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The Roman Alphabet in Japanese

One thing that really puzzled me, even from the beginning of my studies, is how Japanese tends to integrate the roman alphabet.  Sometimes in ways that are obvious, sometimes not, but they seem to be very aware of the alphabet and they use it in some case.  There are a few letters they’ve integrated into Japanese words – T, S, M, L, and H. (I seem to recall P too, but I can’t remember exactly how).

I think partly they think it’s cool, and partly it’s just easier to use the letters than to try to use the phonetic spelling.

But the Roman alphabet is actually very useful in the Japanese language in a way that their syllabary cannot be.

The Japanese syllabary is a grid, or at least that’s how it’s usually represented.  Left to right, you have the vowels, and top to bottom, you have the consonants.  While there’s a weak order to the vowels (a – i – u – e – o) there isn’t really an order to the consonants, except for an even weaker one.  The syllabary really isn’t ordered.

But the Roman alphabet is strongly ordered.  Children are taught this order from a young age with the alphabet song, and you must use that order when reciting or using the alphabet.

This fills a need in Japanese society that their language simply cannot provide without resorting to numbers.

You can see that, for example, in classroom nomenclature.  Classes are 1-A, 1-B, etc.  That’s because the ordering is useful, and they can’t really do that kind of ordering in their language.

This kind of fascinates me.  It’s kind of a tacet admission that their language is not suitable for all purposes, and they have to borrow from others in order to import the concepts they need.  This isn’t a dig on them – it could well be they simply didn’t need these concepts until after the war, or they found other ways to fill the need prior (maybe they had a counter for ordinality.. wouldn’t put it past them).

The interesting thing is – English does not do that.  While there are some features to other languages that are useful, there are few features to other languages that are so useful that we had to pull them in.  I can’t think of any offhand, actually.  We see no need of importing the Japanese syllabary, for example, because all of its features are encapsulated in the Roman alphabet, and more besides.  Every syllable and sound in Japanese can be represented in romaji (with an incorrect accent, granted).  Not every sound in English can be represented in Japanese.  At the end of the day, the only use we have for Japanese characters is the fact that “tsu” looks like a smirk in katakana.

I mean, they get along fine.  It’s not like this makes us superior, perish the thought.  But it is two very different ways of looking at language, and it seems that English is arguably the more versatile in many ways.

But not every way.  there are features English doesn’t have that Japanese does.  Such as honorifics and respect language.  Maybe that speaks a lot about what we prioritize.  It’s just… those features aren’t really useful to people that aren’t Japanese.

Not the most coherent of posts, but it’s an interesting thing to think about nonetheless.

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