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Alethea & Athena
That language discussion I promised 
25th-Mar-2016 05:44 pm
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.
25th-Mar-2016 11:34 pm (UTC)
Great post! I feel like I just had a sentence ending in ", so." in one of my recent comments but I don't remember for sure (and it might've been in my Yona post replying to Badtz, which you probably didn't read.) But anyway, it's a great example of ending a sentence in a way that suggests there's more to it. (it's maybe(?) less grammatically correct in English than in Japanese, but that's a separate issue from how words get used in everyday speech).


I did wonder if part of the "high/low context" (from my interpretation of the Wikipedia article) wasn't just about what words are and aren't used, but also how important other visual or oral cues might be to understanding or conveying a point in different languages. One example I thought of (relevant to my line of work) was how I think western comics tend to be much more consistent with their use of fonts: like, one font for dialogue, one for narration (and maybe some annoying bolding so you know which word of a sentence is emphasized? in my limited experience with this, it's just annoying because I would rather emphasize the words as my reading dictates). Maybe if they have a special type of character (someone casting a spell or a zombie for example) those would get a special font to set them off. But compared to that, manga can (and frequently does) use several different fonts in a given book, to convey mood, emphasis, character, etc. This might just be a way a specific medium has developed over time, but it might also be something that came about due to the expectations of the culture it came out of? Or symbols like sweat drops, vein pops, hearts or stars that show up in-text (what DO those mean? I understand the text in combination with them on a subconscious level but it's hard to put in words).

Or another thing could be labels and names for things. I feel like Japanese culture and media loves this: terms like tsundere, hikikomori, chuuni, moe, kabedon, KY or "codified" character designs based on hair colour, hair style, sempai/kouhai (or outside of manga/anime, take all the divisions and sub-divisions of fashion)—with these they can capture and communicate a whole idea or context in a single word or image. A western fan might say "I want a more nuanced character, not just someone with the tsundere trope slapped on her"—and I think to some extent that's a valid complaint, but maybe too we are coming from a culture that is less reliant on stock tropes and so the intended context either doesn't come through to us or seems like laziness to us? (we still have tropes and cliches, but I don't think they're recognized or catalogued to the extent and variety that they are in Japanese media.) I personally love (some of) the familiarity and repetition of shoujo manga plots, but I think that's a learned preference rather than a natural one for someone from a US cultural background: when I read western graphic novels, I don't have that same level of context to fill out my expectations (and not just because I don't read as many of them) so it's harder to predict what will happen, and also harder for me to fit a given story into the greater context of comics as a whole. It feels more individualistic? Not building off of a shared foundation...

Does that make sense? Maybe I'm just comparing the wrong things—the manga industry is a lot larger and more developed than western graphic novels, and I'm sure superhero comics do have their own context they fit into. But I do think that the "shared foundation" is seen as more welcoming to the Japanese audience, while it's off-putting and daunting to people who might be curious about superhero comics.

In summary, you raise good points about context-dependence as it relates to sentence structure and interpersonal dialogue, but I wonder if there's still something to the high/low context division when it comes to visual communication or concepts and ideas. I'm open to having that challenged too though, if you think differently!
28th-Mar-2016 11:38 pm (UTC)
Okay, so we totally did not intend to not reply to this comment, but our weekend kind of exploded on us. I will admit that ending sentences in "so." isn't technically correct in English, but I think it's a more accurate reflection of the meaning of "kara". But later I realized an even better reflect would be to translate it as "because", instead of "so", and the "because" comes before the clause that preceded it in Japanese. For "kedo", translate it as "although" instead of "but", and again it moves to the beginning of the clause.

As for the stuff about Japanese comics and tropes versus Western ones, I kind of see your point about fonts, because a font is not an explicit statement, but I think having more labels would make the language lower context, not higher, because if there are more labels, that indicates that the language acknowledges that there are more boxes to fit things in. We were actually just working on a series that deals (a little bit) with Japanese tropes, and I don't think they really have more so much as different ones, because the different cultures pick up on different traits.

I will also be the first to tell you that American entertainment is predictable as it comes (but maybe that's because the American stuff we watch tends to be pretty mainstream). I tend to see a lot more unexpected developments in Japanese entertainment than in American stuff, but I don't think that's any indication of how much context is required to understand something. On the other hand, if something is surprising because you're not familiar with the context (like you and American comics, for example), doesn't that make the culture a high-context one? And if the culture you're more familiar with is one that helps you predict story developments, because you know all the context from your familiarity that only supports our theory that "high-context" means "one I'm not familiar with" and "low-context" means "one I am familiar with".

Sorry if that wasn't exactly coherent; we've had a long last few days.
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