Orient Expression

21 June, 2009

Say what you see…?

Filed under: Japanese,language — pyrotyger @ 4:22 pm
Tags: , , ,
Excerpt from a 1436 primer on Chinese characters
Image via Wikipedia

I’ve often heard the Japanese writing system described as being principally logographic, in that the written characters – at least the kanji, which are principally derived from written Chinese – represent words rather than sounds. The converse would be a phonographic script, in which characters represent sounds (phonemes) rather than words. In fact written Japanese combines these two approaches by using both iconic graphemes and a couple of syllabaries, allowing logographic words to be connected and embellished with a grammatical subtlety that Chinese dialects sadly lack.

Sorry if that was a bit wordy. Wikipedia is a great help for linguistic terms.

I wasn’t convinced that logogram is an appropriate term, even for the kanji used in Japanese. Since any kanji can be read in a number of very different ways phonemically, depending on context, but the idea it represents is more consistent, the term ideogram might be more accurate.

Yet this notion is strongly opposed in the article to which I’ve linked, which states that ideograms “represent ideas directly rather than words and morphemes, and none of the logographic systems described here are truly ideographic.” As it turns out, I’ve got this whole concept arse-about-tit. Although I though logos was ancient Greek for “word”, it doesn’t actually mean that in the grammatical sense. Rather, it was used to define the concept or idea underlying a word or argument – the word’s soul, if you will – while lexis is the term used to describe the grammatical entity. This explains why logos is used in all sorts of religious and philosophical contexts where lexis wouldn’t be appropriate, and also explains why we call company brands “logos” even when they don’t feature words at all.

There you go. Another etymological mystery solved.

Whatever the linguistic definition, I find the eastern practice of combining discrete morphemes in iconic form to express complex notions and ideas to be both beautiful and inventive.

Furigana(振り仮名) text with furigana(ふりがな), as an...
Image via Wikipedia

It does make the written language very challenging to learn, though. If you can’t read a kanji, you can’t read it; you can’t even read it out to guess at the context, since it’s just an inscrutable symbol. The use of furigana – ruby hiragana (syllables) written over a kanji to guide pronunciation, often for teaching purposes or texts rich with specialist kanji – is of great help to a learner, but is nothing more than a workaround to an intractable challenge of learning Japanese.

And yet…

On more than one occasion – and increasingly frequently – I have the bizarre and unsettling experience of reading a kanji without actully understanding it. I mean that sometimes I will literally be able to read aloud the pronunciation of a symbol that I’ve only come across once or twice (or sometimes a hundred times – curse my memory), and have no firm idea what it means. It’s a little bit like bumping into someone you don’t recognise, but knowing their name – it’s the complete opposite of the usual mental block that occurs, and feels like knowing the answer but struggling to find the question.

Douglas Adams would probably be able to explain the frustration and disorientation better than I could.

Clearly something bizarre is happening in my brain. There is some direct association going on in there between the visual representation and the phonetic word, totally bypassing the usual intermediary of meaning. Most of the time I’ll recognise what a kanji means (or not…) and shortly afterwards I’ll remember its pronunciation, with that gap being reduced to an instantaneous pause so that the two come to mind simultaneously, but jumping from A to C without the all important B getting a look-in is really frustrating and a little bit spooky.

What’s going on in there? Is this unsettling confusion between lexeme, logos and phoneme a sign that my brain is slowly adapting to the task of understanding Japanese inherently, or a sign that I probably never will? It brings back to mind a post I made back in October about translation and machine intelligence:

do [translators] listen in one language, then switch their thinking to the other – donning a different thinking-cap, as it were – before trying to express the nebulous ideas and idiosyncracies in a natural fashion? I’m quite certain that it’s possible to “think” natively in more than one language…

Well, I know from certain people who are competently trilingual that, yes, it is possible and indeed inevitable when you become fluent.

I couldn’t tell you what language such people dream in though. To dream in Japanese would be an achievement indeed. I just hope it doesn’t end up being anything like Natsume Sôseki’s Ten Nights Of Dreams.

Dammit, this has got me thinking about the role of tonality and aesethetics in language, especially Chinese/Mandarin, and the importance of the right-brain in such languages. That’s an interesting topic for another time, I think, but feel free to have a look in Fundamental Neuroscience, p654 (pdf warning) if you’re curious.

16 June, 2009


Filed under: Uncategorized — pyrotyger @ 1:32 pm
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Who's The Dick Writing Comments On My Blog
Image by Laughing Squid via Flickr

Utsuru (v): 1. to move (house); to relocate. 2. to be mirrored; to harmonise.

I have a Blogger-based blog. My brother has a WordPress-blog.
In helping a friend to set up a blog (to share her experiences of dealing with scoliosis and the difficult corrective surgery), I’ve been having a look at the two providers, and trying make a qualitative comparison so I can recommend the best for her.

So, this is just a test-post to see how WordPress works, how easy it is, how intuitive, how buggy… It seems to be working really well so far and, treacherous though it makes me feel, I realise I’ve been quite frustrated by some of the buggy traits of the post-editor in Blogger which don’t seem to be evident in WordPress.

If I’m impressed, I’ll be giving serious thought to the possibility of relocating. In the mean time, I’ll just be running this in parallel. I’ll let you know how it goes…

Inappropriate-yet-amusing picture provided by the magic Zemanta, as always.

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10 June, 2009

Saying NO in Japanese

Filed under: Japanese,language — pyrotyger @ 9:32 am
Tags: , ,

It’s been a while. How have you been?

