Category Archives: Japanese

Why I love Japanese

I absolutely love foreign languages, and I’m also exceptionally bad at them. It took me, what, like 20 years to get my English to this level, and that’s mostly thanks to practice. But I just had to. I used to play a lot of computer games, and Russian translations were so awful that it was easier to play in English even when I didn’t speak it. I used to read a lot of texts about programming, and they were naturally in English too. Then I had to talk to my European colleagues on phone with no interpreter. Then I watched anime with English subtitles because Russian were either unavailable or, again, ridiculously awful. So, yeah, I had to pick some English skills on the way.

Other languages are different. Like most programmers, I’m very lazy. I’d rather make my computer do my work for me, but, naturally, it can’t learn languages for me, and even if it could, it wouldn’t help me either. So… my usual way of learning a language is to find some learning material, ponder over it for a few minutes (or hours, if I feel really stubborn) and then just forget about that particular language for half a year or so. Naturally, it doesn’t work very well.

But… even when things are that way with German, French and Irish, they are just a little bit better with Japanese and Hebrew. Hebrew aside for the moment, I’d like to say a few things about Japanese.

In case you didn’t know, Japanese has two writing systems: kana and kanji. Kana is divided into two subsystems again: hiragana and katakana. Kana is a phonetic system with pretty much one-to-one correspondence between syllables and characters. There are few exceptions, but they are pretty well-defined too. Note that I say “syllables”, not “sounds”. That’s because Japanese doesn’t have separate sounds, so even if you really wanted, you couldn’t make up a word like the famous Russian “взбзднуть”, which roughly reads as “vzbzdnut’”. That’s right, six consonants at the beginning (and as far as I know, some Slavic languages even have words with no vowels at all). In Japanese you only have syllables that sound like consonant-vowel or just a vowel. And there’s also “n/m”, which is a separate syllable that is pronounced as “n” in most contexts and as “m” in the few remaining. This feature of Japanese language makes it sound very beautiful. It also makes it rather hard to adapt loanwords to it (lack of certain sounds doesn’t help either). Now you know why “the world” sounds like “za waarudo”. It goes like this:

  • Change ”th” to “z” because it’s the closest sound.
  • Change “e” to “a” because it doesn’t sound in English like “e” at all, and “a” is again the closest sound.
  • Change “or” to “a” for the same reason. Japanese does have long vowels, though, hence the “aa”.
  • There is no “L”, but Japanese “r” sounds very much like it. But there are no separate vowels, so it turns into “ru”. That’s because the “u” sound is considered the least noticeable vowel (sometimes it isn’t pronounced at all).
  • There is the “d” sound, but, alas, the syllable “du” sounds more like “zu”. That’s why “o” is used as the extra vowel here instead of “u”.

In case you wonder, hiragana and katakana differ only in their appearance, pretty much like printed letters differ from written ones. Hiragana is mostly used for regular writing (mixed with kanji), and katakana is typically reserved for loanwords and design purposes (banners, ads and so on).

And now we’re getting to my favorite part. Kanji. They are originally Chinese, and most of them still look identically to their original counterparts (I know of only one exception). They typically have several different readings, mostly grouped in two groups: original Chinese pronunciation, adapted to Japanese, and Japanese pronunciation, corresponding to the same word in Japanese like it was before there were any kanji at all. That’s why 道 can be pronounced as “dou” (read as “door” because “u” after “o” makes it long) or “michi”. To make things even worse, kanji in names often have totally different readings, which makes it next to impossible to read a Japanese name unless it comes with hiragana transcription known as furigana.

