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Calvin Ho sent in the following photograph:

He asked an interesting question:

Are there any other places in East Asia where a place name can consist of a single Chinese character? Granted, Otori is three syllables.

No other contemporary East Asian city whose name consists of a single Chinese character leaps to mind, and I didn't spot any among the hundreds listed here, though I must admit that I scanned the lists exceedingly quickly, so I may have missed one.

It is fairly easy for me to think of names of cities written in non-Sinographic scripts that consist of a single syllable (Ur, Rome [English version of Roma], Köln [but listen to the audio here], Bern, etc.).

Considering the high semantic carrying capacity of Chinese characters, one would think that it would be easy to designate a city by a single character without creating ambiguity.  In Classical Chinese, that did happen.  For example, during the third century, there was a city called Yè 鄴 / 邺, but in actuality, it was often referred to as Yè chéng 鄴 / 邺城 ("Ye City").

I suspect that city names tended to consist of two or more syllables / characters so that they would be intelligible when spoken.


  1. EB said,

    August 9, 2015 @ 11:19 am

    There's another one in Japan: Tsu (津) city in Mie prefecture. One character and one mora.

  2. Jean-Michel said,

    August 9, 2015 @ 11:51 am

    It should be said that Ōtori isn't a city name, but the name of a train station in Osaka. (No idea where the name comes from, but I would guess it's a local name for the immediate area.) There are similar single-character place names in Japan, like 上 Kamura in Nara's Asuka Village, 的 Ikuwa in Kanzaki, and 閤 in Usa (of the "Made in Usa" urban legend). I'm not aware of similar examples outside of Japan; the closest I can find are some single-syllable county names in China (like 云 Yún in Yunnan), but then these would normally be referred to as X县 "X County," along the lines of "Ye City."

  3. profan said,

    August 9, 2015 @ 11:56 am

    isn't ootori four, not three, syllables?

  4. AG said,

    August 9, 2015 @ 11:57 am

    Otori looks like four syllables, no?

  5. JM said,

    August 9, 2015 @ 12:33 pm

    On the linked Wikipedia page there's Sakai (堺) in Osaka, and off the top of my head there's also the smaller Kure (呉) in Hiroshima prefecture. Perhaps it's limited to Japan?

  6. Victor Mair said,

    August 9, 2015 @ 12:42 pm

    I would be very interested in learning how 的 acquired the sound of, or was assigned to, the name Ikuwa in Japanese. In Modern Standard Mandarin (MSM), it is pronounced de and it serves as the particle of nominalization / possession / relativization / etc. It is by far the highest frequency character in MSM. In earlier stages of Sinitic it meant "clear; bright" or "target" and it would have sounded something like its pronunciation in Cantonese, dik1. Cf. the Cantonese transcription of "taxi": 的士 dik1 si6*2


  7. Victor Mair said,

    August 9, 2015 @ 1:44 pm

    From Ted Bestor:

    I can come up with 4 Japanese examples of cities with a single character name

    Kure 呉 — near Hiroshima

    Hagi 萩 — old castle town on the Japan Sea Coast (visited by Robert Louis Stevenson)

    Sakai 堺 — adjacent to Osaka

    Tsu 津 — near Nagoya

    If one looked at village names, I am sure there would be many more.

  8. AntC said,

    August 9, 2015 @ 1:50 pm

    As a data point for short place-names, I'm always bemused by 'Y' in France https://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Y_(Somme). (Also apparently in Alaska https://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Y_(Alaska).)

  9. Victor Mair said,

    August 9, 2015 @ 1:58 pm

    I wonder how to pronounce the name of the French town and the name of the Alaskan town.

    This prompted me to look up how to pronounce the name of the Belgian town Ypres. Here you go:


  10. Russell said,

    August 9, 2015 @ 3:14 pm

    Regarding 的/ikuha, there's some commentary here: https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/的

  11. Gregory Kusnick said,

    August 9, 2015 @ 3:17 pm

    Victor: According to Wikipedia, it's [i] for the French town and /ˈwaɪ/ for the Alaskan town (named, apparently, for a fork in the road).

