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Monday, October 25, 2010

United by an Uncommon Language / Part 2

Maiyim Baron considers herself a henna gaijin
and runs a site by that name.
Strange — that's the word for the people who, as soon as they set foot in Japan, aspire to become more Japanese than the Japanese. The Japanese themselves call them henna gaijin, which literally means strange foreigner — or, as one contributor to a Web site exploring this concept put it, "a weird white person who wants to learn about swords and stuff."

When I first got to Japan, I said to myself:
Well, I may be strange, but I'm not foolhardy. I've just had a small-island nation experience in England, which was pretty intense. No need to charge head on into another one straight away. Besides, only a glutton for punishment would embark on such a difficult language right after getting out of grad school. I'll learn just enough Japanese to get by, no more.
Famous last words, as it were. When I first went to England, I resolved not to pick up a British accent: thought it would sound even more pretentious on an American than it does on a native. Little did I envision visiting my hometown one day and being asked: "Are you from England? I love your accent!"

In Japan as well, my initial resistance to going native gave way to a preoccupation with absorbing what the 16th-century Jesuit missionary St. Francis Xavier nicknamed the devil's tongue.

In retrospect, I think St. Francis Xavier had it right. Who but the devil could have seduced me into dabbling in Japanese for so many years, knowing full well I would never reach fluency? Not only that, but since leaving Japan, I've been possessed by the need to persuade ALL English speakers to give it a go, for these four reasons:

1) Everybody needs a supreme challenge, and assuming you're not about to climb Mt. Everest, studying Japanese is the next best thing. Once you've embarked on the adventure, it becomes all consuming. You're in pain, you're exhausted, you're under stress, your brain is swelling, you think you're on the verge of getting lung disease (Japan is a smoker's paradise) — and it turns out you've only reached base camp, where you can say a few basic things like "Kore wa pen desu ka? Hai, kore wa pen desu." [Is this a pen? Yes, it's a pen.]

Mt. Everest, courtesy Wikimedia Commons
At this point, you try not to get psyched out, reminding yourself that others have done it before you — never mind the fact that unlike you, they started when they were young, before their language-learning faculties had atrophied. You also try not to think about what the experts have told you: that, to become truly good at Japanese — as in reading and writing as well as speaking — requires seven years of dedicated study. Lethargy is setting in, and you're full of confusion, but you slog on memorizing kanji characters — just another couple of thousand, and you'll be reading the newspaper.

Pretty soon, though, you can't cram anything more into your poor addled brain, and you take a rest. By the time you resume, it's clear you haven't got a prayer of so much as glimpsing the summit. Even then, you refuse to give up, loathe to relinquish the bragging rights it gives you with your expat friends in Europe.

"You think that learning Spanish is hard?" you say to your friend who has been in Madrid for a couple of years. "Try Japanese!" As long as you're learning Japanese, you'll always be the most macho person in the expat room. In fact, you now see your earlier self as a wimp for complaining about learning French in school. At least it's in the same family as English, for pity's sake!

2) Everybody needs a laugh, and the Japanese language has a comical side — quite literally. Kya-ha-ha. No, I'm not talking about Japlish, the "almost-English" that is plastered on tee shirts, adverts, stationery and the like — "I feel Coke" being a notorious example. Given my predilection for the Queen's English (as professed in Part 1 of this post), I have only one thing to say to the perpetrators of such trends: "We are not amused."

Rather, I refer to the many comical expressions the language contains, which not coincidentally are also the lifeblood of Japanese comics, or manga. Does art imitate life or vice versa? In Japan, one is never quite sure ...

At one point during my stay in Tokyo, I was the only non-Japanese in a Japanese office. Whenever we were facing a tight deadline, my colleagues would use the expression giri giri. Even though no one told me the literal translation, this expression, technically known as an echo word, became imprinted on my brain. It perfectly described my inner state of panic while also providing some light relief. If something is giri giri, it's hard to take it too seriously.

Giri giri is an example of gitaigo, mimetic expressions of states of mind or emotions that do not produce sounds. Japanese also has many onomatopoeia — words that replicate voice or sounds, known as giongo: e.g., guu guu (stomach rumbling), kusu kusu (giggle), pachi pachi (hand clapping), and kin kon (ding dong of a door bell). There is even a word for the sound of breaking big sticks, such as an elephant makes when ambling through the forest: baki baki (see visual). How silly-sweet is that?

