Because apparently three plus two equals morphophonology.

We’ve seen some strange questions on Japanese kids’ math homework before, but this recent one posted to the Internet by Japanese Twitter user @17_workout_kengot is on a different level. Or, at the very least, in a different school subject.

Here’s what they tweeted:

“This is my daughter’s first-grade test. Huh? ‘Five birds’ is read as go-ba?? Is it because you’re being asked how many ba of birds there are instead of how many wa? What is this??”

Let’s break down what’s going on here. First off, the translation of the math question:

“Question: There are 3 baby chicks. When 2 more baby chicks come, how many are there?
Answer: 5.”

Seems simple enough, but there’s something else going on here. For those unfamiliar, Japanese uses what’s called “counter words,” words that come after a number when counting certain things. Just like how in English we say two loaves of bread or three sticks of butter, Japanese does the same but with a lot more variety. In fact, sometimes too much variety.

Usually, birds are counted using the counter wa. One bird is ichi-wa, two birds are ni-wa, three birds are san-wa, and so on. However, in the above question, the teacher decided to forego using wa and used ba instead to count the chicks… for two out of three times.

Here’s what the question would look like halfway between Japanese and English:

“Question: There are 3-ba baby chicks. When 2-wa more baby chicks come, how-many-ba are there?
Answer: 5-wa.”

While the child got the math part of the question right, their 5-wa was marked incorrect and changed to 5-ba instead.

Wa? Ba?? It’s making me angry enough to eat napkins!

Why does this matter? And why the discrepancy? Well friends, it’s time to go deep.

Anyone who’s studied Japanese before knows about the particle wa, used to mark the topic of a sentence. However, it has a bit of an oddity: instead of being written using the character わ (“wa”) it’s written using the character は (“ha”) instead.

This is because the particle used to be pronounced ha, but underwent a sound change, turning into wa. It’s kind of like how in English we still spell “knight” with a “k” at the beginning and a “gh” in there, even though they’re not pronounced anymore.

So, because of this sound change, other words that were originally pronounced with ha changed to wa, such as the counter for birds. While birds were counted using ha in the past, it’s rarely done today. Though not quite as bizarre as an English person pronouncing “knight” as “kuh-nig-uht,” it’s not too far off.

▼ I’m gonna eat the whole tablecloth at the Kuh-nig-uhts of the Round Table!

But wait a second! If it used to be ha, then what’s the deal with the ba in the math question? That’s due to another quirk of Japanese linguistics: morphophonology, the sound changes that take place when words combine together.

Depending on the number that comes before the counter, sometimes the counter changes to make the word flow more easily. For example, when counting “long cylindrical” things like pencils using hon, you say i-ppon, ni-hon, san-bon.

Similarly, back in the day before the sound change, instead of counting chicks as ichi-ha, ni-ha, san-ha, they would likely use i-ppa, ni-ha, san-ba.

But! Here’s the kicker. Even if birds were counted using ha (which they’re not really anymore), the teacher’s corrected answer of go-ba would still be wrong. The number for five (go) does not induce a change on the counter’s pronunciation. Just like you don’t say go-bon when counting five pencils (you say go-hon), go-ba is just not correct Japanese in any way.

Even the NHK’s broadcaster guide, the standard for Japanese spoken on the news, lists san-ba (“three birds”) and yon-ba (“four birds”) as possibilities, but not go-ba (“five birds”).

Basically the only way it’s correct is if the teacher made up her own counter word, and her distinction between it being wa or ba is based on whatever she wants.

Waaaaa baaaaa!

At the end of the day, while the correction on the homework is a bit silly, at least we all got to learn a lot about Japanese linguistics.

And hey, as long as the assignment didn’t instill a sense of existential dread into the students, I’d call that a victory!

Source: Twitter/@17work_kengot via Itai News
Top image: Pakutaso
Insert images: Pakutaso

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