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.

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1 Comment »

  1. Yeah, I think you’re onto something there. I’m told that speed readers have to learn to not mentally voice words as they read them, and this comes more naturally to readers of a logogrammatic language.

    Comment by dysfunctor — 24 June, 2009 @ 8:42 pm | Reply


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