Courtesy Think Geek
3) It's the duty of every English speaker to find out what happens to our words when they enter other languages, and Japanese makes a fascinating case study. During Japan's period of national seclusion, lasting more than two centuries, Japanese language borrowed a few Western words, known as Gairaigo or Katakanago, mostly from Portuguese and Dutch: e.g., pan [bread] and biiru [beer]. But with the arrival of Commodore Perry and his Black Ships in 1853, Japan began pursuing modernization, which led to heavy borrowings from German, French, and English. The next major shift occurred after WWII. There was a torrential influx of English into Japanese, which continues to this day.

So, do Japanese people use and pronounce our words the same as we do? You've got to be joking! Typically, they alter our words out of all recognition. For a start, Japanese have shown no hesitation in chopping up our words and recombining them. Sometimes they come up with a brilliant new compound: aircon, for instance. But what if I told you this discussion was ofureco and you can't use your dejikame? Pretty clear, right? (Off the record; digital camera.)

And, while we English speakers have no trouble saying "judo," "sushi," and "anime" (this last is actually a reborrowing), Japanese speakers will modify the pronunciation and/or meaning of our words to suit themselves. Let's try another test. What if I said I was trying to find the mochibeeshon to ridusu? Maybe, just maybe, you'd understand that I'm trying to find the motivation to reduce. But reduce what? As it turns out, ridusu refers only to cutting down on the amount of garbage I create, not my weight.

And that's just the half of it. To make matters worse, many Japanese are offended — the cheek! — by English loanwords. While some people think they sound cool, many more fear their overuse has debased the native tongue and led to no end of communication problems. (The natives, too, frequently get lost in the labyrinth of Katakanago, confusing grin piisu [green peas] for Greenpeace, for instance.)

Woe betide the individual who laces his speech with too many English-derived words. He will be told he has a foreigner's complex (the ultimate put-down being bata kusai: literally, reeking of butter). The nation's sportscasters recently set a good example by developing an alternative lexicon for baseball (another Western import). Now, instead of proclaiming shinguruhitto, they say tanda.

Which brings me to my final point:

4) Believe it or not, English and Japanese have something extraordinary in common. Both languages developed in the shadow of an imperial language: for us it was Latin; for the Japanese, Chinese. (Note: This item relates to Part 1 of this post.)

Kibino Makibi(吉備真備),
a scholar who traveled to China in 716
A brief history lesson. Beginning in the Yamato-Asuka period (538-710 AD), Japan sent envoys of scholars to China to study the Chinese character-based writing system. Not only did these scholars create Japan's first written language using Chinese characters (known as kanji), but they also introduced the first Sino-Japanese words, or Kango.

Similar to the role of Latin in Medieval Europe, Kanbun (the written form of Kango) became the language of statecraft, scholarly literature, and Buddhism (another Chinese import).

But even while borrowing heavily from the language of Imperial China — over 60 percent of Japanese words are derived from Chinese (similar to the percentage for Latin-derived words in English) — ancient Japanese were at pains not to let these borrowings take over. They still used their native words, known as Wago, for describing uniquely Japanese feelings and beliefs. An example is the Man'yōshū, an 8th-century collection of poetry exploring themes at heart of Shinto (Japan's native religion).

While on this topic, let's give a shout-out to the Japanese women who kept the native lingo alive during the Heian period (794-1185), when an alternative writing system emerged, consisting of two phonetic scripts (hiragana and katakana) for representing Japanese words with no Chinese equivalent. Aristocratic women, who had not been trained in Chinese like their male counterparts, took up the brush for the first time. They went on to produce some of outstanding early works of literature. The most illustrious example is Murasaki Shikibu's Genji Monogatari, or Tale of Genji, reputedly the first novel ever written.
Written text from earliest illustrated handscroll (12th C)
of Tale of Genji, courtesy Gotoh Museum

Meanwhile, the literature produced by male writers of the Heian, written in much more stilted Sino-Japanese, has been forgotten. 

Methinks George Orwell would have approved. And he might have been gratified that English and Japanese, despite having so little in common, are united in the robustness of their native tongues. As a general rule, an English word derived from Latin/French roots corresponds to a Sino-Japanese word in Japanese, whereas a simpler Anglo-Saxon word would best be translated by a Wago equivalent.

Question: Have I convinced you to try studying Japanese, or have I merely proved that I have the chops of a henna gaijin, and a demonic one at that?

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

United by an Uncommon Language / Part 1

The "look up" dictionary on my Amazon Kindle has turned me into a much slower reader. I can't seem to resist clicking out to every single word I'm curious about. But if it now takes me twice as long to read an article or book, I find it twice as engrossing.

