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Don't Eat With Your Mouth Full

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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.

"He is wrong" sounds trust-inspiringly authoritative to (Taiwanese-)American me! Given the sensibleness of the passage. This is despite my tendency to think as the NPR interviewee does with respect not to Japanese vs. English but rather Chinese vs. English, and with respect not to clarity but to gentleness (and specificity, which I guess is also clarity). I wonder if Rubin's point that Japanese "can express anything it needs to" applies to other languages....

I feel that Chinese is intrinsically harsher and coarser-grained than English. My thinking this has to be largely because my Chinese is intermediate. But I do find the brief discussion here (I linked to this page in a conversation we had once in my journal!) of verb/tense differences between Chinese and English really reasonable. Especially this: "Since Chinese modals do not convey such a wide range of meaning, Chinese learners may fail to use English modals sufficiently. This can result in them seeming peremptory when making requests, suggestions, etc."

Then again, it could easily/also be social norms that make people seem peremptory! I would love to hear Chinese speakers' thoughts on this.

"He is wrong" sounds trust-inspiringly authoritative to (Taiwanese-)American me!

My instinct - or cultural habit - is certainly to avoid telling people (even in the third person) that they are flat-out wrong (there's a lot of truth in this), but also I'm intellectually wary of making declarative statements in matters that are pretty clearly open to interpretation, even (or especially) where the interpretation is one I'm in sympathy with, as here.

I'm fairly confident that the writer would say that all languages can express anything they need to: this appears to be an article of faith among linguists.

It might be fun to translate this comment into "American":

I avoid telling people (even in the third person) that they are flat-out wrong (this is accurate), and I also avoid making declarative statements in matters that are open to interpretation, even (or especially) where the interpretation is one I agree with, as here.

The writer believes that all languages can express anything they need to: this is an article of faith among linguists.

How much difference does that actually make to the meaning, I wonder?

(Or, in "American", "It makes very little difference to the meaning".)

Edited at 2015-09-20 07:30 am (UTC)

Speaking purest geek, I'd add that I think it's more complicated than that: people often seem different when they switch languages. In particular, I observe people swearing more freely in foreign languages (you don't have such deep inhibitions about the actual words, and have to think about register). So this case hase to be set against that context.

Those are good points. I suppose one might swear more freely part is covered by Rubin's point about having less command of nuance, but lack of inhibition is also important. (I wonder whether one might compare this to the way Brits abroad behave more badly - or so it's said - than they would on the streets of their own cities.)

I love that book. I return to it every so often for the chapter on giving and receiving.

(I also credit the discussion of what, exactly, is going on in that Narihira poem (along with a collection of translation by Cranston) to turning me on to translating classical poetry. But that's an aside.)


I'm looking forward to that chapter, as the giving and receiving words do tend to trip me up.