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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?


Kym Hamer said...

Ha I did 4yrs of Japanese at High School...and haven't used it since! However I can still count to 10th and otobai (motorbike?) remains one of my favourite words along with running about the Aussie playground shouting urusai, baka (buggar off idiot!) as any self-respecting teenager would.

ML Awanohara said...

@Kym: Gwa! ha! ha! I am invoking the laughter of the baddie hero boasting of victory--only it's your victory, not mine. I'd forgotten about you Aussies! You are the English speakers who finesse Japanese better than the rest of us. I suppose it's your government's way of signaling its earnestness about being a member of Asia-Pacific. It seems a high price to pay, but if kids can start early enough (as in your case), perhaps it's not too exorbitant.

But tell me, did they teach you how to read and write, or just speak? (How far did the torture go?)

And thanks for reminding me of baka: that used to be one of my favorites, too. It's also le mot juste (forgive me, George O, that pretension!) for next week's American midterm elections.

Apparently, baka is made up of two kanji: Ba (horse) and Ka (deer). The idea being that if you can't tell a horse from a deer, then you must be BAKA.

Incidentally, I do think the horse would be a better symbol for Republicans (as long as it's the wild, untamed kind) and the deer for Democrats (they're much too meek imho) than their current animals. But then I shall never forgive Reps for appropriating the elephant, and lord, what fools these Dems be for wanting a donkey as a symbol.

But I digress...baka me!

Kate said...

I did German at high school and found their habit of piling words together to make a new word two lines long quite disspiriting. Few of the words bear much relation to the English translation, despite English being a Germanic language, and for me it was a case of learning vocabulary by rote -- not like French or Spanish where you can make connections between words quite easily. Although German uses the same alphabet (give or take a double-s symbol) it might as well have done little drawings instead of words and saved a lot of paper in the meanwhile.

Still too exhausted from my Germanic experience three decades ago to contemplate Japanese. Ask me in another 10 years.

Jeffrey said...

"As long as you're learning Japanese, you'll always be the most macho person in the expat room."

Really? I have no experience with the language, but I would have thought any dialect of Chinese, being a tonal language, would be a bigger boast. I mean, isn't speaking Japanese only rearranging 54 sounds? Reading and writing is, of course, another matter all together.

(Not to give the wrong impression, but I still have problems understanding anyone over the age of 6 and my in-laws with their Owari-ben are nearly incomprehensible to me.)

ML Awanohara said...

@Kate: Hmmm... I wonder if your struggles with German reflect that the Latins won the battle? Around 60 percent of our vocabulary is Latin derived.

If it's any consolation, the Foreign Service Institute of the U.S. Department of State puts German in a category by itself on its language difficulty list. Whereas French, Italian, and Spanish are in Category I--languages closely related to English requiring 23-24 weeks of full-time study to become reasonably proficient in speaking and reading--German is listed under "Other" and requires 30 weeks.

p.s. LOL at your last sentence. I've just now marked it on my 2020 calendar to prod you again.

ML Awanohara said...

@Jeffrey: I agree it's a bit of a toss-up as to whether Chinese or Japanese is more difficult. The Foreign Service Institute (FSI) of the U.S. Department of State (see my last comment) lists five languages in Category III (exceptionally difficult for native English speakers, requiring 88 weeks for reaching some proficiency in speaking and reading): Arabic, Cantonese, Mandarin, Japanese, and Korean. (This is for English speakers who already know other languages.)

Still, the FSI considers Japanese to be the most difficult of this group.

I haven't conducted a study myself, but anecdotally, I have an interview in the works with an American woman who learned Chinese. She tried some Japanese in graduate school but found it much more difficult.

On the other hand, "macho" was probably the wrong word. In today's economy, learning Chinese sounds a lot more impressive than learning Japanese. It suggests you intend to hold your own when China becomes the next superpower.

Kym Hamer said...

ML yes we did the writing bits too although I can't remember any of that! Wakari masu nan desu ka...(this is the only q I can remember but brain has not retained the meaning)

Daniel said...

I've been half-studying Japanese on and off for the last 2 years. I'm 16 almost 17 now so I suppose i started really thinking about "learning" Japanese when i was 14-15, around then, all I really did was indulge myself in Japanese popular culture and the like without too much (or any) classic language study (drilling vocab, grammar and so on) that is until the last few months. Starting this last summer I began seriously trying to learn more, after being "immersed" for so long in Japanese culture through the internet I managed to pick a reasonable amount of vocabulary (nothing too amazing though but enough to understand spoken Japanese to a reasonable extent, with many big and obvious gaps of course). Right now I'm at the point where I'm looking up at the huge undertaking that is kanji which is the hardest aspect of the Japanese language in my opinion. (probably most of the aforementioned mount Everest :P)

Having native Spanish under my belt really helps when pronouncing Japanese since the sounds are so similar and my general experience with languages (English, Spanish, French and now Japanese) has really sped up otherwise very tedious studying.

I'm not really sure where I'm trying to go with this but what I think is that someday I will spend some time in Japan and improve my Japanese, who knows I might even like it enough to settle down there. Though Japanese is certainly a really difficult language (probably more so for some than others) attaining fluency or at least a decent level of fluency is a very clear longish term goal for me. Like I said before it's only been for these last few months that I've been seriously applying myself to Japanese and its been pretty hectic because of school, finding a balance is difficult sometimes.

