Balan handed the first copy to Hideki Asari, the Minister and Deputy Chief of Mission of the Japanese Embassy in New Delhi. “This is a new era in the relationship between Japan and Kerala,” said Asari. The book has now been published by the State Institute of Languages Kerala, in association with the Tokyo University of Foreign Studies and the Research Institute for Languages and Cultures of Asia and Africa.    

Nambiar’s association with Japan began in 1965 when he won a scholarship for a doctorate in oceanography at Tokyo University. He spent six months learning Japanese at the Osaka University of Foreign Studies. He then completed his doctoral studies and returned to India in 1969. Nambiar returned to Japan as Resident Director of the Marine Products Export Development Authority in 1981 and remained till 1985. These visits made him fall in love with the Japanese language. He began writing a series of articles about Japan in Kerala’s leading news outlets.

Nambiar also translated the late Nobel Laureate Yasunari Kawabata’s Sound of the Mountain into Malayalam. When Nambiar retired, at the age of 63, after a distinguished career—which included stints at the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research, the Indian Council of Agricultural Research, the Kerala Government Fisheries Corporation (as managing director), and the Food and Agricultural Organisation, —he started working on the dictionary. 

Interestingly, Nambiar says there is a possible link between Japanese and Malayalam. “In English, 
the verb is in the middle while the object is at the end of the sentence. But in Malayalam, the verb is at 
the end. We also don’t end any sentence with a consonant. This happens in Japanese as well.”  
There are some words that are similar. For example, the Japanese word ‘thumbo’ is similar to the Malayalam word ‘thumbi’ (dragonfly). “There is a theory that the Japanese and the Dravidian languages are interlinked but so far, no concrete proof has been uncovered,” he adds.  

When asked about the charms of the Japanese language, he says, “It is very soft. There are very few abusive terms. The biggest abuse is ‘fool’. Each word has so many nuances. You can say ‘I’ in a hundred ways. Women use certain expressions and men other phrases. The language reflects the character of the people, who are inherently peace-loving and kind.”  

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