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Japanese Diary 31: Japanese and non-standard English
I've got a headful of ideas for posts at the moment, all half-formed, but I just have time to dash this one down quickly. It arises out of, but isn't really about, my Japanese studies. Recently I learned the verb "shimau", which has a couple of meanings, but the one I'm interested in here is the addition of a sense of regret to some other action. For example:

watashi wa kare no tanjoubi wo wasuremashita = I forgot his birthday

could be more idiomatically rendered:

watashi wa kare no tanjoubi wo wasuremashite shimaimashita

The translation for the second sentence is the same as the first, but now with a sense of regret! There's no simple way of conveying this in standard English, without adding a word such as "alas" or "regretfully", which seems a bit clunky. However, it occurs to me that you can get much the same effect in some southern US dialects by use of the word "done", as in: "I done forgot his birthday".

Non-standard English is also helpful sometimes with pronunciation. Japanese has many words that are rendered in romaji with a double consonant (signalled in hiragana with っ). Hence for example:

shippai = しっぱい = 失敗 = failure

In English double consonants typically affect the pronunciation of preceding vowels rather than the consonants themselves ("hopping" vs "hoping"), but in Japanese a double consonant is marked with a small pause, which I've seen described as quite a tricky thing for foreigners to master because it has no equivalent in standard English pronunciation. It does, however, have an equivalent in Yorkshire dialect, in phrases such as "There's trouble down t'mill." So, when I was learning this bit of Japanese I just channelled Geoffrey Boycott. Very useful.

Anyway, that last example was just a digression. What I really wanted to ask was, what other shades of meaning are available through the pronunciation or grammar of non-standard varieties of English, that aren't available through standard ones?

Note, I'm not asking for items of vocabulary, fascinating as they are: obviously there are whole dictionaries full of terms for the kind of mist you only see off Bamburgh when there's an 'r' in the month. I'm specifically after elements of grammar or pronunciation that carry meaning.

One more example. Standard English doesn't have a plural second person, whereas lots of non-standard Englishes do, from "You all" to "Yous" (sp?). Obviously the non-standard Englishes are here conveying shades of meaning not available to the standard variety.

I'm sure there must be many other examples of the same kind. But what are they?

The lack of a second person plural is the bane of the English language, especially when I'm talking with a corporate flunky and need to distinguish "you" (personally) from "you" (the corporation which is the entity I'm really trying to communicate with).

But as for the other example, I don't claim as much knowledge of Southern US dialogue as you're displaying here. I wonder if the double-negative in some dialects carries a different weight of meaning from the ordinary negative, but I've no idea if it does.

Well, that's just my impression of the way that construction works in southern US dialect. If I'm wrong, I'm happy to be corrected - though I may still use the idea to help me remember the Japanese!

As for the double negative - yes, that's a great example. It certainly serves as an intensive in many dialects.

I seem to remember that Old English even had a dual second-person pronoun, for when you were talking to two people precisely. That seems excessive to me, or at least I can't see much use for it other than to pointedly exclude someone from a conversation.

I expect it did. Tolkien's Elvish languages have that, and that must be where he got it from. It's not used just when talking to two people, but when talking about them, or about two things. So yes, I can imagine considerable usefulness in making this distinction between 2 and >2, for instance if the topic of discussion is an FPTP parliamentary race.

From African-American Vernacular English comes the very useful continuity-of-action vs. single-action conjugation of the verb 'to be':

'It is raining' = it is raining right now, in AAVE probably pronounced something more like 'srainin

'It be raining' = it has been raining for a substantial period of time, like, weeks to months, possibly rain is just the endemic climate around here, we should all expect this to continue for the forseeable future

Thanks - I'd not picked up on that distinction at all!

Hmm. NZ Māori has singular, dual and plural pronouns, as well as a distinction between "we-inclusive" and "we-exclusive" and certainly "yous" and "yous guys" get used here, but I'm not sure how well the two are connected.

Malaysian Chinese speaking English sometimes use the particle "lah", mostly for emphasis, but again that may not be quite what you want.

How does that particle get incorporated into an English sentence? Does it come after the thing you want to emphasize?

Yes, after - "It's okay lah" or "So expensive lah", for example. It's often the last thing in a sentence but not always.

I'm definitely not an expert - it's just something I recognise! Zen Cho is Malaysian, and often uses Malaysian English in her dialogue, lah as well as other particles/phrases/grammatical structures - take a look at Prudence and the Dragon, for example, once Prudence starts talking to her friend.

"Lah" and other Hokkien-derived particles are also common in Singlish (from Singapore), not just with the Chinese but also the Indians and Malays, who have picked them up. I don't find them that easy to parse - or, at least, it's hard for me to tell when they'll be used and when they won't be, although I think that "hor" is generally to make something into a question.

Singlish I find more intuitive includes "can," which is a quick way of answering a question by saying that you'll be able to do something (very helpful!) and "then how?," which is a response to someone saying something that contradicts your desired plans, asking how your interlocutor is going to manage to help with what needs to be done (especially helpful for teachers - how I respond to someone telling me he'll be absent on the day of my test or something like that).


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