Monday, March 16, 2009

Japanese as a distant language?

We all make mistakes, big and small. I know I do. So I usually do not criticise others for trivial mistakes. Not that I am particularly magnanimous; it is simply that, hey, life is short, let's look for good rather than bad.

So I am not lamenting nor ranting when I say I often come across strange things about the Japanese language written by, of all people, professional linguists. They baffle me. I will give you just a few examples.

While discussing Japanese classifiers on page 70 of Concise encyclopedia of grammatical categories, Craig gives the following:

empitsu ni-hon 'two (long) pencils'
inu no-hiki 'two (animal) dogs'
no' chiyo 'the (animal) chicken'
ixim wah 'the (corn) tortilla'

All these are labelled 'Japanese', which happens to be my mother tongue; yet I have difficulties. The first one is fine. The second contains a simple mistake: 'no-hiki' should read 'ni-hiki'. But I simply cannot make out what the third and fourth examples are. Maybe they are some esoteric expressions that I know nothing about - or something has gone awfully wrong (perhaps these two are from some other language).

An introduction to language and linguistics, edited by Fasold & Conner-Linton (2006), is a fine textbook, but apparently the editors did not have enough time to check certain simple facts. On page 29, you have the following warning:

In Tokyo, you want to be careful to order [bi:ru] 'a beer' rather than [biru] 'a building,' and to ask directions to a certain [tori] 'street,' rather than a [to:ri] 'gate' or [to:ri:] 'bird.'

Alas, they will still be lost in Tokyo, ordering some fried gates or grilled streets in a restaurant. The correct combinations, if you care, are: [to:ri] - street, [tori:] - gate, and [tori] - bird. To my knowledge there is no such word as [to:ri:] in Japanese, except perhaps for phonetic translation for 'Tory'.

Incidentally, the same textbook (on page 410) gives a Japanese sentence meaning 'The boy who hit the dog is my brother' - but wait. The Japanese sentence says 'The boy who hit against [i.e. whose (entire) body hit] the dog is (my) brother'. Small difference on paper, big difference in the real physical world.

Even Pinker sometimes nods. In his wonderfully entertaining The stuff of thought, he gives bakatara as a Japanese word meaning 'stupid' (on p.336 of the Penguin edition); the correct word is bakatare. Yes, it's just a single small letter - a tiny letter that distinguishes, say, fad and fed ('The dog has just been fad'? hmm ...)

I will readily admit that language professionals are usually careful, indeed skilled, in dealing with foreign languages (in fact, they are the ones who get my Japanese name right every time, while banks, shops and other institutions get it wrong). George Lakoff discusses the Japanese classifiers in his Women, fire and dangerous things with admirable accuracy; yes, he checked with a Japanese speaking person (whom he thanks in the Acknowledgments). All it takes is just a little time and care.

But then, that's the hardest thing to do - especially when what you are dealing with is something as distant as the Japanese language - or, in my case, something as distant as the English language. That's why it takes me so long to translate - oops, time to get back to work. I have some translation to do, a distant trip. I'll get all trippy.


Anonymous said...

I'm looking at those examples, and I am somewhat reminded of very badly transcribed Nahuatl.

Brett said...

How could anyone mistake "Q Higuchi"? :-)

Q Higuchi said...

Hi Circeus,
Having done a quick Google search, I guess that may be right - unless it isn't. I can't be sure at all ...

Hi Brett,

Well, things happen when I use the official version of my name (Hisashi Higuchi): the rhyming instinct shared by many English speakers often yields Hisachi Higuchi, and the equally common inclination for vowel harmony gives rise to Hasashi Huguchi and other creative forms. I've had trouble with bank statements and stuff. Which is precisely why I have adopted Q (based on the Chinese-derived reading of δΉ… (Hisashi)).