Entirely Removing Third-Person Pronouns

I mentioned a while ago that I was going to attempt to remove third person pronouns from my everyday language as much as possible. There are several reasons for this. The first is that Japanese and other languages get along just fine without using them as an ordinary part of speech. I mean, they do exist, but they tend to have connotations that our pronouns don’t and are generally used more sparingly. So it’s possible and seems like an interesting experiment. The second is that some snowflakes got their knickers in a twist about who uses what, and I think rather than having that inane and silly argument, I’ll just do and end run around the whole thing. My attitude about that, by the way, is that your pronouns are most certainly up for debate, as you do not live in a societal vacuum. You make your request, I choose whether to honor it. I may, may not, or just won’t play. Obviously, I’ve chosen the latter option. Make it a minefield, I’m taking my toys and going home.

I have found that removing third person pronouns, under most circumstances, is not only a simple thing to do, but it makes my writing clearer. There are some circumstances where it’s very difficult to do so without changing the meaning of the sentence. Often, though, it makes the sentence clearer, as using the pronoun actually involves using more words and makes the sentence more indirect. I guess what this experiment has actually done is made me much more aware of when I speak about someone to a third person.

But as long as I am aware, I am able to write entire posts, emails, etc., without once using a third person pronoun. It’s not a common thing, it seems to exist mostly for convenience. And I really don’t miss the construct all that much. Considering I don’t really care, honestly, what a person’s gender is when speaking about someone unless I’m planning on getting them out of their clothes, this deprecation of gender as a necessary part of language is useful.

The most challenging thing is that it can lead to awkward constructs if one is not careful. Using the proper name too much, for example. If you just replace a pronoun with a proper name, that can work most of the time, but not all the time. It requires some thought. It’s a very deeply ingrained construct in the English language.

I think when I have figured out some general rules for how to do this, I’ll post them here. All told, I think this is a good experiment and I plan on continuing it. I will consider it successful if I can completely excise third person pronouns from my language, eventually, without anyone even noticing I’m doing it. I’m not there yet, but I’m catching myself more often when I use them, and that’s a good first step.

You might ask, “why don’t you just use ‘they'”? The simple answer is, that’s still playing the game. I don’t want to use third person pronouns at all, not in any form, and not in any manner. It may not be a fully achievable goal, but I think it’s worth trying. The one exception to this is when I’m writing a story. I may try that as an experiment, but I don’t think it would work well, because you kind of have to use the pronouns if you want to keep a good narrative form.

Edit: after writing this, I went back through some former posts and realized I’d failed. Didn’t even think about it when I wrote them. I did a bit of rewriting. I wonder how well I succeeded. Oh well. I never said it was easy or not a work in progress.

What Japanese has taught me about English

I’d say this is a pretty good topic to talk about, right?

There are many things about Japanese that are very different from English. Some are just what they are – they’re different, but there’s no real useful insight to be gained about my own language. The fact that Japanese is postpositional, for example. It’s different, but neither system is better than the other. It’s just how things are.

But there are other things that are useful, and at least one thing that I intend on taking from Japanese and importing into my use of English.

One thing that I have learned is that language has a rather interesting way of distilling what a culture finds important. Because Japanese has a pretty well developed politeness structure. There are at least three different levels of politeness built in, and many words are rude unless used in a very specific context. English, for example, doesn’t really care about all that. There is a more formal way of speaking and addressing, but it’s not built into the language. We don’t consider it important enough to have that feature.

But what English does consider important is gender and countability, two things which Japanese seems to be mostly unconcerned about. In English, it is required to know whether we are talking about one or many items. It is important to know what the gender of a human or animal is. You can add this information in Japanese if you choose, but you don’t need to.

In my country, there is much kerfluffle about pronouns. Some people think you are required to use the pronouns which are demanded of you. Other people, such as me, don’t really care what is demanded and choose pronouns based upon longstanding societal norms. But this becomes difficult when eternal forces seek to demand that you use the pronoun that others demand that you use. “My pronouns are not up for debate”, you are told. Actually, I disagree. They are.

