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Lyman's Life and LawBenjamin Smith Lyman and his assistants at his house in Tokyo.

Lyman's Life and Law

U of Arizona's Timothy Vance examines the life of the American mining engineer and accidental linguist Benjamin Smith Lyman.

By Vincent Lim
Staff Writer

You're wasting your time if you're trying to figure out when rendaku occurs and when it doesn't.

All linguists who study Japanese know about Lyman's law, but few have taken the time to learn about the American mining engineer whose name it bears. University of Arizona linguist Timothy Vance is one of those few. He started researching Benjamin Smith Lyman's life three-and-a-half years ago and hopes to follow up with a book.

Vance spoke about Lyman's life and discovery at a Nov. 26, 2007, lecture, at UCLA sponsored by the Paul I. and Hisako Terasaki Center for Japanese Studies. Vance is a linguistics professor and the coordinating editor of the journal Japanese Language and Literature.

Lyman went to Japan in the 1870s, at the invitation of the Bureau of Development of Hokkaido, and conducted the first survey of Hokkaido for significant mineral deposits. The bureau invited foreign specialists in agriculture, engineering, and geological research during a period of rapid Westernization.

"The idea was that they would bring technical expertise so that Japan could compete successfully with more powerful countries in the world at that time," Vance said.

In his eight years in Japan, Lyman taught his Japanese assistants about surveying, mapping, and mineralogy, and they traveled with him on groundbreaking surveys. Some became respected surveyors and geologists. He allowed his assistants to use his house for their headquarters and kept in touch with them until he died on Aug. 30, 1920 in Cheltenham, Penn.

Lyman ended up in Japan after receiving an offer from the British government to survey oil fields in Punjab, India. On his return home from India, he traveled through China and Japan and became very interested in the region.


In his spare time  Lyman studied the Japanese language. He graduated from Harvard College in 1855 and then studied at the Ecoles des Mines in Paris (1859 -1861) and the Freiburg (Saxony) Mining Academy. There are no student records from his time at Harvard showing that he studied linguistics or philology, but he probably took courses in Greek, Latin, and French, according to Vance.

Vance said Lyman was very proficient in Japanese by the end of his stay in Japan. He owned many Japanese language textbooks, and records showed that he corrected the mistakes in them. His 1894 publication, The Change from Surd to Sonant in Japanese Compounds, which was published by the Oriental club of Philadelphia, included a description of what is known today as Lyman's law.

Eighteenth-century Japanese scholar Mootori Norinaga originally discovered the phenomenon known as Lyman's law, but Vance said Lyman re-discovered the phenomenon independently, without any knowledge of Norinaga's work.

The law relates to the Japanese phonological phenomenon of rendaku, explaining one reason that the phenomenon does not occur. Rendaku affects Japanese compound words. When a Japanese element that starts with a voiceless consonant appears as the second element of a compound word, the consonant becomes voiced. For example, the word origami ("paper folding") is created from ori and kami. The "k" sound in kami becomes a "g" sound in origami.

"It's a term that linguists use, but it's not a word in the ordinary vocabulary of the typical person—but what it refers to is something that everybody who speaks Japanese knows about," Vance said. "In fact, even people who are just starting to learn Japanese find out there's something funny going on and this is what it refers to."

Lyman understood Japanese reasonably well and noticed something funny going on, too. He figured out that rendaku would not occur if the second consonant of the second element is a voiced obstruent. An obstruent is a consonant sound that is formed by obstructing outward airflow from the mouth and, causing increased air pressure on the vocal tract. For example, the "t" in tokage. Tsuno and tokage combine to make tsunotokage ("horned lizard"). The "t" sound does not become a "d" sound.

There are exceptions to Lyman's law in modern Japanese, but they are rare. There are also exceptions to rendaku that are covered neither by Lyman's law nor other known rules. Even native Japanese speakers may have doubts about certain pronunciations because of rendaku.

"You're wasting your time if you're trying to figure out when rendaku occurs and when it doesn't", Vance said.

Terasaki Center for Japanese Studies