Thursday, September 10, 2015

The Fabled Difficulty of the Japanese Language

Somewhere along the line in Japan's thousands of years of history, a curious fable emerged: the Japanese language is exceedingly difficult.

If I had to guess at the origins of this fable, perhaps it is simply mirroring the fact that up until very recently, foreigners fluent in Japanese were exceedingly rare. After all, in addition to its natural geographic isolation, for some two hundred years Japan instituted a sakoku (鎖国, "locked country") policy whereby no foreigners could enter and no Japanese could leave, under penalty of death. Even to this day, Japan's homogeneous population holds steady at 98.5% Japanese, and so it's not surprising that such a fable would thrive in modern day Japan, where citizens are sometimes shocked to the point of irrepressible bewilderment upon encountering a foreigner fluent in Japanese.

Certainly the written language is difficult, but in my early years of studying the spoken language, time and time again I thought to myself, "Wow, this is so much simpler than English." And to this day, the Japanese language as a whole strikes me as exceptionally logical and consistent, as if a group of no-nonsense linguists had sat down together and planned out the entire language in advance.

The Simplicity of the Language
Japanese pronunciation is limited to only five vowel sounds, which are always pronounced phonetically. There are no tricks or rules that one must memorize. Compare this to English, which has well over a dozen vowel sounds that may or may not be pronounced phonetically. For example, in English the pronunciation of the letter 'e' will fluctuate (or become completely silent) depending on the word, as in: he, hen, her, threw, hire.

Japanese pronunciation didn't require me to learn any tongue gymnastics, or even any new sounds, other than the Japanese 'r', which is somewhere in between the English 'r' and 'l'. Even though the language required me to learn two phonetic alphabets (katakana and hiragana), neither one required me to learn any "spelling", because the concept doesn't exist in Japanese. Words are written exactly as they are pronounced — no silent letters or illogical consonant combinations like the ones that haunt bizarre words such as knife, psychic, column, receipt, castle, drought, ghost, cough, numb, resign, doubt, etc.

Japanese grammar required me to learn only a small and manageable handful of exceptions. Compare this to English, which seems to have more exceptions than rules. Consider the irregular past tense of go, run, drink, eat, swim, fall, sing, buy, feel, know, think, etc., none of which ends with -ed. Consider the irregular plural of man, woman, child, person, foot, tooth, crisis, cactus, goose, mouse, etc., none of which is formed by simply adding -s. These types of confusing exceptions are quite rare in Japanese.

Even simpler than having few exceptions, the Japanese language usually doesn't even bother at all with pluralization, because the number of items in question is often obvious from the context. Logically I don't need to add -s when saying "two dogs", because even if I just said "two dog", the number two already makes it clear how many we're talking about. The needlessness of pluralization is clearly demonstrated in English itself by its own irregular plurals such as fish and sheep, which don't even change at all (one fish, two fish; one sheep, two sheep).

The average Japanese sentence usually appears quite lean compared to its English equivalent, much in the same way that the average Japanese person usually appears quite lean compared to the average Westerner. In a word-by-word comparison, the simplicity of Japanese grammar shines through, devoid of needless clutter, and in many cases devoid of any subject at all.

In English:
(1)  (2)   (3)   (4)   (5)    (6)
 I   am   going   to   cook  dinner.

In Japanese: 
  (1)      (2)
   晩ご飯    作る
[dinner]  [cook]

Because I am the speaker, and because cook is not in the imperative (command) form, and because no one else is mentioned, it is understood from context that I will cook dinner.

Not only is Japanese grammar simple, individual words themselves often times radiate with an immediately understandable logic. For example:

  晩        ご飯     晩ご飯
"night" + "food" = "dinner"

  王        子        王子
"king" + "child" = "prince"

   縞         馬       縞馬
"stripe" + "horse" = "zebra"

     音         量        音量
"sound" + "amount" = "volume"

    外          国         人         外国人
"outside" + "country" + "person" = "foreigner"

That's not to say that everything in Japanese makes perfect sense. There are some tricky concepts as well, but overall I find the Japanese language to be comparatively simple.

The Complexity of the Culture
To me, the difficult part is Japanese culture, specifically because of two factors.

The first culturally imposed difficulty is indirectness, which is used as a form of politeness due to its non-confrontational appeal. For example, rather than asking a customer outright "Do you have a reservation?", often times a host or hostess will ask in the passive voice 「ご予約されていますか?」, which translates to "Was a reservation made?", avoiding the directness of singling out the customer specifically.

Likewise, rather than asking outright if someone has ever been to Hawaii, a Japanese person wishing to be polite might use the passive voice to say 「ハワイへ行かれていますか?」 , which literally translates to:
"Has going to Hawaii taken place?"
"Has [someone or something] gone to Hawaii?"

Taking these indirect and non-confrontational tendencies one step further, often times Japanese words and phrases cannot be interpreted at face value. For example, if I ask a friend what he thinks about a boneheaded idea of mine, he might respond 「どうかなー」, which literally translates to "I wonder" or "I'm not sure", when in fact what he's trying to say is "That's a terrible idea." Likewise, even though the Japanese language comes equipped with words such as 「無理」 and 「不可能」 and 「出来ない」, all of which mean "impossible" or "cannot be done", those words tend to occur less often than their indirect variants such as 「難しい」 ("difficult") and 「兼ねる」 ("to be hesitant; to find awkward or unpleasant"), especially in any sort of formal interaction, or one where the speakers lack familiarity.

In general, the level of indirectness determines the level of politeness, which can potentially cause some confusion for Westerners, but this confusion is a result of Japanese culture, not an inherent difficulty of the language itself. If you want to be direct and literal about everything, linguistically you can, but culturally it's quite jarring, and the Japanese tend to do so only in the most intimate of conversations, or in the most heated of arguments.

The second culturally imposed difficulty results from Japan's rigid social hierarchy, which dictates the way people speak not because the language inherently demands it, but because it would be culturally inappropriate to use direct speech toward a superior, and culturally inappropriate to use honorific speech toward a subordinate. For example, the simple verb "do" can be said in at least six different ways, from least polite to most polite being: 

やる yaru
する suru
やります yarimasu
します shimasu
致します itashimasu
させていただきます sasete itadakimasu

None of those is especially daunting from a grammatical standpoint, but the difficult part is that when speaking Japanese I have to constantly be thinking about my social relationship with whomever I'm talking to is he my superior, my subordinate, my equal, or unknown? and what level of politeness would be appropriate for the situation.

Even some Japanese people themselves, by their own admission, are unable to cleanly jump through the flaming social hula hoops of honorific speech, and unable to steadily balance upon the slippery tightrope of etiquette pulled taut between two people using humble speech. Plenty of Japanese people have told me that they prefer to just avoid the whole circus act all together whenever possible.

And I can't say I blame 'em. If everyone dropped the formalities, things would be a hell of a lot simpler.

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