But that being said, it’s not something I really like to fight about. Truth be told, I’d rather just ignore the whole thing. Call yourself what you want, and I’ll just ignore it entirely. So the Japanese tendency to avoid pronouns is very appealing, and I think I am going to do that from now on. I have made it my goal to eliminate using third person pronouns in my everyday English.

After all, I did it in this post.

Leggo my eigo

Many years ago, when I was a teenager in the late 80s and early 90s, the cult that I was raised in had a propaganda magazine called “Youth <insert year here>” where leaders of the cult would attempt to be relevant to the youth of the day, and most of the time, they just came off as condescending.

I remember very little about that magazine, to be honest.  I remember the very first magazine that came out had a large photo of the cult leader’s face adorning the front, inside was a crossword puzzle of trivia from the cult leader’s autobiography, and it went on like that.  About the only bright spot was Monte Wolverton’s drawings.  For the most part the attempt at trying to be relevant to the teens of the time fell completely flat, as such magazines are wont to do.  It’s about as jarring as watching a middle aged, balding caucasian guy trying to rap about minivans or computers.

Still, a broken clock is right twice a day.  I remember an article they wrote about Japan.  This was at a time when the Japanese culture was just starting to make inroads around the world as “cool”, and I think they were trying to nip that in the bud.  They talked about a “cultural superiority” that they felt the Japanese had – and narrowed down on the fact that they insisted on completely mispronouncing English words.  As they put it, their word for “baseball” was basubouru, and if you tried to correct them, they would correct you.

Sadly, I have seen some hints that this, while likely not quite as widespread as they would have liked us to believe, is not entirely false.  The very first video I watched was the “Morning Musume English Lesson”, and in that same episode, they had English “shiritori”, where you were supposed to connect words by their last syllables.  What they were doing was many things, but it was not English.  For what they actually ended up doing was taking the katakana butchering of English words and using those .  So “toilet” became “toireto”, etc.  Probably massively simplified the game for them, and I can’t blame them for that, but the truth is that what they were doing had only a passing resemblance to English.

I remember also seeing that in an AKBingo video, where an English speaking girl said “Follow me on Instagram and Twitter” in a normal American accent, and they could not understand a single word she said.  She repeated it in Japanese, and they understood it then, and said “Oh, that’s cool!”  It is.  But for all of the English classes they had, they couldn’t even understand a basic English word that was shared across cultures without having someone spell it out for them.

I have maintained previously that the language that many Japanese speak and think it’s English, is not.  It bears a passing resemblance and shares its grammatical structure with English, but it’s almost unrecognizable.  I’m not entirely sure the cult leaders who called this “cultural superiority” were correct – I think it’s probably the fault of those who are trying to teach them English and failing, and the Japanese simply not knowing better.

In my Japanese lessons, there is not much emphasis on proper pronunciation.  One of my co-students pronounces “me” with a long A sound.  There is usually very little attempt to pronounce the “r”s properly, and there is a kind of English sing-song in the pronunciation that I doubt a Japanese person would recognize or respect.  In a very real way, we are not speaking Japanese, in the same way that Japanese do not tend to speak English.  I try hard to get the pronunciation right (as best I know) and even then, I often get it wrong because I introduce stresses into the word without realizing I did it until after the fact.

Japanese would – rightly- want me to work on my Japanese pronunciation so they could understand me.  Perhaps I would have an American “accent”, but I think that’s alright, as long as they can understand what I’m trying to say.  I don’t think it’s too much to ask to expect the same in return.  Of course, just as with the Japanese, we love when they make an attempt to learn and understand our language – and we’re often more than willing to forgive errors in pronunciation, just as I would expect them to – but I don’t think it’s too much to ask to at least have them recognize that what they are speaking is not really English.  It’s not good when you think you’re really good at a language and are barely understandable.

For the Japanese folks that may or may not be reading, here’s how you can tell if you’re speaking not-English: if you put vowels where they are not written in the word.  English is very precise with how we write words, even though they may sometimes be pronounced unpredictably:  if there are no vowels between consonants, then there are no vowels between consonants.  Full stop (pardon the pun).  I can’t think of any exceptions offhand, so it’s a good rule of thumb.  Try to remove those vowels and the ones at the end, and you’re halfway there.

 

Jyukugo

Japanese jyukugo fascinate me, because each one tells a story.  Sometimes the story is boring, but sometimes they offer an unwitting insight into the mind of a culture.

