Orient Expression

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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3 Comments »

  1. If I've understood you, you think you speak the same language all day, with varying emphasis on formality or colloquialism. I don't think that's the case. As you say, you subconsciously adjust your language all the time. Because it's subconscious, you only notice a fraction of what's going on.

    It's a bit like when you first studied French & German at school. You were never fully aware of things like the accusative case and infinitives until you encountered them in other languages. Likewise, you've never been fully aware of just how different your formal and informal language really are.

    Lacking that chameleonic skill, I must make a conscious effort to shift registers. When I don't, people notice subconsciously that something is amiss. Sometimes they ask, "Are you German?"

    Comment by dysfunctor — 11 June, 2009 @ 5:20 am | Reply

  2. Hello there! Would you mind if I share your blog with my facebook group?
    There’s a lot of people that I think would really enjoy your content. Please let me know. Thanks

    Comment by learn to sing like a star — 18 July, 2013 @ 2:32 pm | Reply

    • Hi! Yes, of course – you’re welcome to share and use this however you wish! I’m just sorry I don’t have more to share, as I stopped updating it long ago.

      Comment by pyrotyger — 18 July, 2013 @ 2:48 pm | Reply


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