August 30, 2006


The first season of The Tick (the original animated version) has just been released by Buena Vista Home Entertainment. Without a doubt the funniest superhero series ever made. The short-lived (despite the perfectly-cast Patrick Warburton in the lead role) live-action series has been out on DVD for a while and is worth a gander as well, but the gleeful, wacked-out weirdness of the Saturday morning cartoon must be seen to be fully appreciated for the surrealistic masterpiece that it is.

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More about pronouns

Going back to the beginning of Shadow of the Moon provides more context for how the relationship between Keiki and Youko has evolved grammatically over the two novels.

The first time Keiki speaks to Youko, (chapter 4), he omits the pronoun. In his next sentence, he says, "It is you." Here he uses the familiar but fairly neutral anata. When he says in frustration, "Must you be so obstinate!" he again omits the pronoun. In the next paragraph, when he asks, "Is not your life precious to you? Then allow me to do what I must," he omits the pronoun and attaches an honorific (おっしゃる) to "allow me," literally, "I'm asking you please to allow me."

In chapter 5, when Keiki first gives her the sword and says "It is yours," he uses anata again, but in chapter 7, when he loses his temper and says, "You stupid woman!" (愚かな方), he omits the pronoun and uses kata as the object of the adjective, which is more polite than "person" or "woman." A page later, he says, "You are my lord" (あなたは私の主です). He uses anata, but his grammar is very proper. In fact, you could teach the above sentence in a Japanese 101 class.

A few sentences later, he says, "You must forgive me," omitting the pronoun and using itadaku, a verb ending used in honorific speech (also said before a meal, meaning "I humbly partake.") What Keiki is doing, then, is using anata sparingly and and shifting the honorifics to the verbs. Given the circumstances, and given what is from Keiki's perspective Youko's un-empress-like behavior, anata is probably the best he can manage.

This is a bigger problem for English-Japanese translators, who--in order to be accurate--first have to build relationship trees for all the characters to figure out which pronoun is appropriate in each scene. Especially when writing subtitles, translators will often resort to quick-and-dirty equivalents that aren't technically correct. This is what Keiki is doing. Calling Youko "Empress" would hardly help to expedite things, so he falls back on a pronoun that is perfectly understandable to her in this particular context.

The whole time they are in the vice-principal's office, the vice-principal addresses Youko and Keiki as o-mae or o-mae-ra (plural). Keiki addresses him in turn as anata and the people in the office as anata-gata (gata is the same as kata above, here a plural marker). So Keiki is being a lot more polite to them than they are to him.

After chapter 7, Youko and Keiki don't speak again until chapter 66. In chapter 66, Keiki omits all pronouns until he repeats his pledge to her at the end of the chapter, at which point he uses gozen (御前). Gozen is actually the same kanji as o-mae, except with the on-yomi or Chinese reading. In this case, it means "Your Excellency."

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August 27, 2006

Part 21 (A Thousand Leagues of Wind)

Chapter 79

In order to better understand the etymology of Enho's various names, a review of the revelant kanji might help. The root kanji is matsu or shou (松), meaning "pine" or "evergreen."

Enho's full name is Otsu Etsu (乙悦). Later in life, he takes Rou Shou (老松), meaning "old pine," as one of his uji. He becomes a self-made wizard or Senpaku (仙伯), and King Tatsu calls him Shouhaku, or Count Shou (松伯). He helps establish the Evergreen Seminary (松塾). The name of his home town is changed from Shikin (支錦) to Shishou (支松), likely reflecting his fame.

Koshou's gang uses "Rou Shou" as their password, and Rou undoubtedly choses that uji for the same reason. The mythology that grows up around Enho's life is summarized in chapters 49 and 60.

Chapter 78

青辛 [せいしん] Sei Shin, Kantai's formal name
桓魋 [かんたい] Kantai
Some of the humor in chapter 78 gets lost in translation, specifically revolving around the familiar and formal forms of the first and second person pronouns. These differences—known to linguists as the "T-V" (or tu-vous) distinction—existed in English in Shakespearean times, with thou taking the familiar form. In an odd sociolinguistic reversal, the association of thou with the King James Bible transformed it into an archaic honorific, and the T-V distinction in English vanished.

The second person pronoun taught in Japanese classes is anata (あなた). Anata is actually the "safest" of the familiar forms, but is often used incorrectly by foreigners. Linguistically reflecting its feudal past, Japanese pronouns are tightly coupled with the social status of the person being referred to. But what makes the T-V distinction complicated in Japanese is that there really isn't a "V" in the second person.

Anybody above your social status or class is referred to by title, and never by name alone and certainly not with a pronoun. For example, a teacher would call a student by name or use a pronoun (the choice of pronoun depending on what the teacher thought of the student), but the student would always refer to the teacher using sensei. You would never call your boss "you," but "boss" or by his last name plus an honorific, usually san.

The pronoun o-mae (お前) is as ubiquitous as anata. It is generally not taught to novice speakers because it is even more insulting when used improperly. It literally means "honorable" (御) + "before/in front of" (前), implying that the person being addressed holds a lower social status.

