Friday, October 5, 2007

What's in a name

Choosing Ateji®  ("ah-teh-gee") as a company name came quite naturally : it relates to my personal experience (I used to live in Japan, and even spent some time teaching japanese language), and it reflects quite well the goal we are trying to achieve.

An ateji is a japanese technique for associating ideographics characters with words ( A computer scientist would say associating syntax with semantics.

When the japanese began importing chinese characters, they had basically two choices : import the chinese reading (more precisely a japanized version of the chinese pronunciation) together with the characters, or use the chinese characters to denote the existing japanese words with their existing pronunciation. Both versions are still common today.

But the two languages do not always agree on what is a word. 'Otona' is the original japanese word for adult, written with the two chinese characters 'Big' + 'Person' : there is no way to cut 'otona' in two pieces in order to account for the two characters. This is the typical example of an ateji. Another example of an ateji is a kind of rebus, where unrelated characters are used on purpose to introduce some additional nuance. 'Kurabu', written with the kanjis 'Ku' (together), 'Ra' (fun) and 'Bu' (group), is a word created at the end of the 19th century to convey the meaning of 'club' while preserving a sound close to the original english pronunciation.

As you see, bringing together sound (syntax) and meaning (semantics) can be quite tricky, but also can provide deep insight when they are cleverly designed. This is precisely what we are trying to do at Ateji® : design languages where you can express what you need to express, bringing the important semantic concepts at the language level, while making sure syntax doesn't go in the way.