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Don't Eat With Your Mouth Full

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Japanese Diary 29: A Few of My Favourite Things
None of these is obscure to anyone who knows any Japanese, but here are three rather random things I like about the language, ranging from the incidental to the fundamental.

1) They have a single word for "the day after the tomorrow", and another for "the day before yesterday"! Once you've tasted the joys of asatte and ototoi you'll never go back. (Except you will, because people won't understand you otherwise.)

2) Like Latin - and I wish I knew enough about Latin to make the comparison intelligently - Japanese is a very concise language. However, where Latin packs things like mood, aspect, etc. into word endings (or such is my impression), Japanese simply leaves things out if they're obvious from context. For example, supposing I want to tell you I am happy, I might say the Japanese for "Am happy!", or even just "Happy!" If it's obvious from context, there's no need to give that sentence a subject. When it comes to longer sentences, this confuses the hell out of Google Translate.

3) Lastly, though this is a bit perverse perhaps, I rather like the way the word order is so different from English, and the mental gymnastics necessitated thereby. I got a taste of this learning German ("Whenever the literary German dives into a sentence, that is the last you are going to see of him till he emerges on the other side of his Atlantic with his verb in his mouth" - so true), but Japanese takes it to a different level. For example - and not a particularly convoluted one:

"I want to study Japanese with the woman who gave me a book."


"As for me, me-to-book-gave-woman with Japanese study want is the case."

No doubt there are similar pleasures in learning any language, but I've found great solace in starting to wrap my head round this one. (As I said to my mother the other month, "If I'm going to be mildly depressed it's better to get a language out of it than cirrhosis.") Which isn't to say that there aren't also annoying things about Japanese - and perhaps I'll make a separate post about those at some point soon.

(Deleted comment)
let's not talk their syntax

When I was taught French it was at a time when grammar and syntax were held to be largely unnecessary, because you could pick it up from exposure to the language. I never found that to be the case, alas.

Try Basque (Euskera) He went shopping. He towards object like shop went and to buy/bought/will buy items.

Once I'm fluent in Japanese, Basque will be next on the list!

Old saying - The Devil tried to learn Basque. After 7 years all he could say was Hello and Goodbye, so he threw the book into the fires of hell.

That's a great quote, about German! and how intriguing, Point 3, about Japanese word order. :)

When it comes to longer sentences, this confuses the hell out of Google Translate....

Oh, I can imagine...

Thank you for the glorious Mark Twain quote - turns out I do still have a sense of humour. I forget sometimes.

I'm enjoying your little glimpses into the learning of Japanese.

For what it's worth, Welsh also has single words for "the day before yesterday" and "the day after tomorrow". I don't know how common this is in languages other than English. And, as well as those, Welsh has single words to mean "this year" and "last year".

Ah, yes, Japanese does those too. And indeed the year before last, etc. I've no idea how common this is, but it's very useful. And, in context, beautiful: e.g. a love song that ends with a promise of love "ashita to asatte mo", far more poetic than "tomorrow and the day after tomorrow".

Surely "ashita mo asatte mo" is even more romantic?

It has the added charm of being correct, to be sure! :)

I've seen X to Y mo, at least colloquially.* The grammar books insist on mo both places, but I suspect in practice people are as sloppy as English speakers are with "nor" constructions.

* ETA: As well as X wa, Y mo -- with is more like "this, and also that" than "both this and that."


Edited at 2016-01-13 05:54 pm (UTC)

I suppose in English one would probably end up writing "Tomorrow and the next day", which is better - but still not as good.

I too like the high-context nature of Japanese, and the relatively low grammatical complexity. (For instance, your example sentence could be distilled further: book-gave woman with Japanese study-desire, 「本がくれた女性と日本語を勉強したいです」both because "kure" and "shitai" basically have to be referring to the writer due to politeness considerations.)

I like how beautifully the verbs can morph to indicate all sorts of subtle details, some of which we have in English (-teiru, which is a continuative ending like -ing) and lots of others we don't (e.g., -tearu, which adds the implication that the state was made that way in preparation or on purpose). And the passive, and the causative, and the causative-passive.

I like the extreme regularity. Irregular verbs? There are, like, two important ones, plus a bunch of regular-irregular polite forms.

I like keigo. Lots of people don't, though.

I like the fact that there are a hundred ways to say "I" and "you" and basically no ways to say "it" (and that "he" and "she" are clunky enough that people avoid them).

I dislike the writing system.

I dislike the way gender norms are stamped all over speech, even in the absence of grammatical gender.

I agree with almost all of this - though I suspect I'm a considerable distance behind you in learning the language, so am not in as good a position to judge some of it.

I can't say that I love keigo yet, though it fascinates me, but in many ways English is the oddball language here, not having different levels of politeness built in at the same fundamental level. Even in French and German Sie/du and vous/tu can be a bit of a minefield for Anglos. But knowledge of those languages might be a bit of a false friend, too, if one tried to use their practices as a guide to navigating the tripartite Japanese system, because the borders seem to be laid out slightly differently. For example, in the following scenario:

a) You work for your boss.
b) You get friendly with your boss.
c) You start seeing your boss outside work (other than drinking after work at the izakaya).
d) You and your boss confess your love to each other.
e) You marry your boss.
f) You've been married to your boss for ten years.

Clearly at stages a) and b) you'd be using keigo. I imagine by f) you'd be probably using plain form. But where would the change take place? And would it go straight from keigo to plain form, or would it go through an intermediate stage of standard polite forms? I'm interested, but still a bit scared of keigo, to be honest.

I'm growing fonder of the writing system as I go along - though this may be some kind of linguistic Stockholm syndrome. But then, I also like the odd spelling system of English, which serves some of the same purposes as kanji (I'll probably write about that at some point).

I do agree about gender norms. Apart from the obvious feminist reasons, as a trans person it would have been hellish to grow up feeling betrayed by the language I was using in that fundamental way. (Having transitioned, by contrast, I feel constantly affirmed by it - but even bad systems throw out incidental benefits.)

Latin also leaves out a lot of words, depending often on the writer. Tacitus, for instance, gives us "taciturn" because he leaves out a lot. Cicero, of course, never met a sentence he didn't want to elaborate. Just as an aside.

Lapidary = a camel with no humps.