In chapter 74, Kantai asks Youko, "Youshi, did you know there were no enemies outside?" The Japanese sentence begins: "Youshi, o-mae . . . . " Because Youko is a teenage girl, adults unaware of her real status naturally address her as o-mae. But as soon as Kantai realizes who she is, he drops the pronoun and uses "Your Highness" (lit. "Empress") to refer to her.

Koshou, however, just can't wrap his head around who Youko really is. When he says to Youko at the end of the chapter, "You being some kind of real important person and all . . . " he's still using o-mae, the same way he always has with her.

This, more than anything else, is what cracks Suzu and Shoukei up. But pronouns can be quite subtle in their implications. At the beginning of book 1, Youko refers to Keiki by name or drops the grammatical subject completely (which in Japanese is acceptable in formal speech). In chapter 43, when Youko says to Keiki, "At least you have to believe in me," she is literally saying (to Keiki), "At least Keiki has to believe in me."

This tells us that Youko is Keiki's superior. A subordinate does not address a superior by name without an accompanying honorific, a practice called yobisute (呼び捨て), literally meaning "call" + "throw away." That's one of the reasons why, in chapter 21, Shoukei gets steamed when the child empress, the Royal Kyou, refers to her by name alone.

But by chapter 48, when Keiki and Youko travel together to Meikaku, while Keiki continues to refer to Youko as "Your Highness," a sentence later Youko refers to Keiki as o-mae, and continues to use o-mae with him, clearly establishing their lord-vassal relationship. O-mae can be thought of as a more familiar form of anata. It's not insulting by itself, as long as social taboos aren't being violated.

On the other hand, if a fight is what you want, then calling a social superior o-mae is cruisin' for a bruisin' (there are far worse pronouns than o-mae, but I won't get into them here). An interesting twist on this occurs in chapter 79, when Enho refers to Youko as o-mae-san (お前さん). He is both recognizing her junior status to him and her elevated status at the same time. (A similar "intimate-honorific" is anata-sama.)

Keep in mind that nobody else in the kingdom but Youko would dare refer to the kirin as o-mae. And only Enho could get away with o-mae-san. When Gekkei kills Hourin in chapter 2, he addresses him as anata. It's still condescending, considering their relative social positions, but more polite than o-mae. In the same chapter, though, Shoukei's mother calls Gekkei onore, which is unambiguously insulting.

First person pronouns are somewhat less problematic. Students are taught the formal watashi (私), which in casual settings sounds a bit stuffy, but won't get your face slapped. Informally, men typically refer to themselves as ore (俺), while women of all ages use atashi (あたし). Boys use boku (僕), though you'll hear girls use boku as well (it does sound tomboyish). At the other end of the spectrum, Enho refers to himself as washi (わし), which is favored by the elderly.

In some cases, using your own name or title instead of the personal pronoun is most appropriate. Knowing when to use one and not the other, though, is not easily taught, so students of Japanese are advised to stick to watashi or avoid the pronoun altogether.

In chapter 78, when one of Kantai's regimental commanders addresses Youko, he begins by referring to himself as ore, but quickly corrects himself and starts over again using the more polite watashi: 「俺は、いや、私は . . . 」which literally means: "I, no (sorry), I . . . " Unfortunately, there's no simple way to translate this and retain the original nuance of the Japanese.

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August 23, 2006

Analogical modeling

The motto of my old Japanese professor, Watabe Sensei, when he was consulting for a TESOL software company I used to work for (now sadly defunct) was: "Examples, examples, examples!" The problem was, our Japanese clients insisted on: "Grammar, grammar, grammar!" And the customer is always right, even when they're wrong (especially when they're paying the bills).

Another linguistics professor from my alma mater, Royal Skousen, has been working on the theory to back up Watabe Sensei's insistence on more examples. Skousen calls his theory "Analogical modeling." He argues that language acquisition is based on pattern recognition and substitution, not rules. That is, we model language by forming analogies, not by applying grammar rules:

No training stage occurs in [Analogical modeling], except in the trivial sense that one must collect exemplars [examples] in order to make predictions. There is no setting of parameters nor any prior determination of variable significance. The significance of any combination of variables is always determined in terms of the given context for which we seek a predicted outcome. Each prediction is done on the fly.

When acquiring and using a new language structure, then, we look for the largest number of examples that are close to the context with which we are concerned, systematically eliminating all those that fail to match the specific context in favor of those closest to the mark. So if C kind of resembles A, but B more closely resembles A, reject C in favor of B.

In other words, the only rule is that the closest match wins, and the more close matches the better.

Skousen posits that even when looking for close matches, trying to work down through a binary tree matching individual elements is ultimately less efficient than simply matching the entire pattern. "Instead of dealing with probabilities, it [is] much simpler to directly store the examples." This is true as well in computer programming. Rather than algorithmically generating numbers like PI, it is far more efficient simply to store them as static variables.

This confirms my own experience that when it comes to comprehending complex phrases, example-based dictionaries like Eijirou are far more useful than grammar texts. In the case of Eijirou, as Skousen would put it, "The usage is the description."

