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.


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?

The Limits of Language

“The limits of my language mean the limits of my world” – Wittgenstein

This is a topic that I have been thinking a lot about for the past couple of weeks – in fact, I’ve even wrote a couple of posts touching on this idea.  In general, language shapes our thinking and our perception of the world – if there is something that is unexpressible in language, we then try our hardest to find a way to express it in language, and more often than not, we will usually take the way that we have found to express it and consider the actual thing to be expressed to be constrained by the language we have chosen.

This applies to many things.  It applies to 神, or God – two concepts which are translated from Japanese to English as the same word, but are, in reality, concepts that are very much different if taken in the historical context of the two different languages.  This also applies even among the same languages – two different linguistic dialects have appeared in America, for example, where simple, foundational words such as “racism”, “sexism”, and even “theory” have come to mean different things based upon who is saying them (if you feel the need to argue this, you will not understand this post, and you should make an effort to.)

My language shapes my worldview, and my worldview shapes my language.

What I find most fascinating about studying Japanese is actually not the language.  The language is interesting and challenging, to be sure, and I mine a lot of interesting and useful things out of the most basic of studies (why, for example, does 桜 mean both “cherry tree” and “horse meat”?) but I view learning Japanese more as expanding my worldview – they have a completely different set of cultural assumptions that are coded into their language, and to learn those is to put mine in more stark relief.  What is encoded in my language that is so obvious to me that I take it for granted?

Politeness, for example, is a fascinating topic, because both Japanese and English have politeness encoded into our language, but it takes a different form.  Basic Japanese politeness appears very direct to English speakers.  I was in a sushi place yesterday, and I was contemplating about how I would ask for some water in each language.  In Japanese, I could simply say “水ください” and that (“Water, please”) would be seen as polite.  But in English, that could actually be a little abrupt.  In English, we would have to add something to it “I would like some water, please”, or “Could you please give me some water”.  And I came to realize that in English, politeness is all about giving someone the feeling – whether it actually is the case or not – that you are giving them a choice in the matter.  In Japanese, that is not so important.  In Japanese, it seems to be more important that you show that you recognize that you are asking someone to sacrifice something, such as time or effort.

So this simple observation goes back to what is probably one of the foundational differences between English and Japanese cultures – the difference between the individualistic culture of the west, and the collectivist culture of the east.  In Japan, it is not your choice that is shown respect, but, instead, your status as a part of society.

This also is shown in the simple greeting “Nice to meet you”.  In English, that simply does mean “nice to meet you” – but in Japanese it’s よろしくお願いします, which does not really mean that, but “please take care of me in the future” or some such.  In the Japanese, the cultural assumption is “I may need something from you and I request politely that you take care of me.”

Again, these language differences are completely transparent to those who are saying them.

I have noticed that those who translate from Japanese to English also tend to try to translate the cultural assumptions as best as they can, and in my view, this loses a lot.  For example, in the song “What is Love” by Morning Musume, there is this phrase:


One site translates it as:

Who will the goddess of victory
smile for?
Is the goddess of victory
fair to everyone?

And another as:

Who will win happiness
In the end?
Does happiness come
Equally to us all?

So which is correct?

The first is probably more correct.  Note the character for “kami” in the actual Japanese – but those in the west would see that as a little strange, so the second translator decided to also attempt a cultural translation, but lost something in the process.  Specifically, it lost a certain spiritual connotation that perhaps the second translator didn’t think that the western reader would understand or appreciate.

But how can we understand their culture if it’s hidden from us in the guise of our own?

No, I don’t think there’s a goddess of victory.  But perhaps some Japanese do.  This speaks to the superstitions or beliefs in Japanese culture that we don’t share – and it also speaks to superstitions or beliefs in ours that they don’t share.  It speaks, I think, to biases of the translator, to a degree.  It speaks to two stark choices in deciding how to bridge cultures:  do you just directly translate the language or do you also try to translate the culture?  And it speaks to the most important question of all:  how do we speak to each other with respect when we don’t even understand how our own language constrains our thinking?

And actually, it speaks to even something more fundamental:  勝利 does not mean happiness.  It means victory.  Why did the second translator think that those two words were interchangeable in this context?  Or is there an assumption in the Japanese culture that victory translates to happiness?

The constraints of my language are not clear to me.  The fact that they exist is becoming far more clear to me.  I wonder if Japanese people have the same experience when learning English.


The one thing that my semi-immersion into Japanese culture has taught me is that they are, truly, foreign to me.

This is not a bad thing, but it’s solidifying my theory that in order to understand a language, one must first make an effort to understand the culture that the language belongs to.

So I have not really been studying Japanese all that much – in the sense that I haven’t been intentionally learning new vocabulary or kanji.  Instead, I’ve been watching Japanese variety shows, etc., and just letting the language flow over me.  And I’m starting to realize something:  at least in Japanese, and by necessity, translators take a lot of liberties with the translation.

The reason is that the Japanese language is very contextual and very efficient.  So much meaning can be conveyed using just one word.  You could say “daisuke” and that could mean a lot of things.  It could mean “I love you”, or it could mean “I love it”, or I’ve even heard it translated “I like it a lot”.  The efficiency exists because of a shared contextual experience that is already taken for granted.

English does have this in certain, limited circumstances (you can hear “kawaii” by itself in Japanese, just as you can hear “cute” by itself in English), but in most cases English speakers prefer to spell out their assumptions as clearly as possible.  Japanese speakers do not do this – they take the assumptions that are already present and add information onto it conceptually.  In fact, this is such a linguistic difference that English speakers find it very hard to distinguish between “wa” and “ga” – where “ga” is used when new information is added to a topic that is already known about, and “wa” is used to introduce a topic.  English prefers to just keep using the topic and then adding information to it in the same sentence.

It’s far more precise, but also far less dense, for the same reasons.

It is, in fact, a similar struggle for Japanese people to learn how to use “a” and “the”, because they do not have the concept of definite or indefinite articles in their language. It’s second nature to us – “a” means “there are a bunch (class) of things, and I am referring to one of them”, where “the” means “there are a bunch (class) of things, and I am referring to a specific one of them”.  It’s easy for us.  Not so easy for them.

I honestly don’t think Japanese is confusing.  I only think I consider it confusing because I insist on seeing it from an English mindset.