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.

The Intimidation Factor of Kanji

Let’s face it.  As a Japanese learner, Kanji are intimidating.  They are this set of pictographs that really seem to have nothing to do with anything, each of them have a whole bunch of readings, all of which apply only in specific contexts.  There is a sentence:

明日は日曜日です

Where the same kanji appears three times, has two different readings, and two and a half different pronunciations (one of them is in a word that has a reading that only applies across the entire word – there is no specific reading for that kanji in that word).  It means “Tomorrow is Sunday”, btw, and is pronounced “ashita wa nichiyoubi desu“.

It is massively intimidating, particularly to the new learner.

In my opinion, though, it’s a paper tiger.  Here’s why.

First of all, you have to get rid of the idea that there is some kind of a pattern that will help you understand the meaning.  In most cases, there isn’t.  There is a pattern, but it comes from the Chinese the characters come from and was mostly entirely lost in its move to Japanese.  So stop trying, it’s not going to help you all that much.  That would seem to make it more intimidating for the short term, but there’s no use wasting time on things you’re not going to find.

But there are patterns.  The characters, by their very nature, do share characteristics with the Chinese characters they come from – there are specific radicals that make up kanji, and only a finite number of them.  Most kanji are created by sticking these radicals together in weird and unnatural ways.  You do start seeing patterns as you learn them – not in the readings, but in the kanji themselves.  You can build them up from more fundamental building blocks.  This helps make them a bit more manageable.

Another thing to note about kanji is that their on-yomi readings are exclusively Chinese – nearly all jyukugo (there are a few exceptions) are Chinese loan words.  For example, I once wrote the word shinnen (New year, 新年), and a Chinese speaker not only understood the word but my pronunciation (while almost certainly incorrect) was understandable to said Chinese speaker.  So again, you just kind of have to take it for what it is.  Much of your vocabulary is going to have its origins from a different language.

So if you put this all together, you have a path to memorization.

  1. Become familiar with (note I did not say learn) all of the different radicals that can be put together to form a kanji.  Remember that “radical” is a much misused word, but it is misused simply to make the concept easier to understand.  The true definition of radical is much narrower than you’ll find in wanikani, for example.  But don’t worry about things like that.  You’re trying to make kanji less intimidating, not become a Japanese language scholar.  At least to begin with.
  2. Remember that all of the readings have specific origins and uses.  There are exceptions to all of the rules, but if you just remember this, you’re pretty close to where you want to be.  Most of the time, on-yomi are only used in jyukugo.  Most of the time, kun-yomi are only used in native Japanese words with okurigana.  Remember these two rules and you’ll get there about 95% of the time.
  3. There are always exceptions, but don’t dwell on them.  Get to that 95% of where you need to be, and learn the exceptions as you encounter them.  Probably 95% of the jyukugo words you learn have predictable pronunciations.  About 5% of those are variations on the pronunciations, but knowing the rules still make those easier too.
  4. Mnemonics DO help.  They will get you to the point where you associate a character with a sound.  Eventually you won’t need them anymore with a specific character, but use them until you don’t.  In actuality, the more memorable the mnemonic, the better it is for learning.  Personally, I find that mildly offensive ones are the best.
  5. Learn the rules of rendaku.  This is the change of voiced to unvoiced syllables in the second or later syllable (read:  adding tenten, or those two little ticks at the top right).  There are always exception, but it makes some of the more unusually pronounced jyukugo more predictable.  I won’t go into them here, but there are several very simple rules to learn that cover about 95% of the times you’ll encounter it.  For example, there is a reason for the “go” vs. “ko” in the words chuugoku (中国) and beikoku (米国), and it’s actually a highly regular and predictable change.  But I have not found that this is something that is taught in beginner Japanese.  I think it should be.

Kanji is conquerable.  It takes a lot of time, a lot of energy, finding the patterns you can discern, letting go of the idea that there should be patterns you can’t, because those were lost a long time ago, and understanding that while there are exceptions, not dwelling on them will help you to not acquire that initial mental block most students do when first seeing that vast array of inscrutable pictograms.  Just take it slowly and methodically, and you will get there eventually.

Don’t expect it to come quickly, though.  Two thousand of anything are hard to memorize, much less kanji.

Sudoku

I’ve been recently learning how to do sudoku puzzles, and it turns out that I’m really good at it with the right hints, and really bad at the harder ones otherwise.  But I can’t help but to find some similarities between sudoku and the Japanese language.

Both of them – particularly the harder sudoku – are incredibly intimidating when you first look at them.  Sudoku has only a few numbers filled in, and you’re thinking “I’m supposed to deduce a solution from this?  But then, you start to learn, and as the basics become more old hat, it’s a little like filling in more of the numbers – the puzzle gets easier the more correct numbers you fill in.  It’s like a harder puzzle becomes a medium puzzle and then becomes an easy puzzle.  It gets easier as you go on.

In some ways, I feel this way about Japanese.  When you first start, you have this intimidating world set out before you – with brand new characters that have nothing to do with our writing system, even when it does, with ambiguous meanings that only make sense in context – it’s just this huge thing that you have no idea how to tackle.

