Before I start I’ll just say that this post will deviate from the norm both in terms of content and pictures. I’ve been wanting to throw up a bunch of pictures from my Japanese Confectionaries class for some time now but whenever I’ve intended to do so some outdoors event comes up and pushes it back with more traditional “Kyoto” pictures. But this time I’m really gonna post them! I’ll describe them via the captions, though, since they have less than nothing to do with the content :).
So, the other day I spent a decent amount of time surfing the web and gathering information for my Nihon Kenkyuu (“Japanese Research”) class. Kenkyuu is a class wherein I’ll have to give a ten to fifteen minute oral presentation in Japanese on a topic of my choice. And they really do let you choose anything you want – Harrison is doing his on the Dragon Quest video game series and its influence on society. Last semester Stuart did his on hair dying. I decided to do mine on creatures in Japanese mythology. Part of the reason behind my decision to pick a more serious topic is the fact that UCSD has not yet determined whether or not I’ll be able to transfer the class for credit (ridiculous), and I figure the more “traditional culture class”-esque topic I choose, the more likely I’ll be to get it approved. The other reason is because Nick suggested it and, seriously, when has Nick ever steered me wrong?
Anyways, during my research I stumbled on a number of interesting articles about the Japanese language and thought I’d share them with you. When I was talking to my cousin Amy a couple of weeks ago I mentioned the word “kanji” and she asked me what kanji was. I realized that many of you may not know all that much about the language itself, which I find immensely interesting. So, without further adieu…
Or, How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Hardest Language On Earth
So, why is it that Japanese is considered by most Westerners as so impossibly difficult? One of the most commonly known reasons is the writing system. The language is composed of 3 alphabets: First is kanji, the alphabet of Chinese characters where each character is used to represent a unique concept (i.e. there are characters for “tree,” “rock,” “love,” “sameness,” etc). But because the Japanese already had their own fully developed spoken language when they imported kanji from China, they had to invent an additional phonetic alphabet, the 46-character “hiragana,” to represent their own grammatical structures alongside the kanji. Centuries later, a third 46-character phonetic alphabet, katakana, was added for transcribing foreign words into Japanese.
To be considered even basically literate, the Japanese Ministry of Education has designated 1,945 general-use kanji that one must be able to read, although most Japanese college students know more like 3,000-4,000. To add to the challenge of learning and retaining such a huge number of characters, most kanji have at least two completely unique ways to read them (the Japanese reading and the Chinese reading) and many have three or more. Plus there are a number of “name” readings, often so difficult that Japanese people can’t even read them without a prior familiarity with that specific name. This is why nearly everybody carries electronic dictionaries around, and why the names of train stations are written in both kanji and hiragana. Think about that for a minute. Adult native speakers walk around in their own country carrying dictionaries and reading sounded-out versions of town names. And they say English is a difficult language to learn.
This kanji issue also makes the spoken language itself harder. Because each character has a very specific meaning, kanji are often combined to form words with far more specific meanings than exist in English. For instance combining the kanji for “country” with the kanji for “return” forms the word that means “to return to one’s own country.” Other examples include words that mean “buying something on an installment plan,” “Being timid because you’re from an island nation,” and “the pathway leading up to a shrine.” The size of one’s standard working vocabulary must therefore be much larger in Japanese than in English to function in many situations. To pass the level 1 Japanese language proficiency test and become eligible to apply for admission to a Japanese university you are expected to have a vocabulary of around 10,000 words.
Phonetically, the language is a very simple one with not nearly as many pronounceable syllables as English. But with such an enormous vocabulary, this results in a HUGE number of homonyms. It’s quite normal to look up a word in a dictionary and see five to ten completely different meanings with the exact same pronunciation. How do you know what they mean? When it’s spoken, from context, and when it’s written, from the kanji.
