Japanese is unrelated to languages we Westerners know. Since Japanese is something of a universe unto itself, beginning to learn the language is like learning to drive a beautiful, odd car with the steering wheel on the ceiling, twelve extra pedals, and no speedometer or turn signals. Your ability to back this amazing contraption out of the driveway and put it into gear will make you proud, fascinated, and eager for more.
From All-Japan: The Catalog of Everything Japanese (New York: Quill, 1984), p. 200.
There seems to be a great excitement in mastering Japanese, as is shown in the above quotation. “The Japanese Language–More Powerful Than the Atomic Bomb?” was the title of an unpublished article about the Japanese language written by Professor Emilio Aquinaldo Lanir in 1950. The paper was known among some general semantics people including S.I. Hayakawa, but it had to remain unpublished because it was so controvercial. I happened to read it by courtesy of Allen Walker Read, Professor Emeritus of Columbia University, who was close to the editors of General Semantics Bulletin to which the paper was sent. I read it, and felt his excitement. He was so excited that he did not show where the excitement came from, and I was disappointed that he did not show enough example sentences. But Professor Lanir was unique in valuing the indefinitness of the Japanese sentence, and he said, in line with Korzybski, it goes far toward preventing an identification of words with things, etc. Nobody denies that our perception of the world around us is influenced by the language we use. But, to what degree? Some say that we are conditioned by our language to a much greater degree than we are conscious of. We dissect nature along lines laid down by our native language, said Benjamin Lee Whorf. One extreme interpretation of Whorf’s hypothesis is that speakers of different languages experience the outside world as physically different. But nobody can feel the experience of any others as if standing in their shoes. You can only guess from their outside behavior.
Sometimes people say that Japanese they know are slow to react, or to come to a decision. But how can one react when the situation is not clear? Isn’t this a reflection of different syntax patterns of English and Japanese: S-V-O vs. S-O-V?
Often the verb shows the attitude of the speaker:
- I like (or dislike, love, hate, etc.) such-and-such.
- Watasi wa naninani ga sukida (or kiraida, etc.)
- I such-and-such like (or dislike, love, hate, etc.)
In English the attitude of the speaker is clear almost from the beginning, but in Japanese one has to wait until the sentence comes to the end. Sometimes the description of the object may take a number of words, and the Japanese listener has to be patient, or the speaker him- or herself does not even know how he or she feels until the description of the object is finished. Sometimes I get the impression that the English speaker has a strong preference even before he or she knows the object well enough.
At the end of my stay at Antioch College as a visiting professor, I was invited to a colleague’s home for dinner. When the main course was finished, the hostess asked me about the dessert, “Which do you prefer, xxx or zzz?” It reminded me of the pressure I felt in fast food shops where I had to give, instantly, my preferences for the style of cooking and serving hamburgers, while I really wished that I could compare different ways and menus at my leisure, especially because I was in a new environment. I could not control my accumulated anger from exploding, “How can I answer, because I have never heard of xxx or zzz? Don’t you know that the proof of the pudding is in the eating?” The poor hostess gave me half a portion each of xxx and zzz.
When I visited a friend of mine in California, his childfren were excited because they were going out for dinner. But where to? The children started arguing which food was the best. One preferred Chinese, another Greek, another Italian, and the other Mexican. They argued in the abstract, disregarding which shop served what dishes. They preferred, they had very strong preferences, but about what? They lived more in the subjective world because the syntax forces them to be clear in their attitude at the start of the sentence, while the Japanese live more in the objective world without too much concern about the speaker’s attitude.
There have been more discussions about differences in vocabulary or in writing systems, but we are less aware and yet more conditioned by the background linguistic system. Whorf found that the grammar of each language is not merely a reproducing instrument for voicing ideas, but rather is itself the shaper of ideas, the program guide for the individual’s mental activity, for analysis of impressions, for synthesis of mental stock-in-trade.
It seems to me that the warp and the woof of the Japanese language are the ko-so-a-do system of demonstratives and the sentence pattern with the double subject such as Zoh wa hana ga nagai. They do not seem to get enough attention among westerners learning Japanese.
While the world is divided into two by this(here) and that(there) in English, Japanese divides the world into three by kono(kore, koko), sono(sore, soko), and ano(are, asoko). Most Japanese linguists that ko-so-a has more to do with the idea of territory than the idea of distance as in English this/that contrast. My territory is marked with ko, your territory with so, and a shows neither my nor your territory but somebody else’s. My territory around me is koko, something in my territory is kore and somebody in my territory is kono hito. Do means question: doko is where?; dono and dore are like which? More detailed discussion about ko-so-a is seen in my “Some Untranslatable Aspects of the Japanese Language” (Meta, Vol. 33, No. 1, March 1988). One of the most discussed books in the field of Japanese linguistics in the last few years has been a territorial theory of information, Zyoho no nawabari riron by Kamio Akio (1990).
The greatest secret of the Japanese language may lie in the sentence pattern, Zoh wa hana ga nagai, which is often translated by Japanese learners of English as ‘Elephant is a long nose.’ But normal translation exercises keep away from this very common pattern of the Japanese language perhaps because it will certainly lead to strange English expressions. Japanese linguists these days say that wa shows the topic, but not the subject in the sense of the doer of the act in the sentence.
The function of ga is not quite clear yet. Here are some examples:
- Zoh wa hana ga nagai.
- As for elephant its nose is long.
- Haha wa kono hon wo katte kureta.
- As for (my) mother she bought this book (for me).
- Kono hon wa haha ga katte kureta.
- As for this book (my) mother bought it (for me).
- Nihon wa onsen ga ooi.
- As for Japan there are many hot springs.
- Kinou ha yuki ga hutta.
- As for yesterday snow came down.
This is certainly one of the commonest structures used by native Japanese speakers, and may be the pattern least taught to foreign learners, perhaps because it is so hard to explain that arguments about the function of wa and ga never seem to end among the language experts. But practically, it is not so hard to teach, once the door is found and the steps are made ready. This is how my text book, Japanese Step by Step with Pictures (Tokyo: Taishukan Publishers, 1993) was made, after my experimental teaching at Antioch College in the years 1987-88.
If the sentence is the rail on which trains of thought travel, what different trains run on the Japanese rails and on the Indo-European rails and on other language rails? As for myself, being a native speaker of Japanese, I am really curious to know how our behavior looks from the outside, especially in relation to the structure of Zoh wa hana ga nagai.
Kyoto Journal, No. 29, 1995.