    Sadly Y, Alaska has been renamed Susitna North.

  12. Doreen said,

    August 9, 2015 @ 3:28 pm

    There's a town in northern Finland called Ii, pronounced /i:/.

  13. Chris Waigl said,

    August 9, 2015 @ 4:23 pm

    May I point to https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_short_place_names .

    I knew about Y in France, but not about Y in Alaska, and found it odd because I drove by that intersection with the Parks Highway just the other day. It must be that it's overshadowed by Talkeetna… Susitna North is an exceedingly boring administrative-ese name!

  14. PeterL said,

    August 9, 2015 @ 4:25 pm

    Isn't 呉 the ancient Chinese state of Wu? (And many other ancient Chinese states had a single character; which sadly don't get transcribed in translations, which drives me crazy trying to keep track of names).
    And if we're talking about ancient Japanese states: 倭 can be read Yamato or Wa.

    One more single-character city name in Japan: 都, which I've seen/heard as both "Miyako" and "Kyō", at least in period movies. If you count uses in phrases, there's also 洛 in 上洛 — going (up) to the capital (Kyōto) https://ja.wikipedia.org/wiki/%E4%B8%8A%E6%B4%9B .

  15. krogerfoot said,

    August 9, 2015 @ 4:28 pm

    Kashiwa is a city in Chiba prefecture about an hour northeast of Tokyo.

  16. Chris Waigl said,

    August 9, 2015 @ 4:29 pm

    Correcting myself – no, y/Susitna North is nowhere near Talkeetna. It's even south of Trapper Creek. Too far north to count as a part of Willow, so apparently they needed a name. And it's indeed just after the bridge over the Big Su (ie. the Susitna River, which is impressive there). OK…

  17. Adrian Bailey said,

    August 9, 2015 @ 6:23 pm

    Tsu station has quite notable platform signage – see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tsu_Station

  18. Adrian Bailey said,

    August 9, 2015 @ 6:43 pm

    My favourite short French placename is Eu [ø].

  19. Victor Mair said,

    August 9, 2015 @ 7:03 pm

    Thanks, Russell, for the reference to the Wiktionary entry on 的. Here are the listed Japanese readings for the character:

    Goon: ちゃく (chaku)

    Kan’on: てき (teki)

    Kun: まと (mato), いくは (ikuha) (non-Jōyō reading), ゆくは (yukuha) (non-Jōyō reading)

    So it looks like ikuha is another one of those name-only, non-Jōyō readings, such as the -ju of Kita-senju. See:

    "Miswritten character on a Tokyo Metro sign" (7/31/15)

  20. Eli Nelson said,

    August 9, 2015 @ 9:21 pm

    @profan, AG: according to my understanding of Japanese phonology, Ōtori is three syllables but four morae. The two concepts seem to be frequently conflated in the Japanese language-learning world, but I have seen several linguistic analyses of Japanese that do distinguish between a syllable and a mora.

  21. Adrian said,

    August 9, 2015 @ 9:22 pm

    Because it's funner than going to sleep, here are the station signs at
    Ōe http://photozou.jp/photo/show/206940/37905815
    Ei http://blog.goo.ne.jp/kumamoto-amakusa/e/e8e756b5500638c30ff1955d12fdaa75
    Tsu http://image.search.yahoo.co.jp/search?p=%E6%B4%A5%E9%A7%85&rkf=1&ei=UTF-8&imt=&ctype=&imcolor=&dim=
    Kashiwa http://blog.goo.ne.jp/hiroron_september/e/e33f1475cbf95a9261593f6bc60cd34d
    Kure http://image.search.yahoo.co.jp/search?p=%E5%91%89%E9%A7%85&rkf=1&ei=UTF-8&imt=&ctype=&imcolor=&dim=
    Hagi https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:%E8%90%A9%E9%A7%85%E7%9C%8B%E6%9D%BF.JPG
    Sakai http://maryukenshi.web.fc2.com/railway/nankai/mainline/mainline-11.htm
    Ib http://storyglitz.com/10-funny-indian-railway-station-names-that-will-blow-your-mind/

  22. JS said,

    August 9, 2015 @ 11:42 pm

    The question is confusing to me because traditionally the mora is defined with respect to the syllable — from this one point of view, at least, saying that the mora rather than the syllable is "the basis of the sound system" in Japanese (per Wikipedia) is a contradiction in terms.