Here are two real-world applications. Describing how he studies Japanese, Chiba Lotte Marines manager Bobby Valentine refers to a course called Step Up Nihongo, devised by Shigekatsu Yamauchi. I can't vouch for the pedagogy of the program, but a Yomiuri Shimbun article about Valentine stresses that "SUN employs a lot of pattern drills, as Yamauchi believes mastering the patterns is the best way to rapidly learn Japanese."

And one Professor Waragai, at the Tokyo Institute of Technology, states that in order to master German sufficiently to gain admittance to the University of Vienna:

1. Neither to see nor talk with anybody during this three weeks.
2. Study German till morning to night.
3. Memorize 500 examples

This sounds an awful lot like what I did at the MTC for eight weeks when I was first studying Japanese. The danger, of course, is that the "patterns" and "examples" will fall into the swamp of audiolingualism, and be hijacked into the teaching of abstract grammatical forms. The patterns and examples should always come from real-world applications and have pragmatic and immediate use in the real world.

Although at the time the curriculum did rely a great deal on audiolingualism, this is one thing that the MTC did right. We memorized a lot of material that was "real" Japanese, not simplified, dumbed down, or otherwise linguistically compromised. According to this formulation, the difficulty of the grammar is never an issue, only the job the language is intended to accomplish.

Of course, memorizing those 500 examples as Professor Waragai did does not mean he was then "fluent." Even after eight weeks at the MTC, when I got to Japan I still didn't understand a thing. But what it does do is take the training wheels off and give you a driver's permit. No tentatively dipping your toe in the water--you feel emboldened to jump right in.


August 15, 2006

Festival lanterns

Click here for a nice Flash intro from a company that makes chouchin paper lanterns (提灯). Chouchin are popular this time of year, as they are given out as tchotchkes to thank the merchant sponsors of the local summer festivals.

[Chouchin are not] thought to bring much in the way of good fortune for the people they honor. Having a lantern on display next to that of the neighboring shop "is more about a feeling of togetherness," said Takayama. That, or the fear of being labeled a cheapskate. "It wouldn't do to be the only guy on the block who didn't pony up," Takayama acknowledged with a chuckle. "The Japanese are a people who can't say 'No.' "

They're also used in all kind of advertising, the early equivalent of a neon sign. You can read more about the origins of the chouchin tradition here.

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August 09, 2006

The best blog about Japan

The best Japan-related blogger is Peter Payne. He's not so much a blogger as a columnist, though if you're logging your columns online for free, that pretty much counts as blogging these days. Payne is in Japan for the long haul (wife, kids, and job), so he knows what he's talking about (he mentioned a while back he's a JLPT 1)

In that sense, he occupies the same editorial ground as Japan Times columnists Thomas Dillon and Amy Chavez. The difference is, I think Dillon and Chavez too often let "pithy" and "witty" get in the way of being interesting and relevant. Without those deadlines hovering over his head. Payne sits back, takes a good look around him, and finds something insightful to say a couple of times a week.

For example, this observation while on vacation in Baltimore, comparing public swimming pools in the U.S. and Japan:

When you go swimming in Japan, there are plenty of rules to follow--everyone must wear a swimming cap and must shower for 2-3 minutes before going in; no one may dive or even jump in from the poolside for any reason; parents must keep within an arm's reach of children until they're a certain height no matter how well they can swim; and of course kids may not horse around by seeing how high they can jump off Dad's shoulders into the pool. But we had a great time swimming here [Baltimore], and even tried our hand at the high dive, a very rare thing in Japan, a country where all the pools contain uniformly shallow water for maximum safety for swimmers.

One little caveat, though. Payne runs a pair of online stores that export made-in-Japan products to the U.S., J-Box and J-List, the latter specializing in, ah, um, porn hentai. He ends every blog entry with a few ads for the latest products. This can include hentai manga along with Totoro plush dolls and the latest edition of Nihongo Journal. It's a discombobulating mix, to say the least.

To be sure, he keeps the ads on the "PG" side of "R," but you're on your own if you decide to click through. At any rate, just keep your finger off that left mouse button and scroll down, because this blog is really worth reading.


August 06, 2006

Part 20 (A Thousand Leagues of Wind)

Chapter 77

The three regiments of the Palace Guard are designated Left (左), Center (中), and Right (右).

迅雷 [じんらい] lit. "thunderclap," Jinrai, general of the Palace Guard Regiment of the Left

Chapter 76

革午 [かくご] Kakugo
長閑宮 [ちょうかんきゅう] Choukan Palace

Chapter 75

An example of a still-active palace guard is the Papal Swiss Guard that defends the Vatican. Despite their colorful uniforms, this is not a solely ceremonial military unit. To quote from Wikipedia:

After the May 13, 1981 assassination attempt on Pope John Paul II by Mehmet Ali Agca, a much stronger emphasis has been made of the Swiss Guards' functional, non-ceremonial roles. This has included extended training in unarmed combat and with issue SIG P 75 pistols and Heckler & Koch submachine-guns.

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