But that was the bad part. The good one is that, unlike most other languages in the world (except Chinese, naturally), Japanese words actually do make sense. Think about it. Does the word “two” make any sense to you? Why “two”? In Russian it’s “два”, which suggests a common origin. Without doing an etymological research, we can hardly say what that origin is. But even if we know it, we still can’t answer the basic question: why on earth does it sound like that? Why not “boom” or “swin”? Surely such a common word must be short, but there is no saying why it should sound or be written this way or that way. In Japanese, there is no reason why the word sounds like it does, but there is a good reason why it should be written like this:

It shouldn’t surprise you much that one, two, three are written as 一、ニ、三. Of course, things are not always that simple. For example, I have no idea why four is written as 四. There is certainly an etymological reason, but who needs one when you can clearly see two strokes in a square, and two squared is certainly four! So unlike Western languages, which lose original word meanings over time, kanji actually gain new meanings, and it’s up to your imagination how many explanations you can find.

It gets even better. Most kanji are actually composed of elements, and every element has its own meaning. There are just a couple hundred elements, as compared to about two thousand kanji in Japanese alone (much more in Chinese).

It makes learning Japanese (well, the kanji part at least) a very unusual thing. Instead of the usual cramming, you may ponder a lot over every character, trying to find new meanings behind it and see its internal beauty. There are many works already done on this topic, for example Henshall mnemonics or a very good book in Russian by Adyl Talyshkhanov. But there’s one thing about them: you gain much more by doing the same work yourself than by reading explanations written by someone else. And even if you do, it’s better to rediscover meanings again and again, rather than write them down once and refer to them each time. I’ve written down a lot of them (in Russian), but hardly remember any. For example, I encountered this word recently:

超能力

The characters correspond roughly to “super”, “ability” and “strength”. The most literal (and pretty appropriate) translation would be “superpower”, as in ESP and all that kind of stuff.

I have no problems whatsoever remembering the 力 part. It’s purely graphical: just imagine a strong man bending his arm to show off his muscles. However, the first two characters often leave me puzzled.

Let’s take 能 for example. It consists of 厶 (I, myself), 月 (month, moon, but Talyshkhanov sometimes refers to it as “meat”) and two of 匕 (which my dictionary lists as “spoon”, but it looks very much like a sitting person as well). Now, Talyshkhanov explains this riddle as “some people have the ability to see plain meat in this kanji, others have the skill to see a romantic crescent moon”. Ability, skill, talent—these are the meanings of this kanji. I don’t like that explanation much, and not just because it lacks “myself”—it can be easily reworded along the lines of “I may have the ability to see a moon here, but those people are just sitting there seeing nothing more than just meat”. But it just doesn’t click either way.

But I seem to have difficulty trying to find other explanations. The good part is, the more difficulty you have, the more time you spend on it, the better you remember it in the end. This process may get very enlightening. Say, forget about sitting people and remember the original “spoon” meaning. Now I can say that I have the ability to eat the Moon with two spoons. This is ridiculous enough to easily remember, but isn’t much enlightening. Or I could think how I worked for a whole month with two spoons to develop some ability. Or maybe I worked on my abilities so hard that I only ate two spoons in a whole month. Repeat that until just looking at this character makes you think of various abilities, even if it takes you spoon-feeding yourself with such nonsense for a whole month.

The first character, 超, is even more ridiculous. It consists of 土 (soil, earth, ground), something that isn’t considered a separate element, but looks suspiciously like a shoe or like a road from the 道 kanji, and then there are 刀 (sword) and 口 (mouth). If that is of any help, the ground combined with the “shoe” makes 走 (to run), and the sword combined with the mouth makes 召, which has ridiculously many meanings, such as seduce, call, send for, wear, put on, ride in, buy, eat, drink and even catch cold. For a laugh, try to imagine how you would do all that things with a sword and a mouth, like seducing someone with your mouth, holding a sword in your hand to make sure that your words come through.

That, however, doesn’t help us understand why 超 stands for transcend or super. Of course, one may think that running is walking super-fast and putting a sword in your mouth transcends all boundaries of reasonable, but it still lacks something. It’s a bit more reasonable to imagine a samurai with a sword, running and shouting something. Such a picture certainly suggests that he transcended a certain level of samurai-ness.

The whole word put together leads us to thinking of a strong superman with a sword running on the ground in moonlight, holding a couple of spoons in his mouth, because apparently it’s his special skill, or something like that.