    Are both concepts really necessary to describe Japanese? There must be some phonological (prosodic?) grounds for calling certain two-morae sequences "one syllable" (perhaps [to-o]; hon [ho-n]; hai [ha-i]?) and others "two syllables" (perhaps iku [i-ku]; mae [ma-e]; ao [a-o]?), but I'm not clear what it is. I assume it's not "the former were historically one syllable, or look like what syllables look like in Western languages"…

  23. Hiroshi said,

    August 10, 2015 @ 2:44 am

    PeterL said, August 9, 2015 @ 4:25 pm

    Isn't 呉 the ancient Chinese state of Wu? (And many other ancient Chinese states had a single character; which sadly don't get transcribed in translations, which drives me crazy trying to keep track of names).
    And if we're talking about ancient Japanese states: 倭 can be read Yamato or Wa.

    One more single-character city name in Japan: 都, which I've seen/heard as both "Miyako" and "Kyō", at least in period movies. If you count uses in phrases, there's also 洛 in 上洛 — going (up) to the capital (Kyōto) https://ja.wikipedia.org/wiki/%E4%B8%8A%E6%B4%9B .

    I second this. Quite a lot of ancient states have single character names, many of which ares still in use today (e.g. 粵, 閩, 吳, etc.)

    As for cities…I am under the impression that, in Classical Chinese, single character names for cities are used quite frequently. It seems that many cities whose names ending with 州、城、郡、都、江、山 and the likes are also known by the single-character name only.

    I don't think it really counts, but many cities do have abbreviations that are still widely used in modern Chinese (滬 for Shanghai, for example).

    P.S. I'm looking at the list of biblical places and there doesn't seem to be many single-syllable names.

  24. Rose Kuwahata said,

    August 10, 2015 @ 3:02 am

    There are numerous such places in Japan and regardless of whether a character represents a place or not, an elementary introduction to how Japanese writing works will quickly put your mind to rest and provide an explanation. In Japanese, characters can have several readings,
    their single-syllable Chinese readings (音読み onyomi) and the various Japanese readings / words that were assigned to those characters (訓読みkunyomi) when Chinese characters were adopted into the Japanese language.
    The character in the question (鳳 Ootori) which in onyomi would be the single syllable 'hou'is the character for the firebird or pheonix, which can also be written as 鳳凰 (houou two syllables in their (Chinese onyomi reading) in Japanese. The second character also means pheonix so this is a very powerful combination.

  25. phspaelti said,

    August 10, 2015 @ 6:16 am

    Just to confirm what Eli Nelson says. Ootori most definitely is three syllables (and four moras).

    And to JS's question: yes, both syllables and moras are necessary to a proper description of Japanese, for example accent, abbreviations, etc. Most Japanese are biased, due to the writing system, towards ignorance of syllables in their own language.

  26. languagehat said,

    August 10, 2015 @ 8:32 am

    From Russell's link, to save others the trouble of clicking through and scrolling down (and also because you never know if links will survive):

    The iku element probably derives from root component いく ‎(iku) meaning “shooting [arrows]”, as found in いくう ‎(ikuu) and also in ‎(ikusa, “a battle”, original meaning “the shooting of arrows”). The iku element might be related to verb 射る ‎(iru, “to shoot an arrow”), or obsolete verb 生く ‎(iku, “to live; to make something live, to make something go”), likely cognate with 行く ‎(iku, “to go”).

    The ha element is uncertain. It might be ‎(ha, “the edge or end of something”), from the sense “the end [of the arrow's flight]”.