Sorry if this is disorganized, on top of writing not being my forte my thoughts about this are very mixed up and are constantly changing, just wanted to share this whatever 'this' is >_<

Patrick said...

So glad to have an opportunity to talk about Japanese. It's rare for me to find anyone who can get past the first three minutes of my thoughts on this topic without yawning.

Just a few random thoughts ...

1) On onomatopoeia:
* I've always found gitaigo (the sounds things make) and giseigo (the sounds voices make) – together gion – fascinating because it expresses the emotional side of the Japanese character as cogently as kango expresses the rational side.
* But to equate gion with English onomatopoeia is to not do the former justice. In English, onomatopoeia are often used as supplemental support for the main verb: The rooster crowed, "Cock-a-doodle-doo!" They add color. In Japanese, so-called "sound words" are integral to the thought being expressed. They conjure mental pictures while simultaneously conveying emotion. For example, meso meso conjures a picture of a person sniffling – in tears or nearly in tears – while conveying the speaker’s disdain for such weakness.
* The true English counterpart for gion would be the idiomatic expression – which Japanese have as much trouble mastering as we do their gion. A Japanese mother may tell her depressed high school son, “Shanto shite!” ["Pull yourself together!] while the Brit mother tells her son, “Chin up!”

2) On "I Feel Coke" and the like:
* “I feel Coke” is not bad English, it is good Japanese, simply transposed. Excellent ad copy, in my humble opinion. “I feel Coke” = “Watashi ha Coke wo kanjite ire.” [I experience Coke – i.e., Coke has reached out and touched me.]
* Remember when PM Fukuda invented “skinship” to define his approach to foreign relations? “Hade to hade no otsukiai” or (more commonly) “Hadaka no otsukiai” = a relationship without pretense and posturing. It conjures up an image of friendly physical contact such as takes place during communal bathing at a neighborhood sento [public bath] or onsen.

Patrick said...

Random Thoughts, Cont'd.

3) On the comparison with Japanese and English:
* Like you, I find it interesting that both cultures – Anglo and Japanese – use similar strategies to complete their arsenal of communication. English has Latinate and Greek origin words on the one hand, and Anglo-Saxon, Germanic words on the other. The former effectively parses the range of meaning, while the latter gives you the gut feel. Certainly, “Coitus you!” would be lost on many. Japanese have their Kanbun, which they still use to “assemble” new words all the time, and Yamato-kotoba, the touchy-feely village language of the original Yamato people.
* As in English, in Japanese what you call the Imperial Language – which as I see it support logos rather than pathos expression – appears more commonly in writing than in vernacular conversation.
* But one aspect of our languages that is VERY different is the inherently subjective nature of Japanese, vs. the inherently objective nature of English. While Japanese students are taught to write kansoubun – papers on how they feel about a topic as an exercise in clarifying their inner experience and communicating this to others – Anglo students are encouraged to write expository essays, preferably in third person. Indeed, starting an essay on the advantages and disadvantages of Austrian School of Capitalism with “I feel ...” will likely knock you down a grade.

4) On what the Japanese do to English words:
The Chinese have gotten over their orthography being used by Japanese as tools to not communicate in Chinese but more effectively in Japanese. Time we accepted that English is no different: to the Japanese, English is a linguistic tool to communicate more effectively in Japanese, or as they might say, mou hitotsu no “komyunikeshon tsu-ru” de aru.

susumu said...

Otobai in Kym's comment at top has set me off on a tangent. Otobai -- or motorcyle from auto and bicycle -- is one of those reconstituted Japlish words ML mentions in this post. What's fascinating to me is that otobai (along with aircon for air conditioner, pan for bread, and kanban for signboard) is still very commonly used in Taiwan -- and even South Korea, where people have made great efforts to get rid of the Japanese influence. Perhaps otobai was not purged and replaced by a more palatable local Korean word because unlike a lot of the Wago which are obviously of Yamato origin, it sounds deceptively un-Japanese.

There is a huge number of Korean words that Koreans believe are derived from Chinese (because they can be written in hanja, or kanji) and therefore have not been thrown out. But these words are in fact Japanese. My favorite examples are gonggang [airport]and bihaenggi [airplane], which come straight from the Japanese kuko and hikoki. The Chinese words for airport and airplane are jichang and feiji, using different characters. This is one reason why Koreans are so good at learning Japanese.

Which brings me to the whole lexicon of Japan-made Chinese words without which Mao Tsetung could not have written his works -- economy, feudal, capital, democracy, materialism, socialism, proletariat, dictatorship, policy ... Japanese, bent on modernization, grappled wth Western concepts and invented new words in the Chinese style. China, meanwhile, struggled to survive the colonial onslaughts and civil wars. When Chinese reformists were ready to learn from the West, they typically went to Japan. They readily adopted the Chinese-style vocabulary that had been created by the Japanese decades before. Mao's writings (in the original Chinese, not Japanese) are easy for the Japanese to comprehend -- not that they are in fashion these days.

Patrick said...

I find Susumu-san’s description of “wago” influence on Korean and Chinese very interesting. Indeed, it's fascinating to see how Japanese scholars took Western concepts, such as “democracy” or “capitalism” and converted them into Japanese using Chinese words, which the Chinese then adopted back. While I don’t speak Chinese, I do not doubt Mao would have been more stretched to talk about “communism” – the counterpart of “capitalism” – relying on Confucian and Taoist poetry.

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