I think I'm learning Japanese

Tue, Jan 9, 2018

A moment ago my phone sent me an alert to tell me that it was time to revise my Japanese. The app, LingoDeer, thinks I could do with practising my Katakana - and it’s not allowing me to move on with my vocabulary until it’s satisfied with my progress. The slightly dispiritng progress tracker tells me I’m 1.1% through the training.

Last year I went to Japan to kick off a software project that will be rolled-out around the world. I’d never visited Japan before and though I was working most of the time I had a few days to myself to explore Tokyo a little - and I was taken out to some excellent Japanese restaurants too (only two nations have won Unesco world Heritage Status for their cuisines – France and Japan – and having just returned from a trip to Paris for the first time in over a decade I can report that Japanese food beats French easily).

So I’m returning to Japan, this time for a holiday, and this time with my partner, Helen. And as with our trip to China a few years back, when I learned some Mandarin, I thought I’d try to learn some Japanese.

Early Summer Rain at the Sanno Shrine, 1919. Hasui Kawase

Early Summer Rain at the Sanno Shrine, 1919. Hasui Kawase

Now: Japanese has some odd features, for a westerner. No plurals? Different grammatical construction for women and girls, called onnarashii (女らしい)? And then:

The system of honorifics in Japan is very extensive, including various levels of respectful, humble, and polite speech, and it closely resembles the honorific systems of the Korean language and, in some elements, Chinese. It includes both special vocabulary and special grammatical forms.

And to top it all, Japanese has three different writing systems - hirigana, katakana, and kanji, and all of them can be used in the same single word. The first two have around 70 different symbols if you count diacritics and there are about 50,000 kanji.

The chance of making much headway before the summer is slight. But it’s interesting. For example, if you think the haiku verse form has a total of 17 syllables, in the form 5,7,5 then … not quite.

Japanese is a language based on morae rather than syllables - and it’s these the Japanese count in haiku. Morae are units of phonology that determine weight / stress / timing (not really stress in Japanese, I think).

For example, the city of Ōsaka (o-o-sa-ka おおさか) has four morae though we’d say it had three syllables. For a haiku, though, Ōsaka would count as four.

Complicated but interesting.


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