March 25th, 2016


That language discussion I promised

Today we were faced with the horrible realization that if we stop working because we're tired from playing catch up all the time, we'll just have to start catching up again. On the bright side, after we turn in the next Noragami (which may or may not happen one week from today), we'll have a whole month before our next deadline! On the not so bright side, something is sure to come along. In the meantime, we hold on to hope, and hope the next week doesn't destroy us.

Anyway, I was supposed to talk about the discussion we had about high-context versus low-context languages. It wasn't really about that concept, because we still think it's bogus, but it was about why native English speakers may have such a hard time with the context of Japanese.

First is the obvious answer, which is that Japanese is an SOV, or "Subject, Object, Verb", language. The verb always comes at the end. So if a sentence trails off, and you don't know how to end it, that's okay if you're just reading something. But if you're trying to translate it and the sentence trails off before the verb comes along, you barely even know how to start the sentence in English, because we like to have the verb show up as close to the subject as possible. We'll take the most commonly trailed off sentence as an example. "Watashi, anata no koto...", which means, "I [verb] you." Fortunately, this sentence usually comes with a hefty amount of context, so it's pretty easy to see where it's going. And that might be exactly what makes it seems like Japanese is a high-context language--you figure out what the verb is based on the context.

I was going to point out that Japanese sentences actually trail off all the time, but I realized just now that that was a misconception I had based on the assumptions I made based on English. What I'm referring to is sentences that end in kedo (but) or kara (so). For example, the sentence "Sakamoto desu ga" ("ga" means the same this as "kedo") would be translated by the novice Japanese scholar as, "I'm Sakamoto, but..." There are a bazillion Japanese sentences like this, so it feels like Japanese is designed to trail off, and that everyone in the culture magically knows where that "but" is going because they're part of the culture. But that's not really how it is. Japanese particles always modify what comes before them--words like kedo and kara do connect to the following sentence, but they don't have to. It's like when I end a sentence with a "so" and a period. Anyone who's reading the paragraph can use the context already provided to draw their conclusions about what that "so" meant. (I don't really have any examples off the top of my head, so.)

Anyway, that was only half of the discussion. The other half was about what kind of words get left out of sentences entirely--not just trailed off sentences, but actual whole, complete sentences. The zero pronoun is used in complete sentences, for example. Once a topic has been established, the Japanese language doesn't feel the need to repeat it as the subject of every sentence. You start a story with "watashi wa...", and every sentence after that will probably leave out the subject because everybody knows who it is, so you probably won't hear the word "watashi" again for the rest of the story (depending on how it goes, of course).

On the other hand, English isn't quite so interested in repeating verbs. The other day, I brought up the example of "I will", which we said couldn't be translated into Japanese. I thought about it and realized that technically you can, by saying "sou shimasu" (or "hai", but that's just working around it). But "sou shimasu" actually means "[I] will do that." It has to specify what will be done. So, for example, in English someone would say, "Are you going?" and the answer would be yes, but in Japanese, the answer would be, "[I'm] going."

And so our hypothesis is that English needs to be told explicitly who or what is doing something, while Japanese needs to be told explicitly what is being done. Tadah!

Today I'm thankful for being done with work for the weekend, having Famous Amos cookies, our new scented sprinkled arriving (perhaps more on that later), Page having potential friends maybe, getting to watch Erased last night (we have one episode left still), and getting to watch more Gilmore Girls today.