Moving forward…

After the last post, I just stopped caring about blogging for a while.  I just pretended like it didn’t exist.  It kind of helps that a medicine I’m taking seems to make me care less in general, which, knowing me, is a good thing.

My feelings about Japanese are still very conflicted, but as of right now, I’m just studying wanikani and letting the rest kind of sink in.  And I am seeing results.  Today I went to the local HEB and there was a real honest-to-gosh Japanese person manning the Sushiya!  I carried on a conversation with him, and he told me my Japanese was not perfect, but understandable.  I told him I’ll take it – understandable but not perfect means I’m only failing a little.  I am gaining a level of fluency – not the “wow, I can just rattle this off” level, but more the “if I know what I’m going to say and am familiar with the words, I don’t have to think too much about sentence structure” level.  For simple sentences anyway.  That’s at least a sense of accomplishment.  I may not know why I’m doing it yet, but I am doing it.  That’s something.

Ever since I was a child, I have always learned for the sake of learning.  I learned the periodic table at eight years old.  I had no clue what I was going to do with it, but I learned it.  I learned about electronics at around 9.  The same pattern showed itself – I didn’t know what I was going to do with it, but I learned about it.  The knowledge was something I kind of collected – like some people collected baseball cards, or dolls, etc.  But all of these things have one thing in common:  academics only take you so far.  You can learn all about chemistry, but if you never perform an experiment, there’s no point.  You can learn about electronics, but if you never quite wrap your head around the idea that it exists to actually do work, there’s, again no point.  The same applies to music, which I have also learned quite a bit about – if you don’t know why music exists, then knowing how to play it is useless.

But all that being said, the academics still have some value.  Not for what the discipline is intended – for example, learning Japanese really only exists for the sake of communicating with Japanese people.  But instead, for learning about how people, and the world, works.  Without practical applications it does not satisfy its core purpose, but it satisfies the purpose of adding to one’s filter on how one sees the world.

Japanese has been valuable to me for that purpose, and the rest of it… well, maybe it will come in handy eventually.  Right now, though, I guess I’ll keep on trucking.

For those who sent comments, thanks.  I always appreciate them.

Nani?

I am not good at writing posts when I am discouraged.  I’m terrible at feigning enthusiasm, and there have been several posts I’ve written over the past couple of months that I abandoned halfway through, with the thought “what’s the point?”.  I tried to write another one tonight, and it met the same fate.  I just can’t pretend.  I can try to, but it never, ever works.  Maybe it’s just a peculiarity of my background or personality.

I keep coming back to one thought:  why am I doing this?  I’ve said before:  I don’t know.  I live in a city in Texas that has very few Japanese people, I am uninterested for the most part in nearly all Japanese media, I have little to no interest in going to Japan, and the best answer I can give myself is “because I can”.  That’s a perfectly legitimate reason, but it doesn’t, in my mind, justify the amount of time and money I’ve spent in a pursuit that has no purpose.  And yet I continue to do it, and I don’t know why.

Just like I don’t know why I blog here.  I think it’s partly because I want to help others who might be intimidated by the whole thing – no matter what my motivation, I’ve learned a few useful things over the past couple of years, and I think I have a few interesting things to share (that not even my native teacher knows!).  But I think it’s partly because I just want to convince myself that there’s a purpose for my studies.  It’s not working.

And it’s compounded by the fact that I am currently taking a medicine whose primary effect seems to be to make me care less.  In some ways that’s a very welcome thing, but it’s not very helpful when I am trying to convince myself to study in the evening and can’t even come up with one good reason to do it except that I committed to it for some unknown reason at some point in the past.  In fact, it is one of the few things I’ve managed to even remotely stick with – I don’t even practice piano as much as I do study Japanese vocabulary.

Maybe I understand myself even less than I do others.

And yet, tonight, I will study some more.  Why? It’s a complete mystery to me.  I wish I had a reason.

 

Hidden Japanese #2

This one rather amuses me, though it’s a little on the adult side.

So Americans, when they are getting intimate, use the word “come”.  I’ll be circumspect and not come right out and say the context, but those of you that know what I’m talking about, know what I’m talking bout, and those who don’t, well, look it up at your peril.

Japanese say 行く, or essentially, “I’m going!”.

I know they like to do things backwards from English, like putting the verbs at the end, but that’s kinda taking it to an extreme, don’t you think?  I’m not sure I’d like to hear “I’m going” at that particular time.  Heh.

Hidden Japanese #1

We are mostly all familiar with the typical numbers in Japanese:

一ニ三四五六七八九十

But did you know that these are not the only Japanese numbers?  I’m not talking about ひとつ , etc., I’m talking about an entirely different set of kanji for the on’yomi readings.

These kanji exist because in the ancient Chinese culture, long before their language was exported and integrated into Japanese, the Chinese had a problem.  It was really easy to just add strokes to 1, 2, 3, and 10, to make it into another kanji.  So 100 could easily be made into 200, etc.  So in order to counteract such forgeries, they added a few separate hanzi, and these were imported (with the change of a couple of strokes) into Japanese language.  These are known as formal numbers, or 大字 (だいじ)and are used in financial or other uses where preventing forgery is important.

See Wikipedia for more information, including a list of the formal kanji.  You’ll also see some more obsolete kanji that appears to have been simplified at some point into what we all know today.

This is going to be a regular feature – I’m going to shoot for at least once a week, maybe more.  I’m working on also starting a video series I’ll put on YouTube or somewhere else appropriate.  There are so many things in Japanese that people don’t seem to know, and I love doing this kind of digging, so I figured I’d share the little treasures I’ve found with y’all.  Hope you enjoy.

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.