  27. Daniel von Brighoff said,

    August 10, 2015 @ 9:51 am

    Germans get a lot of teasing for their multiply-compound words, but just outside of the city where I lived there is a village called Au ("water meadow"). Apparently there's also an Au in Switzerland and one in Austria as well (albeit the Alemannic-speaking part).

  28. Avery said,

    August 10, 2015 @ 1:53 pm

    If you count uses in phrases, there's also 洛 in 上洛 — going (up) to the capital

    洛 within that phrase is an abbreviation for 洛陽, which is what the cool kids say when they want to refer obliquely to the capital. 洛 alone was never the common name for Kyoto, in the same way that "big" isn't a common name for Hawaiʻi.

    I believe Hiroshi is correct to say that single-character names were common, even the norm in premodern China. For example, the Yangtze River is just called 江 in Chinese poetry.

  29. JQ said,

    August 10, 2015 @ 2:48 pm

    How about Huế in Vietnam?

    I always thought that this was 化, but apparently that character is pronounced Hóa. Can anyone shed some light on this (and why the Chinese name for that city reflects an older name, along the lines of the former Chinese name for Seoul)?

  30. Daniel von Brighoff said,

    August 10, 2015 @ 4:40 pm

    It's not unusual for a single Chinese character to have several variant pronunciations in Vietnamese. For instance, 行 has the possible readings hành, hàng, hạnh, ngành, hãng, hăng, and tùng (e.g. 行李 ‎hành lý "luggage" vs 銀行 ‎ngân hàng "bank" vs 品行 phẩm hạnh "behaviour" etc.). It all depends when and from which Sinitic variety the morpheme or compound was borrowed. Other attested pronunciations of 化 include hoa, hóc, góa, and hóe.

    So I can't shed any light on where Huế got its name or how this morpheme came to be associated with 化. But we can't discount out-of-hand the possibility that it came from some archaic variant pronunciation associated with Literary Chinese 化.

  31. Rubrick said,

    August 10, 2015 @ 4:40 pm

    Single-syllable city names are sufficiently rare that "What is the single-syllable city in the U.S. with the highest population?" makes for a surprisingly difficult trivia question. (It also shows how differently brains and computer datatases are organized; the algorithm used by people trying to answer this seems to be "1. Think of a city. 2. Count the syllables. 3. If syllables > 1, repeat.")

  32. Gregory Kusnick said,

    August 10, 2015 @ 5:17 pm

    Rubrick: “What is the single-syllable city in the U.S. with the highest population?”

    Does Nyawk count?

  33. julie lee said,

    August 10, 2015 @ 8:44 pm

    @Rose Kawahata:

    Regarding the word 鳳凰 [fenghuang in Mandarin], often translated "phoenix". Alternatively, if I'm not mistaken, the first character 鳳 feng means "male phoenix" and the second character 凰 huang means "female phoenix". Furthermore, 鳳凰 fenghuang "phoenix" can be understood as having a male side and a female side.

  34. PeterL said,

    August 10, 2015 @ 9:43 pm

    One more Japanese station (place) name with a single character:
    桂 Katsura
    (Near Katsura Detached Palace, one of the most famous examples of Japanese architecture)

  35. Noel Hunt said,

    August 11, 2015 @ 1:23 am

    The non-Jōyō reading of 住 as じゅ ('ju') is apparent only since it seems to be a conflation with 千手 ('senju'), from the name of the statue of the goddess 千手観音 'senju kannon'. In 1327 one Arai Zusho-masatsugi is said to have dragged a statue of senju kannnon out of the Arakawa River and this area became known as 千手 'senju' (pace the Japanese Wikipedia).

  36. Daniel von Brighoff said,

    August 13, 2015 @ 1:08 pm

    鳳凰 is not a lone exception in this regard. 麒麟 qílín (a mythical horned beast sometimes called the "Chinese unicorn") works the same way, i.e. 麟 lín on its own denotes the female of the species.

  37. Tore said,

    August 13, 2015 @ 8:37 pm

    One more japanese one: 蕨 (Warabi; Pteridium aquilinum) in Saitama prefecture.

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