LINGUIST List 6.508

Wed 05 Apr 1995

Sum: Aum Shinri Kyo

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  1. David P. Baxter, Summary: Aum Shinri Kyo

Message 1: Summary: Aum Shinri Kyo

Date: Sun, 2 Apr 1995 20:38:15 -Summary: Aum Shinri Kyo
From: David P. Baxter <dbaxteruxa.cso.uiuc.edu>
Subject: Summary: Aum Shinri Kyo

A week ago I posted the following query about the Aum Shinri Kyo sect that
has been the focus of so much attention lately due to the Tokyo subway gas
attack and subsequent investigation.

)What is Aum?

)The Japanese police are currently investigating a religious sect called
)"Aum Shinri Kyo" in relation to last week's gas attack on the Tokyo subway.
)Aum Shinri Kyo has been translated as "Sublime Truth" in the press. With my
)limited knowledge of Japanese, I know that Shinri can be glossed as 'truth'
)and Kyo is a Sino-Japanese morpheme found at the end of the names of many
)if not most religions. Aum, however, is a bit of a puzzler. Japanese
)phonology only allows syllable-final [m] as an allophone of /N/ before
)labial consonants, which is not the case here.

)Does anyone know what this Aum means, where it comes from, and if it is
)pronounced with a final [m] by speakers of Japanese?

I have received almost 30 responses in the last three days, and there seems
to be a general consensus on most points, so I am posting this summary.

1. AUM IS A SACRED SYLLABLE IN HINDUISM AND BUDDHISM, roughly the South
Asian equivalent of the Western 'Amen'. Lalita Sinha says it is believed to
be the first sound made upon the creation of the universe, and the /m/ is
related to the words for 'mother' in many languages that begin with a
labial nasal.

AUM, also pronounced OM, is used as a meditative aid and immediately before
and after a recitation of a sacred text, and is the first syllable in "aum
mani padme hum" "O, the jewel in the lotus", the well-known Buddhist
mantra. It is said to have a pleasing and relaxing esthetic effect.

It is said to contain the whole range of human vocal sounds, from open /a/
to back /u/ to closed /m/. Francis Britto points out that in both Sanskrit
and Japanese, /a/ is the first sound and /m/ (/N/ in Japanese) is the last
-- a kind of 'alpha and omega' symbolism.

2. AUM IS PRONOUNCED OUMU(OOMU) IN JAPANESE. It is written in katakana,
indicating that it is of foreign origin. It is not clear whether it is
written 'oumu', 'o--mu' (with a long mark), or 'ouN'.

Some respondents said that the final /u/ is pronounced lightly or not at
all. Steven Schaufele (who apparently lives a matter of blocks from me)
points out that in actual Buddhist practice the /m/ at the end of 'aum' is
usually realized as a nasalization of the syllable as a whole, with no
specific point of articulation at all.

/oo/ --) /au/ is apparently a regular sound change or phonological rule in
Sanskrit, and possibly in Japanese as well; Jacques Guy says the kana
spelling 'au' for /oo/ used to be common until WWII, and Wayne Lawrence
says modern Japanese, when reading Classical Japanese, automatically
pronounce orthographic 'au' as /oo/.

3. MANY JAPANESE DO NOT KNOW WHAT AUM/OOMU IS. Apparently in Japan as well
as the English-speaking community AUM is familiar only to those who have
studied Indian religions. As the word is written in katakana, the Japanese
have no visual clue to the meaning, unlike words written in kanji (Chinese
characters). One Japanese friend I asked suggested that it might be the
word for 'parrot', which is also pronounced /oomu/.

The many responses I have received have answered many of my questions about
this intriguing word (if it can be called a word). I hope that this summary
will be helpful to other curious Linguist List subscribers. I would suggest
that those of you with further questions address them to the list or else
to the following people, whom I have cited and who seem far more
knowledgeable than I about this topic:

 Jacques Guy j.guytrl.oz.au
 Lalita Sinha lalitacs.usm.my
 Francis Britto f-brittohoffman.cc.sophia.ac.jp
 Wayne Lawrence wp.lawrenceauckland.ac.nz
 Steven Schaufele fcoswsprairienet.org

Many thanks to all who responded.

David P. Baxter
Urbana, Illinois
dbaxteruxa.cso.uiuc.edu
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