As if this wasn’t enough, Japanese is absolutely FULL of onomatopoeia. In English, we only have a few of these – buzz is the noise a bee makes, pitter patter is the noise of little feet walking, etc. But in Japanese, they have entire dictionaries devoted to it – they have it for EVERYTHING. Heavy rain, soft rain, speaking fluently, being hungry, smiling, smirking, wind blowing, quite literally every action you can think of, whether it truly makes a noise or not, has an onomatopoeia associated with it. And they’re used very frequently.
After the kanji, vocab, and onomatopoeia, you have the grammar. This is perhaps the most difficult element of the language, as Japanese grammar is so many times more complex and intricate than English I can’t even begin to describe it. I’ll just illustrate with a couple examples.
First, there are levels of politeness – in every sentence you can tell the social relationship between the speaker and the listener based on the words and grammatical structures they use. Often, there are different words necessary to describe the same situation based on different social relationships – for instance, you can’t just say “I give this to you,” but “I give this to you and you are socially superior to me,” “I give this to you and you are socially inferior to me,” “I give this to you and you are significantly socially inferior to me,” etc. Some forms of polite speech that are used everyday in Japanese companies are so difficult that even native speakers don’t learn how to properly use them until they begin their office jobs and have no choice.
Next, to describe an action – for instance, “my stereo was taken” – there are different grammatical ways that this sentence must be formed to indicate whether this made you happy (my friend took my stereo, awesome!) or unhappy (my stereo was taken from me…curses). Without building these emotions into the sentence, it’s of course understandable but sounds very unnatural to a native speaker. Likewise, describing your own mood must be done differently than describing someone else’s, because you can’t KNOW how they’re feeling – you just assume it. there are different ways to say “I want something,” “someone else wants something,” “I want to do something,” or “I want someone else to do something for me.”
The list goes on and on and on and on.
After the grammar comes dialects, which leads me to this interesting blog entry. From the first paragraph:
One of the first things my new boss told me after I came to Japan to work as an English teacher in the early 80s was that “all Japanese are bilingual”. By that, he meant that every Japanese was fluent both in hyojungo, the standard language used for television, radio, books, and magazines, and in the local dialect that people use to varying degrees to conduct the business of everyday life in their communities. I soon found out that he wasn’t exaggerating; despite taking three years of Japanese language courses at university before coming to Japan, in the first months after my arrival in Kyushu I often had no idea what people were saying in the local dialect.
Lucky for me I’m living in Kansai, learning the most well-known dialect (after standard “textbook” Japanese). This article’s mention of Kansai dialect was really what got me going on this whole language thing, pretty amusing I thought:
The world’s most difficult word to translate has been identified as “ilunga” from the Tshiluba language spoken in south-eastern DR Congo. It came top of a list drawn up in consultation with 1,000 linguists. Ilunga means “a person who is ready to forgive any abuse for the first time, to tolerate it a second time, but never a third time”. It seems straightforward enough, but the 1,000 language experts identified it as the hardest word to translate. In second place was shlimazl which is Yiddish for “a chronically unlucky person”. Third was Naa, used in the Kansai area of Japan to emphasise statements or agree with someone.
Sweet, I regularly use the world’s third most difficult word to translate 🙂
Anyways, this little summary ended up getting way longer than I intended so I think I’ll just cut it off here – I’m sure you get the idea by now anyway. If you’re still interested, here’s another article that I found where a linguist compares his difficulties in learning Mandarin Chinese to Japanese (Andy, you might like this considering you’ll be going to study in China soon!).
Phew, and I finally did it. I finnnaaalllly posted the wagashi pictures. Coming up next time (probably)…wait…I haven’t told you about this. Big news, folks:
So you know “Gion,” the really famous old district of Kyoto I’m always talking about? Well, next week begins the Gion Matsuri (matsuri = festival), one of the most famous in all of Japan. Absolutely enormous floats weighing tens of tons are pulled through the streets of downtown amidst a large parade (here’s one snapshot from a previous year). And guess what. Myself and several of my fellow exchange students are getting to help BUILD one of the floats. And that’s not all – one or two of us will be selected to pull one of them in the Gion Matsuri. One of us will get to become a real part of Kyoto’s history.
As Quagmire so eloquently puts it, “giggity giggity!!!”