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Hentaigana, and the Frustration of Learning Japanese

While I was doing research for another project I was doing, I went down a bit of a rabbithole.  I was trying to explain (and make sure I understood) the uses of voiced vs. unvoiced consonants.  I found a bunch of interesting things.  One was that there are some kana that are not well known and aren’t taught.  Another is that there are specific origins for hiragana, and some of them went down some rather odd roads before settling on their current form.

Now, Japanese teaching and learning is a difficult thing – there are, as I juuuuust mentioned, a lot of rabbit holes to go down, and some of them aren’t really useful for learning standard Japanese.  So I’m going to say right now that for most people who just want to learn how to listen to, or read, or speak Japanese, these things aren’t really all that useful to know.  By which I mean, you can learn perfectly serviceable Japanese without ever understanding or even knowing about these concepts.  So in that regard, I’m not going to fault Japanese teachers or teaching resources.  Their job is to have you speaking Japanese, and they do a perfectly serviceable job at this.

But I can’t help but feel that the whole process is messed up in some difficult to quantify way.

The thing about things such as obsolete kana, or other types such as hentaigana, is that understanding them kind of helps you to understand how the language works, because it tells you where it came from.

(BTW, “hentaigana” does not mean “perverted kana” or “kana only used in hentai”.  It means “variant kana”.  These are obsolete kana that ended up falling by the wayside in favor of currently accepted kana).

This makes me feel so frustrated, though.

It doesn’t make me feel frustrated because I feel like I’ve been failed.  I understand that those who teach Japanese have a way to do it, and the way works, and it’s an appropriate way.  But it’s a very utilitarian approach.  Here’s some syllabaries, here’s some kanji, they have readings, put them together, you have words, congratulations, you’re speaking Japanese!  But it’s presented in such an uninteresting way.  I can’t count how many times I asked my sensei “why is it this way?” and sensei didn’t know.  I don’t fault sensei for that!  But I ended up looking up the answer myself, and going down rabbit holes, and it really improved my understanding of the language.  When you understand where it came from, you understand how it works, and it helps you to understand why it is how it is now, and how it evolved.  Patterns that weren’t obvious become obvious, and it helps you to “fill in the blanks” when it comes to things that aren’t obvious when just presented as “this is just how it is”.

But “This is just how it is” is kind of the Japanese way of looking at the world.  “shikataganai”, it can’t be helped.  It just is how it is.  This is Japanese, we’ll teach you Japanese, congratulations, you know Japanese.  Why be curious?  It doesn’t do you any good, anyway.

But maybe it does, after all.

In some sense, you have to play by the rules of the Japanese when you’re interacting with their language.  This is their language, you accept it for what it is, you don’t try to change it, you don’t try to alter it, you don’t try to improve it.  Fine, fair enough.  It’s on their terms.  But that doesn’t mean you should just have to dig all of this information up piecemeal as you discover something that just doesn’t fit, and the only way you’re going to find the answer is just to troll around on the net until you find someone else who had the same question, which leads to a complex but informative wikipedia page on that very topic which explains stuff you didn’t even know you needed to know.  That’s really a failing of almost every Japanese language resource I’ve found, and it bugs the snot out of me.  For example, one page says “you just have to memorize the different forms of the minute counter”.  Why?  They make perfect sense once you understand why there are different forms.  But why bother with that?  Just memorize.  Everything will be fine.

I’m working on fixing that.

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