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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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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20 November, 2008

Fear the mighty Organ!!

Filed under: Uncategorized — pyrotyger @ 3:48 pm
Tags: , ,

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.

9 October, 2008

The persuasive power of nothing

Filed under: Cambridge — pyrotyger @ 5:45 pm
Tags:

Always leave them wanting more…

If you can tell me who said it, you get a gold star. I mean, who originally said it. A 10 minute trawl of Google, Wikiquote and a whole raft of Quotations databases has turned up nothing but half-remembered film-quotes and the occasional educated guess.

Someone said it was Walt Disney, but if his early films are anything to go by then it’s certainly not a maxim he employed much. Love ’em or hate ’em, there’s nothing more rounded-off and wholesome than a Disney film, and that doesn’t seem to be in the spirit of the phrase.

No, I think the implication is that you should never try to completely satisfy someone if you want them hooked; just give them enough of what they want to enjoy it, and hint at the promise of more to come. That’s the essence of desire, as any established flirt, stage-magician or heroin-addict will tell you. It’s the secret of every burlesque show, the art of the thriller-movie, and the only possible excuse for that shambolic ’80s fashion of nouvelle cuisine.

It sounds vaguely P.T. Barnum-esque in style, but not in spirit – there’s no mercenary edge to it, and Barnum would quite happily have satisfied your every craving for a steep price given the opportunity. It’s not even Machiavellian, although manipulation is of course the purpose.

Give them a little of what they want – but not enough to lose their attention. I feed my cat with enough to make him healthy and athletic, without satisfying his every craving – for there lies the road to the sack-of-porridge look of spoiled house-cats everywhere – and his interest in me is seldom stronger than when he’s had enough to enjoy it, but not enough to lose the taste.

Budding authors would do well to take note of the instruction, I think. There are many skilled novelists and playwrites who can give you a really satisfying yarn, rich in detail and full of exposition; but the best – the true craftsmen – will only hint at the truth, will give it form but not definition, will point you at the heart of a matter and say “look, it’s right in front of you…” but will never actually spell it out.
Some of the greatest works of art are not photo-realistic reproductions of real or imagined scenes, but are impressions or outlines, with just enough detail for the mind to fill in the rest.

As Pratchett explains in his recent bestseller Going Postal, the true art of the forger is not in perfection, but in suggestion. Present enough detail to suggest the real thing, he notes, and the human imagination will gladly do the rest, rejecting a perfect forgery but happily accepting one that is far less accurate, because the mind will not notice a discrepancy when it has conjured the detail itself…

So, then, desire is a function of our curiosity, not of our needs. It springs from the human need to wonder: what is behind the next door?, or what happened next?, or – tragically – what would it be like with someone else? I will never forget reading an article in New Scientist some years ago, which sought to explain the neurochemical mechanism of addiction. As an important aside, it was noted that heroin’s dangerously potent addictiveness springs not from its effects on the pleasure centres, but from the fact that it chemically simulates desire. When the drug reaches the brain, it floods the synaptic gaps with chemicals that scream “I want this!!” rather than “I like this!!”

These thoughts came to me when writing my UCAS Personal Statement. This is a university-applicant’s open audition, a 47-line window through which one must sufficiently impress or intrigue the admissions tutors for them to invite you to interview. It’s easy to talk about yourself if you have the confidence, but when presented with a 4000-character (not word) limit, I had to ask myself: What am I trying to achieve here?

The answer was quite obvious. I wanted an interview. There are ways of achieving that goal, but the fundamental purpose of my prose has to be this: Make Them Want More.
That’s right. Always leave them wanting more, kiddo. If you can get that hook in someone’s head, you’ll always have an opening for the future.

As far as I can imagine, there are three ways to achieve this:

  1. Knock their socks off. The masterful authors, musicians, artists and craftsmen of the world can do their thing, give you the very best, and leave you changed. That sort of profound work will always stay in your mind, and that’s a certain way to win someone’s interest. But there are limits to what you can say about yourself, especially in 47 lines, and if I could do that I would be an author.
  2. The Cliffhanger. Device of every literary and cinematic hack out there, and not very elegant. It’s easy to get it wrong and just frustrate your audience, leaving them thinking “So where’s the rest of the story? Did you miss a reel…?” Besides, it’s hardly appropriate in the circumstances. Definitely not.
  3. The subtle art of suggestion. Make allusions to bigger topics. Indicate your intentions and interests, but don’t describe them exhaustively. The ripe fruit of outlined potential is tempting indeed and, just as importantly in the circumstances, it’s economical! Let the audience pick up on what interests them, and they’ll want to know more. If they don’t, you haven’t wasted a paragraph explaining why taiko excites you so much, or exactly what depth of understanding you’ve developed of generational conflict in Japanese cinema. If they want to know more, they can ask – and ask they will. That’s what the interview is for, after all…

So I’ve pretty much finished my personal statement. All of the above is just rash theory and extemporisation after the fact – I write how I write, in a way that makes sense to me at the time given the context and the audience, and then try to understand why I felt compelled to do it so. It always seems to work, which suggests to me that I have sufficient natural facility for language and persuasion to get it right (or at least, right enough), and I make no apologies for that. If I have a gift for expression then nobody could accuse me of resting on my laurels now.

Wish me luck, one and all. I’ll let you know what happens, however it pans out.

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