steepholm (steepholm) wrote,

Japanese Diary 30: Anal-ology

I learn by analogy. I suspect most people do, but I also suspect I lean more on that way of learning than the average, because I have a certain facility for it. Which isn't to say it's always the best option.

In Japanese, then, I'm always looking with varying degrees of self-consciousness for ways of understanding the language in terms of English, and indeed Japan in terms of England and/or Britain. (On which note, let me digress just long enough to link you to British Hills, a little slice of Britain tucked away in the fills of Fukushima. I linked to it on FB yesterday, but I put it here for a permanent record. Do look round - it's worth it!)

A while ago I wrote a post called "Cow Readings and Beef Readings", drawing an analogy between the role of Chinese in Japanese and that of Norman French in English. It probably wasn't an original observation, but I got there by myself, at least. There are other analogies too: I referred to in the same post to that between katakana (Japanese) and italics, as being both a holding pen for a quarantined foreign words and a way of adding emphasis.

No analogy is perfect, though, for all their siren allure. If two things resemble each other in A, B and C way, it's hard resist the suggestion that they'll also resemble each other in X, Y and Z way. Renouncing that "almost instinct almost true" is part of the nun-like discipline of scholarship.

So, on to the analogy du jour - that between kanji and English spelling. Each is widely touted as one of the hardest aspects of learning the respective language, and with reason. The Japanese learner has to master 2,200 kanji (and those are just the everyday ones) - which sounds tough but manageable until you realise that most of those kanji can be read in at least two different ways, depending on context - a context that has to be learned. For example, "to go" is iku, written "行く". But the "行" kanji, which is here pronounced "i", can also be pronounced "kou"- as for example in the word for travel, which is "旅行", or "ryokou". How annoying is that? (Some kanji have many more than two readings, too, which all have to be learned separately.)

But hey - English spelling is pretty weird, too, right? We have homonyms like "lead" (the metal) and "lead" (the verb), for example - spelt the same but pronounced differently.

As well as homonyms, Japanese has lots of homophones - unsurprisingly for a language with relatively few phonemes. For example, the word "kami" can mean either god, hair or paper. But in written Japanese you can distinguish them because each uses a different kanji: 神, 髪 and 紙 respectively. Again, there are analogies with English: for example "hair" and "hare". Again, just as the kanji come to the rescue in Japanese, so weird spelling does in English.

Kanji and weird English spelling also have a similar function in preserving the histories of words. You can look at an English word much like an archaeological dig, and use the spelling as a clue to its history and origin. Similarly, kanji (pictographic in origin) hide within their shell-like structures the sound of their histories' sea.

Thus far the analogy holds good. And it is good - but it isn't perfect. For example, there are some things you can do with kanji that you just can't do with English spellings. Take the word "au", for example. It means "to meet". But in Japanese there are two kanji use to write this word:"会う" (au) means "meet" in a neutral sense, but "遭う" (also au) means "meet" with an unpleasant connotation - perhaps nearer to the English "encounter". Their conjugation is (as far as I know) the same. They are pronounced the same. They have nearly the same meaning. But the kanji makes a distinction that's invisible to the spoken language.

This phenomenon isn't entirely unknown in English: think of "discomforted" and "discomfited", for example. But in Japanese it seems more systematic, or at any rate more common. Which may be to do with the lack of homophones mentioned above, or its long unbroken literary history, which has allowed more time for scribal ingenuity. (English has been written for about the same length of time, but it went through a couple of centuries after the Conquest when it effectively ceased to be a literary language.) Either way, it's where the analogy with English spelling runs into the law of diminishing returns.
Tags: language, nippon notes
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