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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2 February, 2009

Ups and downs

Filed under: Uncategorized — pyrotyger @ 11:33 am
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If life is a roller-coaster, mine has been one of those really scary ones that rattles with worrying harmonics every time you crest a peak, subjects you to enormous g-forces at every bend, goes so fast that you can’t anticipate the next twist, and generally leaves you clinging onto the harness for dear life despite the fact that it’s pressing uncomfortably into your bladder.

I guess it was worth waiting in the queue for the last few years though!

I should probably start where I left off: my best friend’s wedding. Ben is a very likeable chap, with a disarmingly harmless air and a likeable cheekiness that makes him very easy to be around. His wife (as of December), Holly, is a bright, outgoing lass with a tendency to cope with stress by getting aggressive, which makes their relationship both energetic and amusing, from a distance…
The day went absolutely perfectly. Nothing really went wrong, everybody got on well, good times had by all, and both bride and groom really looked the part. It was a struggle to get Ben through The Night Before without getting too drunk (there were some agents of chaos out that night, working towards such a messy end), but he spruced up rather well the next morning, and managed not to fluff any of his lines.
I have to say, I was pleased at the low-key nature of the event. Not cheap or tacky, but relaxed and down-to-earth enough for everyone to just enjoy themselves, without the headache of everything being just so. A testament to Holly’s practical and unassuming nature, I think.

The speech went down a storm, having been impressively preceded by Holly’s dad. I was repeatedly approached and congratulated on my delivery, which of course gave me a great big glow but also left me feeling a little uncomfortable – it wasn’t “my day”, after all!

Still, the couple were very pleased, and that’s what counts. They recently presented me with a fantastically thoughtful thank-you gift of a fancy Parker pen, and a fetching sake serving-set (a tokkuri and four choko). Who knew being Best Man would be such a blast?

They had a fantastic honeymoon (well, honey-week) on a riverboat cruising the Nile, and they’re still together a month later. I guess that’s a good start…

This all served as a good distraction, helping me not to fret over my Cambridge application so much. So… What happened about Cambridge??

If the gifts from Ben & Hol haven’t given it away, stay tuned for the next instalment!

20 November, 2008

Fear the mighty Organ!!

Filed under: Uncategorized — pyrotyger @ 3:48 pm
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Freedom: what a terribly misleading word.

Please excuse the formatting – something went a little haywire. I’ll fix the post later.

It’s a trite but understandable observation that “Freedom to starve is no freedom at all”. When we’re free to do absolutely anything, can we be trusted to act rationally and compassionately, or do we just degenerate – as a society – into a rampant conglomerate of consuming, self-serving organisms, like a particularly aggressive sea-sponge; an irresponsible, unfettered geophage?

Hard to say. As with most sweeping observations, the answer is probably “a little from Column A, a little from Column B.” The more astute question – one posed by environmentally-conscious and socio-politically aware armchair philosophers everywhere – is “Individual acts of altruism aside, what is the general trend of our society, or of our race?”

Iain M. Banks’ supposition in his Culture series of sci-fi/space-opera novels is that, given effectively limitless resources, the cumulative impact of personal choices made by people with absolute freedom becomes inconsequential. People are still inclined to present a seemingly contradictory combination of self-indulgence and philanthropy, with variable leanings one way or the other throughout society, but it really doesn’t matter – personal choice has no societal impact.

This is a technological Utopia: when resources and possibilities are effectively limitless, there is no need for society to impose restrictions upon its members, and people find their personal unfettered equilibrium.

Banks’ implied comment, however, is that we are indeed that rampant viral consumer, and only by expanding the “world” faster than we can eat it (through technology) will we remain free of the pressures and conflicts that usually cause war, economic difficulty (or indeed “economy” at all, in the usual sense of the word) and competitive savagery. It’s a stark but not unrealistic perspective on the human race, and one that permeates the collective consciousness.

Hey, the “human virus” concept even got a mention in The Matrix. That’s, like… whoah.

(Anyone else find that Keanu’s acting revolves entirely around expressions of varying degrees of bewilderment?)

So, it’s a fairly well established posit that mankind cannot, in general, be trusted to look after its own best interests on a global scale when individuals act individually. Some form of governance is necessary – indeed, government is an inevitable product of society more than it is a navigator – and that leads to a whole big bag of socio-political philosophy and argumentation. I don’t intend to go into any of that in depth here. What I would like to mention – because it’s on my mind – is… The Media!

To set the tone: isn’t it curious that the first page of hits from The Quotations Page when entering the keyword “freedom” includes these three results? How readily – and how cynically – we associate freedom with the press.

The relationship between government, national media and the popular opinion of society is complex and fascinating field, and the clearest insights can be gained by comparing the nature of these relationships in different regions and nations.

Moreover, if it’s true that you never really know someone until you see them under stress, perhaps these relationships are most clearly emphasised during times of war. Comparing the propaganda-machines of Japan and the US in WWII with the highly critical attitude of the UK press towards our involvement in the recent Iraq conflict, and the respective governments’ popularity with the common man during those times, gives you a pretty good idea of what I’m getting at. Does the behaviour of the media during such unsavoury times reflect the attitude of the people, or dictate it? Is the government afraid of the media, or in bed with it? And who will tell you if it’s the latter? Who can you trust??

The national press generally takes two forms of governance, as far as I can tell: privately owned, and state-governed. (The mighty BBC seems to occupy some sort of middle-ground where it is privately funded and independently run, but according to state mandate. That’s a discussion for another time)

There is an appreciable correlation between ownership of the national media and the form of government, and this is no surprise.

Democratic nations have a much stronger (almost exclusive) privately-owned presence in the media, while Dictatorial government is typified by a state-controlled press. This may have more to do with the economic characteristics often associated with these opposing poles of leadership than the leadership styles themselves, but the correlation is still visible.

The symptoms of different forms of media-ownership are painted in different shades according to the political leanings of the speaker.


Laissez-faire proponents, evolutionary biologists, chaos theoreticians and anyone else with an obsessive fascination with the perfect beauty of emergent order will generally marvel at the way a privately-owned press represents the will and informs the interest of the society from which it arose. This commonly reflects a socio-political belief that iconic institutions such as the media, the church and the guv’mint are organs of society, defined by and answerable to the people. As such, any interference with the press is to be discouraged as it would disrupt the correct and natural functions of the organ. (If I wanted to be unkind, I would point out that the ultimate emergent order is the final heat-death of the universe, but that’s a bit facetious even for me)

Those who espouse a more purposeful, directed political system might be inclined to suggest that the very purpose of entrusting the state with power is so that those best-equipped and best-informed regarding the nation’s current predicament have the power and control to steer a clear and safe course. If that means giving the media a little shove here and there, to prevent sensationalist panic or to promote beneficial practice and morale, then so be it. (To those idealists, I might suggest that the reason that extreme Communism and Fascism seemed to result in such similar unpleasant outcomes, at least in Europe, was due to the extent of power granted to the state and nothing to do with the nature of government itself… but again, I’m not trying to argue one way or another just yet)

You may have noticed my occasional reference to news agencies as “organs”. This was once a fairly common and accepted term for such things as printed publications, but is now sadly only used for cheap laughs by the ever-witty Private Eye. It’s been some time since I read a copy, but I’ve no doubt they will have gladly jumped all over the recent excitement over John Sergeant’s recent withdrawal from some bloody Reality TV show.

And this is what got me thinking about our media, and its relationship with the people – or more specifically, with the proletariat. And when I say “thinking”, I mean “fulminating”.

Here is a man whose impressive and dedicated contributions to hard-nosed journalism – serious coverage in the face of mortal peril of serious issues that affect everybody, such as his coverage of conflict in Israel, or when trying to confront Maggie Thatcher – has passed almost without comment as he moved on from front-line reportage to political commentary to editorial control. A man who by rights should be remembered for his commitment to and grasp of serious high-level political affairs in his attempt to keep the public informed. And as soon as he pulls out of a light-entertainment show precisely because he was worried that popular opinion and entertainment-value were going to cause seriously committed and talented people to fall away unnoticed, he gets an hour long special dedicated to his brief dancing career.

I was once asked to define irony in two words, and seldom has my response felt more apt: poetic injustice.

Meanwhile, there hasn’t been a single serious attempt – even by the beloved Beeb – to make clear to the less-educated members of its audience just what the hell is going on with this “economic downturn”. No more coverage has been given to the economy over the last couple of months than it ever received during the last decade of easy-going stability. Portentous buzz-words get thrown around on red-top tabloids (usually in the cont. p32 section) without any serious attempt to educate or clarify, and the Joe Public is left with a vague sense of disquiet and a fear of Negative Equity.

They may as well just print “FNORD” as the headline and have done with it.

My point is this: we are idiots. The average “me” may have a pretty good idea of what’s best for him, as long as it doesn’t get complicated, but he doesn’t have the first clue what’s best for everyone else. At the age of about 25 we all start pottering about the house having arguments in our heads with people we’re never going to meet, constructing vague right-wing social policies, but at the end of the day the whole point of government, media, churches and every other “organ” (snigger) emergent from society is to give people who might have a better idea of what’s best for everyone enough power to make a difference.

Hopefully we’ve learned not to trust such people implicitly, but somebody’s got to do it.

What’s perfectly clear from the relative press-coverage of Strictly Come Prancing and the Economic Crisis is that we, as a body of individuals, don’t know our arses from our elbows and could probably do with the occasional prod in the right direction. But then, that also means that we can’t be trusted to elect the right person either.

Churchill expressed the problem beautifully with two of his most famous – almost contradictory – quotes, each bitterly true:

It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.

The best argument against democracy is a five minute conversation with the average voter.

Too true, Winston, too true. I guess all you can do is vote with your feet, and try to read a newspaper that you trust.

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