Saturday, January 8, 2011

Some linguistic observations

Justin and I have hit the ground running here... or rather, running, in my case, and staggering, in Justin's, as he's been hit with a walloping head cold/sinus flu. In fact, yesterday (Friday), Justin took the first sick day taken by either one of us in two and a half years of teaching. After sleeping perhaps eighteen of twenty-four hours yesterday, he's feeling improved, but not quite himself again yet.

The only photographs we've taken since we got back were of our broken dryer, so I don't have anything to show you. Instead, I thought I'd write a bit about our observations of language.

Justin and I learned in Korea than even a rudimentary understanding of a student's L1, or native language, can make a universe of difference when it comes to helping those students write in English. In Korean, for instance, it is grammatically correct to have a sentence without a subject, and many Korean adjectives are actually technically verbs (as in, "Expensive-ing red-ing shirt." Yeah. Is it any wonder we never learned Korean?)

I had a Japanese cultural/linguistic moment yesterday while helping a student reduce his word count yesterday. In English, wordiness is taught in middle school as a writing flaw to be avoided alongside run-ons. I have always thought of it as a courtesy to the reader: don't waste his or her time by flitting around your point, and don't make him or her do the work of deciphering your meaning. Say it with the three Cs - clearly, correctly, and concisely - and then move on to your next point. This goes double for writing which is supposed to be authoritative: "The airplane customer would please consider wearing the seatbelt in a rather tight fashion to ensure both comfort and safety" is a laughable over-articulation of "Fasten Seatbelt Please."

But while talking to my student, we realized that the issue is that in Japanese, wordiness, or indirectness in other forms, is not only correct but more polite. Remember our adventures with the Asian No? Similar idea. I suggested reducing many of his adverbs, as well - as Strunk and White said, "Rather, very, little, pretty—these are the leeches that infest the pond of prose, sucking the blood of words." But according to my student, adjectives and adverbs are critical to socially correct Japanese writing. It would be impolite to your readers to be too direct. My fake sentence above about seat belts is actually exactly the sort of thing you'd hear from a Japanese flight attendant - anything else would be rude.

Another curious language quirk: the conflation of syllables with independently meaningful words. Although Japanese, Chinese, and Korean are of course very different languages, they share common roots in Ye Olde Chinese, much as Portuguese and Romanian both came out Latin. The Japanese use kanji, or Chinese characters, for many nouns, and Korean, although written in the indigenous alphabet (hangul) these days, is based in Chinese characters as well (Chinese characters in Korean are called "hanja").

So many East Asian nouns as similar to each other, and very much like English compound words.

English: biology: bio (life) + logy (study of) = study of life
Chinese: shengwuxue: sheng (growth) + wu (things) + xue (study) = study of growing things
Korean: saengmoolhak: saeng (growing) + mul (things, substance) + hak (study) = study of growing things
Japanese: seibutsugaku: sei (life) + butsu (things) + gaku (study) = study of living things

And the three Chinese/Korean/Japanese words all share the exact same root characters: 生物學 (although the Koreans write it in Hangul as 생물학 and the Chinese use simplified characters 生物学).

The other important piece of information you need is that just as English speakers abbreviate by taking the first initial of each word (Brigham Young University -> BYU), East Asians abbreviate by taking the first character of a long phrase (Beijing Daxue, or Beijing University -> Beida.)

Going back to the "biology" example, this works because the English word is a genuine compound word. It's when the English word is not actually a compound that things start to break down. A great example is the word "sandwich." Although it's a fun pun for second graders, the word "sand" plus the word "witch" actually have nothing to do with two slices of bread with meat in between.

This leads to one of our favorite Engrishisms: the use of the word "sand" to stand in as the abbreviation for "sandwich." I just purchased a waffle iron which doubles as a sandwich grill. The box informs me proudly in English that I have just purchased a "HOT SAND MAKER." There was a coffee shop in Korea which sold sandwiches and espresso. Using the same logic that turns "Beijing Daxue" into "Beida," clearly "Sandwich + Espresso" became "Sandpresso." Completely ludicrous to a native English speaker, yet surprisingly logical with a bit of insider knowledge!

1 comment:

  1. Nice! Especially your first observation about politeness and long, indirect sentences reminds me of a lot of the stuff current Drum Major Elliot Eaton was writing over his most recent summer in Japan. He's been studying the language for 4+ years and it still manages to blow his mind in those cultural differences aspects.

    Here's a couple posts you might find interesting: