Tonight, I resisted the temptation to reblog an article so soon into National Blog Posting Month, made two pots of Jasmine green tea, and sat down to write about my opinion of the Japanese language. I know that my original idea was to write about my history with the language in addition, but that will be covered in my article on my history with foreign languages in general. And so, I sit down to ponder why the Japanese language appeals to me so much.
First, it is possible to be very Spartan or Laconic when speaking Japanese. I capitalize those adjectives in order to emphasize that the brevity with which the Japanese can convey complete thoughts reminds me of the Spartans. It is well known that Spartan mothers used to say to their sons before their first battle, “Return carrying this shield or on it.” It is less well known that what they literally said, which conveyed the above, was simply, “This or on this.” Likewise, a complete Japanese sentence does not need a subject as long as both parties know what it is. Often, even the object can be dropped. And if the relationship between the subject and object is known, the Japanese will leave the verb out. How much translators add to subtitles in anime becomes more and more apparent the more Japanese one knows. Watch Noir to hear particularly Laconic Japanese.
Also, Japanese is ridiculously easy to pronounce. Vowel collisions offer the greatest challenge to non-native speakers. But if you can master the word chikusho! (pronounced “ch’k’sho!), Japanese holds few other challenges for you. (That word happens to be what many Japanese consider the foulest word in their language. Usually translated as “damn it,” it literally means “beast.”) The vowels are exactly as they are in Spanish, and don’t ever vary. Japanese does not even contain true diphthongs like English. Hai sounds like “high” when said quickly, but hai is in fact a two syllable word: hah – ee. (Remember that when composing haiku!) Also, despite what Col. Pappy Boyington says in his memoirs, “Ohio” is not how the Japanese say good morning! Rather, it is ohayou, which, I’ll admit, can sound like Ohio when spoken quickly! But, vowel sounds in Japanese are purer than they are in English, and I love how easy it is to pronounce the language.
The many layers of politeness in Japanese are also pretty cool. Depending on who you are and whom you’re talking to, you can say the word “I” in all of the following ways: watashi, watakushi, atashi, washi, ore, boku, kono (insert name), wagahai, or sessha. (And yes, I know that the chances of the last two ever being good choices are slim.) The verb forms also have several layers of politeness, certain of which are far too polite or vulgar for most people ever having a good reason to use them.
The one thing which drives me nuts about Japanese is how they place relative clauses before the noun they modify. Doesn’t sound hard to you? Imagine hearing this is another language: “Tokugawa (shamed his overlord by his sloppy dress during a formal review) no Daisuke Ise commanded to be put to death.” (The no particle connects the relative clause to its subject.) The point of the preceding example is that I can’t really show you in a grammatical manner how the Japanese do this, because this manner of turning relative clauses into long adjective is foreign to English! By the time I have properly ordered the sentence in my head to “Tokugawa commanded that Daisuke Ise, who shamed his overlord by his sloppy dress during a formal review, to be put to death” several lines of dialogue have already passed.
In general, Japanese is a pretty easy language which makes for a rewarding study. It’s always fun to learn the different nuances the Japanese have for words. For example, amai literally means sweet; but, unlike in English, sweet is an insult when applied to a person in Japanese. It means either that the person is over-indulgent to others or naive. I find it fun to delve into these nuances.
If anything about Japanese is difficult, it would have to be the kanji or Chinese characters which the Japanese incorporated into their language. As long as one has dedication and patience, these kanji can slowly be absorbed over the years. And, then, the constructions for saying “may” or “must” can drive one bonkers. Otherwise, I would like to reiterate that Japanese is a fun language to learn which really does not pose the learner with as many hurdles to overcome as one might initially think.