I was reminded of this when I learned the jyukugo 電池.  The two kanji together mean “electricity” and “pond”.  But if you put them together, it means “battery”.  It’s a very poetic word, and not really intentionally, I think.  The Japanese people needed to think of a word for electrical storage, and well, why not?

I’ve often been curious as to how these words arise.  The word for “wife”, for example, is “kanai”, or 家内.  The two kanji mean “inside” and “house”.  One could say that this isn’t a very forward thinking jyukugo, but then, the Japanese culture is thousands of years old, of course it’s not.  Sometimes you just have to take a word at face value.  That’s the word.  Trying to demand that an entire country change their language because it offends you is…  well… what seems to happen these days.  But it’s not reasonable.

Jyukugo are one thing about Japanese culture that I’m willing to accept for what they are.  Some are poetic.  Some are not.  Some are disturbing.  And some are beautiful, in their own way.  We don’t have these same kinds of constructions in English for the most part, and in some ways, I kind of wish we did.  It would make my language much more interesting.

In my opinion, Japanese is difficult, incomprehensible, inscrutable, and a whole bunch of other words that start with “in”.  But it’s beautiful.  English is all of those things, and ugly, too.  I guess that’s one reason I like Japanese – for the same reason I collect porcelain dolls.  I like beautiful things in my life.

Politeness

One of the more frustrating things about Japanese to a beginner is the multiple levels of politeness.  At first glance they seem completely foreign, but I really don’t think they are.  It’s baked into English as well, it’s just not so much a grammatical construct as a manner of speaking.

Contrast, for example,

Greetings, I would like to inquire as to the report dated 11/15/2019, and await your reply forthwith.

with

Yo, dawg, you got that report or no?

The first example is intentionally pretentious, but you get the idea.  There are multiple levels of politeness in English as well, and the consequences for breaking those rules can be the same.  I very much doubt that someone saying the second in a workplace that’s anything but majorly casual would last very long at all.  Things have loosened, but not very much.  We call it “professional” speech, but it serves the same function.

I kind of like the way it’s baked into the grammar in Japanese, though.  I don’t generally have to learn new words in order to speak more politely, I just have to conjugate a bit differently and remember to use the correct forms when addressing someone.

There are many, many things to complain about in Japanese, but I don’t think politeness is one of them.  In fact, in case you didn’t get the idea, I think English is worse in that regard, because you basically have to learn an entirely new vocabulary to speak professionally as opposed to speaking with your friends.  When I write on this blog, I speak in a semi-professional manner.  I could say it’s gauged to be appropriate for a blog such as this, and I’d be correct, but this is also the way I write in any professional setting.  There’s a place for cursing, and this ain’t it.

(By the way, “ain’t” is a perfectly legitimate word.  It’s also not professional.  I never said I was consistent about it.)

Anyway, my point is this:  be glad you just have to learn a few conjugations.  It seems to become second nature after a while.  I know, for me, when I use polite form in Japanese, it feels a bit stifling and stilted – just like professional speech should.  Well done, Japanese folks.

Japanese is Not a Straightforward Language

Every now and then I’ll hear someone say that Japanese is pretty straightforward.  I’ve said that a couple of times, and in limited contexts, it’s true.  The rules are pretty clear, and most of the time if you follow them you’ll do okay.

See the catch in that sentence?  “Most of the time.”

Let me enumerate the ways in which Japanese is NOT straightforward.

  • Rendaku.  It’s so complicated that a guy made Lyman made a law about it.  That only mostly applies.
  • Yomikata.  Kanji readings are for the most part predictable – there is usually one kun-yomi and one or two mainly used on-yomi.  But most kanji seem to have the occasional exceptional reading that you can only really learn by trial and error.
  • Verb conjugation.  It is rather straightforward in one sense – but there are several verb classes, two irregular verbs, exceptions to one of the classes, and the conjugation for the other class requires a lot of memorization.
  • Modifiers.  There seem to be an endless number of modifiers that you can stick at the end of or in a sentence that change its meaning, sometimes subtly.  These aren’t really particles, there’s modifiers that change the meaning of a sentence.  Speaking of…
  • Particles.  I’m not even sure English has the concept.  In English, the function of particles is performed by context.  Japanese spells it out.  Except for when they don’t.  An entire sentence can be said using one word, if you know the context it’s said in.
  • Politeness language.  There are several levels of politeness language in Japanese, and you are expected to know when and to whom to use it.
  • Pronouns. Here in America there is this huge battle over pronouns – who gets to tell who which ones to use.  I imagine that’s confusing in Japan – most of their pronouns are somewhat rude to one degree or other.  Again, most of the time.  And I wonder what American far-left authoritarian types would do if the language they used didn’t even bother with pronouns most of the time.  On balance, maybe a good thing.  Google translate almost always gets Japanese wrong when it comes to pronouns because it cannot figure out context.