KYOTO, JAPAN - FEBRUARY 9: Ichimame, an 19-yea...Image by Getty Images via Daylife

I kept meaning to write – started a couple of times – but never got around to sending anything. I’ll probably post those old musings at a later date, when I’ve finished developing them.

In the mean time, I have a question: How does your medium affect how you speak? How does your writing style differ from your conversational style? How about when talking to different people? Or how about when you know you’re being recorded?

We all moderate our style of communication according to audience and medium; sometimes deliberately, but in my experience it’s almost entirely subconscious, and a built-in survival skill (I understand it’s something autistic people struggle with, though.)
I know that, when speaking about a serious topic with real gravitas, I have a tendency to use full-bodied sentences and a rich vocabulary – more like the manner in which I write – whereas in everyday small-talk I tend towards pithiness or triteness (depending how the day’s going).

Similarly, my girlfriend tells me that when I read aloud, the tone and timbre of my voice takes on a story-book quality; a narrative style and a tendency to be more measured with pace. I can’t do the voices though.
I’ve been considering trying to get a late-night slot on the Cambridge Student radio station, and I’m very curious to find out how my speech would come across on-air. Oh, to have the chocolatey tones of Boggy Marsh, or the dry wit of Mo Dutta (now sadly no longer a part of my weekend mornings). The best I can hope for is not to sound like Joe Pasquale reading the script to Mulholland Drive.

But I digress. My point is, the nature of the language itself doesn’t really change. We may tend towards formality, or use smaller words, or litter our speech with colloquialisms, but the rules of grammar and syntax remain the same, however poorly we apply them.

Not so in Japanese. Any student of the language will be quick to discover (and point out, if they’re showing off), that the language is moderated significantly according to the relative status of the speaker and audience, and the formality of the conversation. I came across a site that demonstrates some key Japanese verb conjugations in a very tight and lean manner, and one of the first things to notice is the proliferation of unusual verb-productions; such things as:-

  • Passive/respectful
  • Honorific
  • Humble

– not to mention the stark contrast between Plain and Polite forms, which is a crucial (and challenging) part of the language.

This modification of grammar according to audience and context is something we just don’t have in English. We tend to slacken off and drop a lot of the more cumbersome rules when in casual conversation (or all the damned time, if you were educated with a banana and an inner-tube), but the rules don’t change.

This is well-known to anybody who’s studied Japanese for any length of time though, so I don’t want to bore you with that. Instead I want to bore you with something else I learned from Hiromi-sensei: conversational grammar can change according to whether it’s written or just spoken, in the following way…

When you wish to communicate a reason, an expectation or a circumstance surrounding an event or statement, you would use the – (-te or “plain”) form, and the ending の です (no desu). This is a fairly typical conversational structure. So:
~の です (~te no desu) means “because of ~ ” or “the fact is that ~ ” or whatever the context implies.

So to say “because I studied…”, we would write べんきょう した の です (“benkyoo shita no desu, – (-ta) being the past form of –). Makes sense so far.

Well, when saying this, you would actually say べんきょう した です. Spot that? The (no) becomes a (n). For the purposes of easy conversation in a casual setting, that makes sense. It’s like a contraction – like saying “won’t” instead of “will not”. There are other examples in plain speech, where dropping a syllable doesn’t cause the sentence to lose meaning to a native speaker.

But that’s not what surprised me. When I was reading a sentence with this structure, my teacher pulled me up on pronouncing it as ~ です. “You read what is written – it’s ~です.”

Wait, can that be right? I’m quite comfortable with the notion of contracting structures in accepted ways for convenience – we do it all the time. Having separate rules for written and spoken grammar, though? Surely not…

Well it’s true, as far as I’m told. If you speak conversationally, you use ~n in this construction, but if you write it then you use ~no. More importantly, if you read a written conversation, you would read the ~no just as it is written. Let me shout this bit: a listener would be able to infer that you were reading a written transcript, rather than having a real conversation. The written form is not merely visual representation of that which is said, but has slightly different rules.

This is a totally alien concept to me. What little I have understood about linguistics so far tells me that the written word is a means of recording what would otherwise be spoken – speaking came first, then the oral tradition of passing on stories, laws and wisdom, and then writing was invented to immortalise that wisdom.

And yet in Japanese, there is a sense (to me, at least) that the writing system has a life of its own, concurrent with – but somewhat independent of – the spoken word. One of the things that makes the language so challenging is that Kanji are inscrutable if you don’t already know them, because they are not phonetic.
Anything based on Latin, Cyrillic or Arabic can be read, if not necessarily understood, and that encourages an emergent understanding of words that have not necessarily been directly learned. Written Japanese, however – along with a number of other logographic languages of South East Asia – is a one-way street. With no implicit correlation between writing and pronunciation, there’s no way to learn to read something if you don’t already know how it’s pronounced, and bear in mind that most kanji have several distinctly different phonetic readings.

Frustrating as that may be, it’s just one more dimension to this enormous puzzle. Whenever I feel that I’m getting a grip on some unusual aspect of the language, I realise that there are ten new and subtler idiosyncrasies hidden behind it. Every time I learn something, I get the impression that I’m only being told just enough to get a general idea – a lie that brings me closer to the truth.

断定の助動詞「だ」「じゃ」「や」の分布図。 Zones map of Japanese co...Image via Wikipedia

Thanks go to my brother for introducing me to Zemanta, a blogger’s dream that helps find contextual images and a host of other doohickeys. It’s already taught me that the core Japanese copula “です/だ” (desu/da) is not as immutable as I thought, and actually varies greatly according to the regional dialect – see right.

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