If this post is too long, I can’t say I wasn’t warned

雉も鳴かずば撃たれまい
(Kiji mo nakazuba utaremai;
“Even the pheasant, if it doesn’t cry out, won’t be shot”)

Definition:

Said in response to times when someone caused problems for themselves by speaking when it would have been prudent not to. An admonition against being outspoken, or against talking without considering the consequences one will face in response.

Breakdown:

We begin with the noun 雉 (kiji), the Japanese pheasant. This is marked with the particle も (mo) in its emphatic role, and then the verb 鳴く (naku), “to cry (out),” “to call.” The verb appears in imperfective form and takes the negative suffix ず (zu).

The grammar at this point drove me mad for a while, because in classical Japanese ず can be either the conjunctive or sentence-final form of the particle, but the hypothetical ば (ba) is preceded by the imperfective form, while the conditional ば is preceded by the perfective form. But the perfective form of zu is ne, while the imperfective form doesn’t even exist in classical grammar. This phrase shouldn’t even be possible, right?

It turns out that this ba is just a voiced version of the particle は (wa, at least nowadays). So what we get is less “if/when the pheasant doesn’t call,” and more “as for the case of the pheasant not calling.” (That said, this usage of ば apparently dates to the early modern period [source], and has been generally conflated with the hypothetical ba, so reading this as “if the pheasant doesn’t call” isn’t entirely incorrect either.) Anyway, in turn this implies that the zu is in conjunctive form and acting as a noun, for any completionists out there who may have been wondering.

This leaves us with “the pheasant not calling out” as a topic, and the comment on that topic being summed up in a single verb: 撃つ (utsu), “to attack” or, more relevantly, “to shoot.” This verb also takes the imperfective form, followed by passive-voice-marker suffix れ (re), and finally the negative suffix まい (mai) in sentence-final form.

Just to hammer home the point that this is post-classical grammar, my sources say that mai is a contracted form of classical suffix まじ (maji), which expresses “negative probability” or “negative determination” (i.e. it’s a more personal, subjective form of “no” than the absolute ず). The classical formulation would therefore be 撃たるまじ (utaru maji).

Notes:

As a 20th/21st-century (CE) American, I have a strongly negative reflex against the message here. But first, of course, it makes sense in a feudal context, where there are people walking around who literally have the legal right to cut most other people down on a whim. (And for anyone they can’t treat this cavalierly, there are always feuds, politics, and outright war to punish them for upsetting you.) But even in an individualistic modern context, there are still plenty of cases where tact and forbearance are beneficial virtues. So… take it as you will, I guess.

This saying’s endurance in Japanese is attested in part by the number of variants it has. Aside from a plethora of more-or-less synonymous kotowaza using other words, you can replace 雉 with 鳥 (tori, “bird”), or 撃つ with 討つ or 打つ (both utsu; “to shoot” and “to strike” respectively), and/or switch it around so the first half goes 鳴かずば→雉も. That said, apparently replacing まい with modern negative ない (nai) is considered an error, so look out!

(And yes, I’m aware that my long grammatical digression can boil down to “don’t try to force later constructions into a classical mold.” Still, there’s a chance that showing my work might help someone, somewhere, somehow, so there you have it.)

Example sentence:

「勇ちゃんの言うことに冷静に耳を貸すように頑張ってるけど、今回は我慢できない。久しぶりに厳しく叱ったら、あの子は雉も鳴かずば撃たれまいという事実に気付くかな」

(“Yuu-chan no iu koto ni reisei ni mimi wo kasu you ni ganbatteru kedo, konkai wa gaman dekinai. Hisashiburi ni kibishiku shikattara, ano ko wa kiji mo nakazuba utaremai to iu jijistu ni kidzuku ka na.”)

[“I try to listen calmly to whatever Yuu has to say, but this time I have to put my foot down. If I give a really stern lecture, for the first time in a long time, maybe they’ll notice the fact that sometimes it’s best to keep your mouth shut.”]

About Confanity

I love the written word more than anything else I've had the chance to work with. I'm back in the States from Japan for grad school, but still studying Japanese with the hope of becoming a translator -- or writer, or even teacher -- as long as it's something language-related.
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