As you get more familiar with the language, these things become… not less of a concern, per se, but you get used to them.  Which, to me, is a tragedy in itself – who in their right mind would get used to this mess?

But then… I can’t really say a whole lot about that, considering English is probably worse in many ways.  At least they have a really robust “alphabet” (in the form of kanji).  We have 26 letters, 15,000 syllables, and are not afraid to use any of them.  And we have quite a few more vowels and they change sounds based upon context, very much like rendaku, I think, just supercharged.  So I guess English isn’t straightforward either.  No less a tragedy that I was raised with it and am used to that, too, I suppose.  Oh, to have a nice, simple language that most people spoke.

I have a mind that is geared towards linguistics and I’m usually pretty good at choosing the right words at the appropriate times.  It is frustrating to be learning a language where not only do I not know the rules, I don’t even know which rules I don’t know.  But I guess that’s what keeps me busy.

 

The Japanese Devil is in the Details

One of the most fascinating and frustrating things about Japanese is that it is a very precise language.  For example, the word for “husband” and the word for “prisoner” only varies by the length of one vowel.  It is a metered language, it does not have stresses like in English.  The hard part about Japanese is not the vocabulary, though that is hard.  It’s not the grammar, though that is hard.  The hard part is training yourself to pronounce the words correctly.

I have found, anecdotally, that Japanese people are very rigorous about their language, and they have to be because meter is so important.  So if you speak Japanese with a pronounced American accent, then they may not even understand you.  And it is possible to speak with an American accent.  You do so by not saying ‘r’s correctly, and by stressing syllables.  For example, “ha-NA-shi” instead of “ha-na-shi” (and even with the last one it’s all too easy to stress the “shi” instead.  That also leads to incorrect vowels, and considering we have eleven more vowels than they do, then that can lead to incomprehensibility, even if you did everything else right.

I’ve been having to train myself to speak Japanese as neutrally as possible.  I mostly fail, but it’s at least something I’m trying to notice.  There are inflections in the Japanese language, but they tend to affect the entire sentence structure, and not individual words.  They seem to use particles instead to indicate emphasis of meaning (“yo” vs. “ne”, for example.)

The opposite is true too, I think.  Japanese people seem to often speak a pidgin form of English that overlays our words onto their syllabic structure, and makes for something that’s nearly incomprehensible – and the Japanese don’t often seem to be able to figure out why.  It’s because they’re different languages.  You can’t apply the rules for English to Japanese, and similarly, you can’t apply the rules for Japanese to English.  Just a little bit of effort to understand that not every word has to end with a vowel might go a long way.

But it’s hard.  I’m sure that takes about as much effort as it does for me to not stress syllables.

I wonder, sometimes, if I’ll ever get this right.

Loanwords

One thing I find fascinating is that a large fraction of the Japanese language is made up of loanwords, I’ve heard about ten percent of their language being of English origin.  But they take our words and adapt them to their syllabic structure, making them Japanese words.  Most English speakers wouldn’t even understand them.  There’s a hilarious music video called “Japanglish” that makes fun of that, and I still can’t hear “ma-ko-do-ru-no-DO” without laughing to myself.

English has very few loanwords from Japanese.  There are a few, “skosh”, from “sukoshi”, meaning “little,” was one that surprised me, but the list is actually very small.  We have not borrowed many words from Japanese – and the ones we have are more because we seem to think they’re cute than anything else.  I hear “nani” has become a popular word in some circles.