I've been interested in etymology for as long as I can remember. I was an English major in college and proceeded to study literature and politics in the UK. During the latter experience, I took it upon myself to figure out why George Bernard Shaw (among others) had quipped that the U.S. and the UK are separated by a common language. For a word nerd like me, England was the Land of Linguistic Chills, Thrills and Excitement. In particular, I enjoyed:

1) Vocabulary challenges on BBC Radio 4. Who knew word games could be such a hoot? My all-time favorite was Just a Minute, the panel game where players must talk for sixty seconds on a given subject "without repetition, hesitation or deviation." (Hmmm ... sounds a little like blogging!) In my day, Clement Freud (Sigmund's grandson) was a regular competitor. He kept the other panelists on their toes with his virtuoso command of English coupled with a mercurial wit. For instance, when asked to talk for one minute about tripe, he responded:
I think it is proper to say that taramasalata is the biggest sexual stimulant that we have in the western world. A man in Newport Pagnall ate his own weight of this confection of smoked cod's row, lemon juice, sunflower oil, spices, herbs and...
(At this point, he was challenged for hesitation — and for talking tripe!)

2) The Queen's English Society. Actually, I didn't find out about the Queen's English Society until recently. But the QES has made the list because of the pleasure I took in the UK in meeting the sort of people who might belong to the QES: who care passionately about correct and elegant English usage. I'm only sorry I can't be in the UK now for the QES's latest campaign to "protect the language from impurities, bastardisations and the horrors introduced by the text-speak generation," to be spearheaded by an Academy of English. There are those who find this initiative patronizing and pathetic: patronizing because of the belief that England should be in charge of what is now the global lingua franca; pathetic because of the attempt to use language to restore Britain's declining world status. But I don't agree. Maybe it's my long exposure to Japlish, but I'm glad to see someone holding up the side in an age where emoticons, acronyms, and other irritating examples of textese are creeping in willy nilly. And I've found studies to back up this opinion, such as the one showing that SMS messaging, though faster to write, takes more time to read than normal English. LOL !

3) Saxonists. Likewise, England was the first time I encountered the sort of people who pay attention to the proportion of Anglo-Saxon to Latinate words in their sentences. English (as you probably know, if you've gotten this far in the post) is distinguished for having many words with identical meanings that appear in two forms — one derived from Latin and one derived from Anglo-Saxon:
The incendiary device exterminated twenty citizens.
The bomb killed twenty people.
- - -
I adjourned to the sitting room and perused the morning paper.
I went into the sitting room and read the morning paper.
In his famous polemic "Politics and the English Language," George Orwell pointed out that we English speakers tend to resort to Latinate words whenever we have an urge to obfuscate or gloss over the truth, dress up simple statements, or avoid expressing an opinion:
Bad writers, and especially scientific, political, and sociological writers, are nearly always haunted by the notion that Latin or Greek words are grander than Saxon ones . . .
A word or two more on this Saxonism business. I subscribe to it myself — using Saxon words as the building blocks for my sentences and tossing in the odd Latinate word for variety. There are times, however, when I find this preference for originally and etymologically English words over words from alien sources a little unsettling. And I'm not the only one to have felt this way. The late, great lexicographer Robert Burchfield once referred to the quest for Saxonisms as "an unrealizable nationalistic dream."
Minted in Italy @ 49 BC

Maybe it's because I've become preoccupied with xenophobia of late, but I ask you: where would we be if the Romans hadn't introduced elephantus into the vocabulary? Hmm ... On second thought, that may be a poor choice of example. It turns out Caesar literally introduced the elephantus when he invaded Britain. As one ancient writer recorded:
Caesar had one large elephant, which was equipped with armor and carried archers and slingers in its tower. When this unknown creature entered the river, the Britons and their horses fled and the Roman army crossed over.
Orwell wrote another famous essay about shooting an elephant, in which the slowly dying elephant serves as an emblem of everything that is wrong with imperialism, suggesting it will ultimately fade and (though it may take a long time) die.

Historical linguists could tell us for sure, but doesn't imperialism linger forever in language? The Romans may have entered British territory with an elephant in tow, but the elephant they left behind — that of the Latin language — has proved far more significant. That particular beast refused to perish, especially after the Normans invaded, bringing in still more Latinate words.

(As a sidebar, I wonder if the early Brits couldn't believe their luck when pompous officials of church and state, not to mention academics, declared their intention to make Latin their special province? As Orwell so clearly demonstrated, the language of Imperial Rome suits the bureaucratic mindset to a T.)
COMING SOON: Part II of this post, in which I report on some of the best (and worst) features of attempting to learn the Japanese language, which not for nothing has earned the epithet of the devil's tongue (this from a Jesuit missionary, who had every incentive to master it!). Until then, I am abandoning the realm of philology post-haste to spend more time with my Kindle ...

Questions: Do you, too, value England as the keeper of the flame for the English language? And am I being paranoid, or does our Mother Tongue sometimes have a xenophobic flavor?