But then you start, and you master one small part of it, then another part of it, and pretty soon you’re competent enough to read simple vocabulary and learn the most common readings of kanji.  And at that point it becomes clear that the common readings of kanji will get you most of the way to where you want to go.

Unlike sudoku, of course, more challenges immediately present themselves as you progress.  It is almost as if you solve one sudoku puzzle, and then it immediately expands to a cube of 729 units, and have to solve that as well.  So the analogy isn’t perfect – no analogy ever is.

But the first step to solving any puzzle – sudoku or otherwise – is to just start and keep going until you solve it.

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.

 

My Evolving Thoughts on Kanji

My thoughts on kanji and what they are for have evolved over the past year or two.  When first starting Japanese, they seem almost redundant and needlessly difficult.  Why use kanji, you think, when there are around 110 perfectly good syllables to use in their place?

But that’s an English way of looking at the problem.  We don’t have a syllabary, though we have syllables.  About fifteen thousand possible ones, though I don’t know how many we actually use.  So we take a look at the twenty-six letters of our alphabet, the 110 or so syllables that the Japanese languages use, and try to learn them through a functional one to one comparison.

That doesn’t work and it will never work.

The reason is that kanji fulfill a purpose that is wholly (or mostly) absent in English.  They are a sort of alphabet of their own, but instead of specifying specific sounds or sets of sounds, they specify meanings, and the sounds that relate to them map to the syllabary, but that mapping is not one to one.  We have twenty-six sounds and characters and they are sufficient to contain our language, because there are quite a few different syllables that we can make from them.  That is not the case in Japanese, because the number of sounds they can use are so limited.  For example, I can think of about four kanji right off the top of my head that are pronounced “hou”, several that are pronounced “ryou”, quite a few that are pronounced “do” and “to”.  The sound that a kanji makes, while important, is not important in the same way that the sound of an English letter would be.

This is why studying kanji, I think, is so critically important to understanding Japanese.  You can get along without them for conversational purposes, but without understanding the role kanji play, you’ll never understand the important role that they play in making the Japanese language what it is.

Put another way, I don’t think the Japanese language has an alphabet of 110 characters.  I think it has an alphabet of over 2,400 characters.  It just serves a very different purpose than ours.

Kanji is easier than Hiragana

At my Japanese lesson today, the question was posed:

ひらがなは漢字どちら方が一番やさしいですか (which is the easiest, kanji or hiragana)

I responded 漢字は方が一番やさしいです (kanji is the easiest).

I didn’t make this statement lightly or without thinking.  And while it would have been fun to troll sensei, I wasn’t doing that either.  I really do think that is the correct answer.  And here’s why.

Yes, when it comes to pronunciation, hiragana is by far easier.  This is obvious. Each kana has its own pronunciation, and the syllables are one to one – meaning there is one and only one pronunciation for each kana.  But that doesn’t make it easier.  It just makes it a more predictable writing system, which is not the same thing.

There are two things that make kanji difficult:  the fact that there are so many of them, and the fact that each one has many different pronunciations.  But, honestly, I think this is a problem of scale.  When you take a look at a word with its kanji, compared with the word in hiragana, it’s really no contest.  Kanji is far easier.

There are two reasons for this. The first is that if you just go by pronunciation, there can be many, many different meanings for the same word, and it is unclear except through context which meaning is the correct one.  The second is that in hiragana, you don’t know where one word ends and the next begins, and this leads to no end of confusion.  So you can tell at a glance which word (and by word I mean meaning and not pronunciation) you are looking at, so it is far easier to figure out what a particular sentence means than by using the equivalent hiragana.

Kanji is more intimidating than hiragana is, for sure.  It’s a lot more to learn and a lot more to memorize.  But not by much, as you would need to remember the words one way or another, and kanji gives you a visual anchor to help memorization.

So, all told, I think kanji is far easier than hiragana.  Hiragana is important and indispensable, for sure – how could you tell how to pronounce the kanji without it!  But for actually getting anywhere with the language – I think staying exclusively with hiragana hurts much more than it helps in the long term.

How Would I Have Done It?

Let me preface this by saying: this is only a thought experiment. I have no illusions that this will ever happen. I’m not even seriously proposing it. But I do like to think about these kinds of things.

So, that said, how would I redo Japanese if I were God?

Well, my first thought is, expand the syllabary. Add a couple of vowels and a couple of consonants.

Then, redo the syllabary to something that is logical, something like the korean hangul. Make the rules regular and predictable – this part means this vowel, this part means this consonant, etc.

I don’t think I would get rid of kanji, because that’s actually kind of useful, but I would normalize the pronuncation. One kanji pronounced one, or at most two, ways. I’d also add a cue to the kanji – like some already have – as to how to pronounce them.

And then I’d make sure the kanji had a little more variety in the pronunciation. It’s like there are about 10,000 kanji right now that are all pronounced “doo”.

And then what I’d have wouldn’t be Japanese and no one would care.

