What does “shiritori” literally mean?
Each word has its head and hip
Two rules of shiritori
Shiritori in English?
Sound and appearance
IntroductionShiritori is a Japanese word chain game. This is very famous among Japanese people, so it’s not too much to say that everyone knows this game in Japan. Especial school kids play this with their friends or family. In this blog post, I will explain what shiritori is and how to play it.
What does “shiritori” literally mean?First of all, let’s take a look at the word, shiritori, itself. This word can be separated into two parts as follows.
- shiri – 尻 (しり) : a noun to mean “hip”. It can mean “(the) end” or “(the) last” in informal situations.
- tori – 取り (とり) : a conjunctive form of the noun, toru, meaning “to take”, “to get”, “to pick” or such.
Each word has its head and hipInterestingly, we can consider like this. Every single word always has its own head and hip. In other words, a word needs its own first and last character as long as a language containing it has a writing system. Here, the first and last character of a word are considered as a head and hip respectively. This point is very important to play shiritori. For better understanding, let me take an example below.
In English, the head and hip of the word, shiritori, are s and i respectively. S is the first character and i is the last. Here, we need to be careful with the fact that a head and hip of a word change depending on a writing system. Shiritori can be written as しりとり in Japanese hiragana, and then its head and hip are し and り respectively. I believe that now you understand a head and hip of words. If you have a good intuition, you can guess rules of the game.
Two rules of shiritoriThere are only two very simple rules.
- A player has to choose a new word in his/her turn so that a head of the new word and a hip of the previous word are the same.
- If a player chooses a new word ending with the character, ん, he/she loses a game.
You can understand the rule 1 through an example. When your turn comes and if the last player1 chose しりとり as his/her new word,2 you have to choose your new word which starts with the character, り, like りんご. Two words then are chained to each other. Shiritori, “hip taking”, is a metaphor for this word chaining.
A reason for the rule 2 is very simple. In Japanese, there is no word starting with the character, ん, therefore words cannot be chained. This is the end of word chaining and also of the game itself.
This is an overview of shiritori, a Japanese word chain game. I forgot to introduce a new word to you when I used it in the paragraph before the last one, so I will do here.
- ringo – 林檎 (りんご) : a noun to mean “apple”.
 The last player could be the same as the current player. I mean that only one player can be enough to play this game. Normally, several players play it in turn though.
 At the very beginning of this game, one word needs to be selected as a starter. The game name, shiritori, is very often used.
Shiritori in English?Is it possible to play this word chain game in English? I’m just curious. Let’s thing about it and perhaps let’s find out a difference. This would be helpful to understand traits of the language, Japanese.
Let me start with an easier rule. The rule 2 is it. As I mentioned already, in Japanese, there is no word starting with the character, ん. So this would be very helpful to make a condition which defines winner/winners and a loser. Does English have such a useful character? No. No it doesn’t, unfortunately. All 26 alphabet characters can be a head of a new word. This means that once we start this game in English, we cannot end it unless an additional rule is set. We’ve just found one big difference between English and Japanese.
Sound and appearanceIn this paragraph, I will think about the rule 1.
When Japanese people play shiritori, they normally relies on verbal communication. They don’t write down each chained word. Here, we can find another big difference between English and Japanese.
In Japanese, each hiragana character3 basically corresponds to only one pronunciation. So, as soon as we hear a Japanese word, we can convert it to a unique hiragana expression and specify a hip of that word easily. This is very helpful when we want to play shiritori smoothly.
What would happen in English? In English, several different combinations of characters could correspond to the same sound. So, playing shiritori only with the rule 1 (and 2) could be confusing. A sound which you hear from the previous player can be written in different way that he/she assumes in his/her mind. For example, when you hear a sound of “fish”, you could use a different expression, “ghoti”. This is an extreme case, but it could happen. Unless we strictly define whether we follow sound or appearance, it would be hard to continue this game. In English, a hip can be either the last character or sound of the previous word.
 katakana characters too. Each corresponds to only one pronunciation.
Wrap-upI’ve explained a meaning of shiritori and its rules. In addition, I showed the differences between English and Japanese through the game. As I mentioned, shiritori highly depends on a writing system which it is played on. Hiragana and katakana fit with it very well, while English does not. Even in Japanese, a kanji writing system would not suitable for this game because almost all kanji characters have several different ways to pronounce. Sometimes thinking about a simple word game deeply would be helpful to find a new aspect of our languages.
Japanese Particles Master
Masaki Mori is a Japanese particles master. Through teaching Japanese language, he is trying to spread the culture of Japan. His goal is to preserve it as much as possible.