Earl Gray

Earl Gray
"You can argue with me but, in the end, you'll have to face that fact that you're arguing with a squirrel." - Earl Gray

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Horizontal Language

    Why do I get the feeling that this post will be a lot less sexy than expected?

    Let us assume that human language developed betweeen 100,000 and 200,000 years ago, shortly after the appearance of homo sapiens.  Judging from the speed at which modern humans replaced earlier hominids (e.g. Neanderthals, Homo rhodesiensis), it seems likely that the original impetus for language development was the formation of expansion--if not battle--plans.  Like a weed or a city spreading outwards before it has to build upwards, language is still in the process of growing horizontally.  Through the Internet and other media one particularly invasive language, English, is becoming our lingua franca, dismantling the Tower of Babel.

    The diversification of language is not simply a matter of geography and conquest;  the languages themselves have grown apart, evolving and devolving in the process.  Let's compare one of the most complex languages, English, to one of the easiest, Japanese, with its adult literacy rate of 99%.  Both are relatively new (under 2000 years?) and from island monarchic populations but, because of their history and demographics, they are opposite in almost every regard.

     When England wasn't being conquered itself it was busy colonizing the rest of the world.  Not surprisingly, it has collected the most synonyms/words.  Other languages reflect the culture that produced them.  English sounds like a United Nations cafeteria food fight.  Its spelling is more random than Boggle.  One pundit swore that "English could only have been produced by magpies on spring break in Ibiza."

     At the far end of the prehistoric world, Nihongo (i.e. the language of Japan) reflects the isolationism, overpopulation and stricter class structure evident for centuries before 1853.  This resulted in a paucity of synonyms which, in turn, led to commonly accepted symbols.  Its metaphoric nature may seem closer to Tamarian than to western prose.

     To illustrate, we anglophones attribute values of slyness to foxes and sturdiness to oak trees.  What do pine trees represent, though?  Or dung beetles?  Or sunstorms?  Largely through their folk literature, the Japanese have assigned specific iconic traits to virtually everything.  This is one of many reasons why their poetic forms, most saliently haiku, fail in European cultures.  It's like listening to a soccer game without knowing which players are on which team.  We're completely out of the loop.  To make even a modicum of sense to a gaijin (i.e. foreigner) a single haiku would need an encyclopedia of footnotes.  At the very least, the audience would need to be familiar with every entry in this glossary.  Contrary to popular misconception, Japanese verse is not meant to be cryptic. It's just very culture-dependent.

     Nihongo isn't big on plurals.  Sometimes one simply repeats the singular:

        "Ware" = "Me"
    "Wareware" = "Us"

     In other cases the suffix "-achi" or "-ra" is appended, much like "s" in English:

    "Watashi"  = "I"
"Watashitachi" = "We"   - Five syllables to say "We"!?

        "Kare" = "Him"
      "Karera" = "Them"

     Speakers deal with the polysyllabic pronouns by dropping them, along with their particles.  "Watashi wa byoki desu" ("I am sick") becomes "Byoki desu" ("Am sick").

     Japanese being a no-frills language, there is no future tense. 


     How optimistic is a culture whose language doesn't have a future tense?

     Well, at least that explains Kurosawa.

     The workaround is to use the present tense and a time.  Even in English people will accept "Tomorrow I go to work" as grammatically correct.  Gerunds handle other missing progressive and perfect tenses.

     Japanese is moraic, like Hawaiian and Sanskrit, meaning it matters how long you pronounce vowels and whether or not you exhale after consonants.  "Osaka" is actually O-O-sa-ka, 4 tempi, not 3.  To be clear, that isn't two distinct "O" sounds but one sustained one.  It is less like "Oh, oh, we're in trouble!" and more like "O-o-o-oh, now I remember!" 

     In English, consider the aspiration at the end of "cat" versus "rabbit".  "Cat" is stressed, ending in an exhalation not necessarily evident in "rabbit" (which ends in an unstressed syllable).  Thus, "cat" is one syllable but two moras.¹

     Japanese separates vowels, employing hiatus where we might use  diphthong or composites.  For example, where we hear one syllable with one vowel sound in "bike" the Japanese will hear three abbreviated sounds:

"Bu-"² as in "but" + "eek" as in "...a mouse!" + exhalation, like a schwa

      In Japanese prosody a mora is an "on":  a vowel sound with or without a consonant--but not two consonants.  The style of haiku with 5-7-5 "syllables" actually has 5-7-5 "sounds" (or tempi, moras or "on").   Thus, there is an element of quantitative meter in Japanese (and ancient Greek) verse that is largely absent from English poetry.  The line with 7 on is bracketed by two observations that take the same time to utter as each other, thus underscoring the sense of transition.

     Don't confuse this with phonemes (i.e. individual sounds);  all but 5 on include a consonant along with the obligatory vowel (a-e-i-o-u).  By clicking here (PDF) or here (HTML) you can see a list of the 71 moras.  Got a half hour?  If you memorize their symbols you will be able to read and write in hiragana (roughly, their phonetic alphabet).  (They also have characters, called "katakana" collectively, for making facsimiles of foreign names and words but these can be picked up later.)

     Their subject-object-verb word order is more strictly observed than our subject-verb-object default.  Lest there be confusion, Nihongo uses "particles", markers (e.g. "ga" and "wo") that distinguish subject from object.  Free of other influences,  Japanese includes a grand total of two irregular verbs.  Two!  Newcomers to English must wonder if it has two regular ones!

     Because superiors held the power of life or death over underlings, tremendous resources have been invested in deference.  One speaks differently, depending on whether the audience is a superior, an employee, a stranger, a friend, a family member, a lover, a child or an animal.  Yes, they speak to animals, but in a terms that won't remind us of Doctor Dolittle.  In more polite company, sentences are littered with obsequious honorifics (e.g. "kudasai", "chodai" or "onegaishimasu" when making a request).  Whole conjugations are devoted to kowtowing. 

    "Tabetai." = "I want to eat."

"Tabemasu." = "I would like to eat if that won't piss you off in the slightest, master."

     Japanese humor often derives from inadvertently using the wrong tone of reverence.  This is similar to Shakespearean plays, where less educated soldiers and civilians try to speak formally to generals or royalty.  Alas, most of the ensuing hilarity is lost on us modern egalitarians.

     Should this etiquette seem tedious, employ the standard³ Doonesbury approach, as I do:  speak informally and, when someone blanches, explain "I'm just a French major from the Bronx."  If nothing else, the experience should render an insight into what Japanese- and English-speakers find funny.

1. Vertical Language 

2. Horizontal Language


¹ - We hope that learning a little about a foreign tongue--especially one as foreign as Japanese--helps us understand our own (and its prosody).

² - Other anglophones might enunciate the first mora as "Ba-", as in "bat" or even "Bo-", as in "boat".  No matter.

³ - The reference is to a cartoon by Garry Trudeau in which an amateur American hockey player tries to check an opponent, only to be met by a string of French insults, curses and vituperation, causing him to slink off, saying:  "Oh, you're Canadian.  You must be good at this!"  The adversary keeps the puck and skates past, muttering that famous line:  "Actually, I'm just a French major from the Bronx."

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