See, that’s the thing. Japanese is a difficult language, with many different rules, some without rhyme nor reason, some contradictory, some counterintuitive, some bolted on from other languages, and all of which come together to make… Japanese. Change it, and you’ve got an easier, more intuitive, more logical and regular, more consistent, and just probably better in almost every way language that isn’t Japanese.

Weight it all in the balance, and it’s probably better just to keep it the way it is.

All that said, though, a guy can dream, right?

Maybe I’ll do that someday as a pure linguistic exercise, just for fun. But it won’t be Japanese and I won’t make any effort to pretend it could be. Still, might be fun.

If you were God and didn’t have to deal with a hundred and fifty million angry Japanese, though, what would you change?

The Two Pillars of Success

There are two pillars to success when learning any language: vocabulary and grammar.

The thing about them is, they are actually rather orthogonal to each other. Even in Japanese, as long as you learn the dictionary form (or to some degree even the polite form of the word) you don’t need to worry too much about how to use it to know the word.

You need to know both, obviously, but you can work on both separately, and not lose anything when it comes to learning whatever language you’re trying to learn. Eventually, of course, you have to tie them together, but that actually happens rather naturally with exposure.

And each requires a separate way of learning. Vocabulary seems to work best through a combination of exposure and rote memorization, but grammar seems to work best mostly through exposure and immersion. Grammar is how you learn to think in a language, and vocabulary is how you learn to express the thoughts within the framework grammar teaches you.

I think this is one reason why Japanese is seen as so difficult: in order to learn either vocabulary or grammar, you first need to learn the framework in which both of those things are expressed. Such as hiragana, katakana, kanji, particules, etc. And you have to learn them before you can move on.

That’s the “hump” I was talking about earlier. Japanese is very much not an instant gratification language, if you’re starting from zero.

Japanese is Biased Against Beginners

As I have been learning Japanese, one observation keeps coming to mind, one I can’t shake:

Japanese is incredible, amazingly, spectacularly biased against beginners.

What I mean is this: when you start learning Japanese, there is a hump. The hump seems almost insurmountable. You have to learn an entirely new way of thinking about language – the grammar is exactly backwards from English, there are several different writing systems that are completely unfamiliar, and (at least for any practical purpose) you have to learn them quickly, because you’re not going to get anywhere with the language until you get over the hump.

In the community college class I took last year, half the class dropped out, because it takes a spectacular effort to get over that hump. It is very difficult and it seems insurmountable. And if you’re struggling with hiragana when the rest of the class has moved on to katakana, you may never recover – at least when it comes to that class.

But once you get over the hump. it realy is kind of like learning any other language. You learn vocabulary, you learn grammar, you learn pronunciation, and picking it up gets easier, because you’ve successfully bootstrapped the language.

I personally don’t really think Japanese is all that hard. Others disagree, and I absolutely understand why they think that, but other than there being an extraordinary number of words and characters to know, it really is just like learning any other language. But you have to get to the point where you understand the assumptions and the prerequisite knowledge first. And, frankly, I think that’s where most people stumble.

And with very good reason, to be honest.

I wonder, for Japanese people, if the English hump is as seemingly insurmountable.

Ariana Grande’s BBQ Grill has Seven Rings

I’m sure, by now, if you pay attention to anything Japanese or related, you’ve found that a major US pop star with lots of beauty and very little talent has decided to get a tattoo with Japanese kanji.

It is supposed to say “seven rings”, which I assume is the title of either a movie or a song she darkened the door of, but instead, apparently, it says “BBQ grill”.

Even though Ariana Grande and I have little in common – she’s a beautiul young talentless star, I’m a balding middle-aged guy with more talent in my little finger – I understand why one would want to get a tattoo in kanji. It’s got that foreign exoticism to it, kind of a hidden meaning that only you and a few billion other people in the world might understand, and the logographs are actually rather pretty in many cases. So I understand the temptation.

But, seriously. If you don’t know Japanese, don’t.

Let’s set aside the issue of trivializing a beautiul and ancient language to make a fashion statement and focus on the fact that one is making a permanent or semi-permanent alteration to one’s body without fully understanding what the heck they’re actually drawing on.

Google translate is not a substitute for knowing Japanese.

Running it by a native speaker is only marginally more a subtitute for knowing Japanese.

Learning enough Japanese that you can be confident that a kanji or jyokugo means exactly what you think it does is the only way to be sure that what’s going on your body is what you expect is going on your body.

Plus if you learn Japanese, it gives you much more of a right, in my opinion anyway, to use the kanji in ways it was not intended. It’s much less disrespectful to a culture to first learn, understand, and appreciate the culture. After which, of course, you can go ahead and use the kanji as you will, secure in the knowledge that you’re neither embarrassing yourself or disrespecting a proud, ancient culture by being stupid and thoughtless.

Learn Japanese, miss Grande. Or at the least make some Japanese friends. Surely either of things are a better use of your time than whatever you do that makes you think it’s a good idea to look up “7 rings” on google translate and take that to a tattoo artist that doesn’t know any better either.

Our Japanese friends deserve just a bit more respect from you than that, don’t you think?