Thursday, May 23, 2013

Japan Blog Matsuri: It's all about context

Holy shinola, it's been a while since I've posted. There's a backlog of things I've been meaning to share, but I fear that time has gotten away from me. I've gotten quite a bit busier and posting regularly seems to have fallen by the wayside. These things happen, but I do need to redouble my efforts. Anyhow, moving on - it's also been a while since the last Japan Blog Matsuri. I was contacted last month by Declan of KanaKanji, who's making a move to revive it, and asked if JADJ would submit something. Well, we always do our best here to oblige.

The theme of this month's Matsuri is "Japanese in Context." Specifically I think we're asked to talk about some Japanese that was really solidified for us in a particular context. I'm doing to stretch the theme a little bit, though (申し訳ない!) and talk a bit more broadly.

If you're reading this, chances are you either know first hand or have heard that Japan has a pretty high context culture. This is built into the language. The grammar, conversational style, and vocabulary lend themselves towards subtly and indirectness. This means that without a context, it is extremely difficult if not impossible to understand precisely what's going on in Japanese (written and spoken elements with their own respective challenges). Japanese nouns and verbs normally have no distinction between singular and plural forms. Last names are often used without any kind of gender-indicative title. Subjects and objects are often implied. Take a simple sentence like 「りんごを食べる」. This could presumably be translated into English as "He/she/you/I/it (will) eat(s) (an/the) apple(s)." There are probably dozens of possible meanings for this simple two-word sentence, depending on who the subject is, whether we're talking about now or in the future (or in general), how many apples we're talking about, and whether the apple(s) in question is specific or not.

I've been thinking about this kind of thing a lot lately as I contemplate the practicality of shifting my career goals towards pursuing professional translation.

A good example of the import of context (and this is uniform for any language) can be found in the case of homophones (同音異義語). Three or four weeks ago I started taking another weekly Japanese class, and we've been briefly studying a few of these every class. Just as a refresher, homophones are multiple words that share the same pronunciation but differ in meaning and sometimes spelling. Like "fair" and "fare."

Japanese has a fair share of these that usually have different kanji and sometimes slightly different intonation. Hashi - 橋 (bridge) and 箸 (chopsticks) springs to mind. When you add 熟語 (kanji compounds), there are quite a lot of these. I think this is one of the more difficult but also more interesting elements of learning Japanese - seeing all of the ways that kanji can be cobbled together to create new words. Well, it is for me, anyway.

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