December 04, 2005

Chapter 18 (A Thousand Leagues of Wind)

I groused a while back about the unrealistic difficulties Suzu was having learning the language (though it does probably reflects the experiences of many Japanese when it comes to the years spent studying English, and it was important to the plot). However, the Empress Kouko's little lecture on sociolinguistics and cultural solipsism in this chapter is spot on: understanding the words that people say is not the same as understanding what they mean or intend. Hence the failure of machine translation when the slightest nuance is encountered in the text.

Youko will tell Keiki essentially the same thing in chapter 20, and uses a very good example about how meaning springs from context.

Consider how most English-speaking students of Japanese learn the second person pronoun. Now, English pronouns are hardly the epitome of logic, especially when it comes to case. (Frankly, as with "you," English could pretty much dispense with case and hardly anybody would notice. Most native English speakers have enough trouble knowing when it's "you and I" or "you and me.") But at least "you" is a socially neutral term that can be used equally with a friend or lover, the pope or the president.

The temptation, encouraged by some Japanese teachers trying to press English and Japanese into the same grammatical mold (the same mistake English grammarians made when they applied Latin grammar rules to English, a Germanic language), is not only to translate "you" directly as anata, but to use the pronoun with the same diction. But anata is a familiar term, mostly inappropriate in civil discourse. It's how wives address their dimwit husbands in Japanese sit-coms: A-na-ta! It's not how you talk to your teacher or your boss or anybody with a higher social status than yourself.

Because Japanese instruction often focuses on grammar rather than diction, students learn anata incorrectly and go on using it incorrectly. And because gaijin speaking Japanese still have something of a sideshow quality about them, Japanese tend to grin and bear it rather than correct you. But if the grammatical parallels were abandoned early on, not only would students not be encouraged in this egregious bit of language transfer, but they would have start thinking differently about how language and culture interact.

(So how do you address someone with a higher social status without using the second person pronoun? Either by title, or drop the subject completely. Subjects, especially pronouns, are optional in Japanese.)

采麟 [さいりん] Sairin, kirin of Sai (才)
揺籃 [ようらん] Youran, lit. "rocking cradle"

Chapter 17

失道 [しつどう] shitsudou, or "Loss of the Way," the illness that afflicts a kirin when the king violates the Divine Will. The Royal En explains its implications in chapter 59 of Shadow of the Moon.

恭国 [きょうこく] The Kingdom of Kyou
供王 [きょうおう] The Royal Kyou

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# posted by Anonymous Anonymous
12/06/2005 3:39 PM   
I've been learning Japanese for about 5 years by now at three different institutions with severall different teachers (most of them being Japanese) and every one of them told the students how "I" and "you" differ in use from German.