But the point of this post is this:  We mispronounce the Japanese words.  Many people pronounce “Kawaii” as they would “Hawaii”, when it’s more properly pronounced as “ka-wa-ii”.  “Karate” is pronounced by many with a long “e”, but it’s actually pronounced ka-ra-te”.  Unfortunately that seems to only be done by pretentious people.  “Karaoke” is not “carry-okie”, but “ka-ra-o-ke”.  We even mispronounce “Toyota”.  It’s “to-yo-ta”, not “toy-ota”.

But after some thought, I decided I don’t care.  If nearly all of the English words that the Japanese have borrowed from us are said in a way that we can’t understand, I think it’s perfectly fair that we get to make some of their words our own.

If they don’t like it, they can learn how to pronounce “McDonald’s”.  Then we’ll talk.

As for me, though, I’m probably going to pronounce them correctly.  I’m trying to train myself to pronounce words the same way a Japanese person would.  It’s actually more difficult than it sounds, because we tend to accent certain syllables, where there is no such thing in Japanese.  For example, in English, “content” means two different things that depend on which syllable is stressed.  But Japanese has no such thing, and stressing the syllables actually leads to mispronouncing because that makes us tend to use vowel sounds that Japanese people don’t actually have.

All this to say, if you borrow a word from a language and make it yours, fine.  But if you want the speakers of the other language to understand you, best to learn how to pronounce it properly.

Gauging Progress

The very first thing I watched in Japanese – and the thing that made me feel like I wanted to learn it, was this video:

It is a rather cute video of a bunch of Morning Musume girls (this was 13 years ago!) taking a faux English lesson.

When I first watched this video, I was highly dependent on the subtitles.  By “highly dependent”, I mean that everything they were saying was, to me, utter gibberish.  You might as well have tossed me in front of a charismatic speaking in tongues for all the good it would have done me.  But it was the combination of this being gibberish, the fact that I discovered that the Morning Musume girls were actually funny, and all of the interesting symbols flashing over the screen like a secret code, that set me on this endeavor that has so far cost me over a thousand dollars and quite a few hours off my life.

But every now and then I revisit this video.  The reason is that each time I watch it, I understand a little more, and a little more, and a little more.  At first, I just picked up “chiisai”, “sensei, chiisai”, and was proud of myself for that! And then I picked up “eigo”, “daijoubu” (and I think I finally understand why Ogawa-san said “boo”, she was making a pun on “daijoubu”, which is very much not obvious).  And then I picked up a few more things, and a few more things, each time I watched it.

I listened to it again today and I could understand even more.  I may get to the point where I don’t need the subtitles – though whether that’s because I understand the words or have memorized the subtitles is a matter of some conjecture.

Subtitles really are not a good way of enjoying these videos, though.  I mean, if it’s all you have, they are satisfactory, but you miss a lot of nuance.  I don’t understand exactly how, yet, but Ogawa-san seems to have a slightly different way of speaking then Fujimoto-san, for example.  And there are even occasions where what is being said is not really what’s appearing on the screen (the Japanese language is so context dependent that the translators are almost required to take some editorial liberties with the translation).

If you like Japanese media, seriously, learn the language.  You’re kinda missing out.

Monday English Colloquialism Corner #1: Goldilocks

Goldilocks and the Three Bears

Sometimes you will hear an English speaker say something like “We’re looking for that Goldilocks sweet spot”.  What does that mean?

As you can see from the story, Goldilocks is a fairy tale, which is a story told to children at a very young age.  It usually has a “moral” to it, but it also sometimes is just a short story meant to entertain children.  It’s usually read at bedtime, so this means that most people know the stories, and the stories have entered our culture as a shared point of reference.  By which I mean, you can just mention a name, such as “Goldilocks”, and everyone knows exactly to what you are referring.  This makes learning about American culture difficult sometimes, because there are many of those cultural landmines that you may not know.

When someone mentions the “Goldilocks sweet spot”, what they are saying is that they are looking for the thing that is “just right”.  Neither too hot nor too cold, neither too hard nor too soft, neither too big nor too small.

You’ll notice in the story that there is also an undercurrent of destruction – whenever Goldilocks finds the “just right” thing, she destroys it.  What do you think is the purpose for this detail in the story?