Monday, August 30, 2010

I Can't Say It

There was a super rad article in the NYT today on language. I am not going to comment to deeply on this as it is not really my field and there other people much more knowledgeable o the subject than me. I decided on this policy when I said to a tall blond lady at a party over a beer that I was interested in linguistics and had a fondness for Chomsky. She proceeded to destroy my brain with contrary evidence from MRI imaging and a funny thing called science. Who knows, she may have been full of shit, but I would have had no way to verify that. I think that the author of this piece is largely right, of course he is, in saying that language is a thing in your brain that is constantly effecting how you perceive things. It has to be. In my experience I know that I am not the same person in Japanese that I am in English. I would never dream of telling someone to "ganbare" in English. Or that they must be "otsukaresama." Those things are ridiculous to even contemplate in any other setting.
Articles and papers and books will often prattle on about how the distinctive element of Japanese is its hierarchical structure. I care as much about this discussion as I do about every book on Japanese architecture that talks about how gloriously "vague" everything is. (insert empty hand making masturbating motion here.) Vague is just a word that was thought up to make something boring and common sound like a topic for discussion. Yes, your futon can go in the closet and then it isn't really a bedroom is it? There, we settled it. That isn't vague, it is a closet with a futon in it. Now it is out. Now it is in again. Get it?

I also spend a good deal of time explaining to Japanese people that English has a hierarchy too, it just isn't taught to us concretely in our school systems. Or, more importantly, isn't taught to them in theirs. But everyone knows that you wouldn't say to one's boss, "That's some fucked up shit right there!" Rather you might suggest, "The quarterly reports seem to indicate a downturn." I can remember being firmly scolded for telling my neighbor "bull" when I wanted to represent the opposite side of an argument to them. Of course I didn't know that I wanted to represent the opposite side of an argument, I thought that what they were saying was "bull" until my mother corrected me.

But where were we...Oh, yes. My two favorite tidbits of Japanese that I think say a lot about the country and its people are:

1. The grammatical structure for "making" someone do something and "letting" them do something are exactly the same. (。。。させる)  For example, a teacher will often say to me about a lesson plan, "Then you will let the students pronounce the vocabulary." Okay, I'll let them do it all they want.

2. The word for being "wrong" and "different" are the same word. (違う) If you ever wanted something stereotypically Japanese, there it is right there.

I was trying to explain this article to my wife, who is Japanese and speaks no English. I was having to convert everything into Japanese and then flesh out the arguments. "For example, people say different words for the same colors or the same words for different colors." "What do you mean?" "Well, in Japan you call the traffic light for go 'blue.'" "And?" "Well, it is green." "No it isn't." And so on.

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attempting to silence the voices in my head.