September 19th, 2015


Japanese Diary 27: 日本語はちょっと。。。

I've just started dipping into Jay Rubin's Making Sense of Japanese (formerly titled Gone Fishin'), and I love it already. Let me give you a flavour: here he is taking on the idea that Japanese is an intrinsically vaguer and more impressionistic language than English (or other Indo-European languages)...

Once NPR carried an interview with a member of the Tokyo String Quartet, who asserted that the original members of the ensemble were able to communicate more clearly with each other now that they had begun speaking in English among themselves, the switch in language having become necessary when a non-Japanese violinist joined the troupe.

While he no doubt sincerely believes this, he is wrong. The Japanese language can express anything it needs to, but Japanese social norms often require people to express themselves indirectly or incompletely. When all members of the Quartet were Japanese and speaking their native language, they undoubtedly interacted in conventional Japanese ways, which often must have required them to be less than frank with each other. The arrival of the non-Japanese violinist made it necessary for them to switch to English, introducing not only an atmosphere in which openness was more natural, but forcing them, too, to communicate in a foreign language in which they had far less command of nuance. They were both liberated from social constraints and handicapped by a reduction in the number of verbal mechanisms at their command. Apparently, they found the liberation more refreshing than the handicap limiting. And now they think they are speaking in a more exact or precise language.

Perhaps because I am English rather than American I would not express my conclusions quite so forthrightly - "he is wrong" sounds harsh to my ear - but that fact in itself underlines Rubin's point about the power of social norms to inhibit clarity, or the reverse.