Saturday, May 14, 2011

Culture Hidding In Language

It is said that Japanese is an isolated language. In the past it has refused to mix up with other languages, just like the Japanese people did (Japan was closed off to the world from 1639 to 1853).

Obviously, the language represents our culture. Because of this, Japanese people are said to be conservative, just like their language. Today I’d like to talk about languages and culture.

Japanese contains various phrases concerning the seasons, climate and nature. As we were originally agricultural people, the climate has always been important to us. For instance, there are over 10 different ways to describe rain in the different seasons and we have a wide choice of words when describing wind. Another linguistic example of this climate use involves Haiku. Haiku is a fixed verse form of seventeen syllables arranged in a five-seven-five pattern. A feature of Haiku is the inclusion of a "season word," referring to an animal, plant, event or custom of the season. The importance of seasons and climate has been inherited from the past; it has blended into the language. It’s the same for other languages too. We can easily find out what people are interested in by looking at the language they speak. Mongolian has a huge amount of vocabulary concerning animals, whereas French is the best for describing food in detail.

Apart from the language, and this is more of a cultural thing, many Japanese national holidays are related to seasons or climate: Spring Equinox Day (March), Greenery Day (April), the day of the sea (July), Autumnal Equinox Day (September) etc. In contrast, I have heard that national holidays in the US are more related to people: Martin Luther King Jr's Birthday (January), Washington's Birthday (February) and Christmas Day (December) for example.

One more thing…if you want to be polite, Japanese is the best choice for you. I found this out while translating English into Japanese, especially it seems, when it comes to refusing offers or cancelling something (in formal situations). It really represents our culture. One line of English is equivalent to three lines of Japanese. And this includes saying sorry twice and in two different ways. We don’t often just say “No”, but write it indirectly. One might become impatient, but that’s the way things work in Japan.

By the way, talking about Japanese and how unique it is: it doesn’t have any clear language ancestors, it has no connection with other languages, it’s written in 3 kinds of characters, most Kanji words have at least 2 different pronunciations, there are lots of homonyms, it can be written vertically etc….. In many cases, it’s Kanji which keeps people away from learning Japanese. It’s hard even for us! That’s why a Kanji test is included in the entrance exams for university and even for jobs. Don’t worry; you are not the only one! We don’t understand it either! Kanji is not just a pain in the neck though. Take a look at the illustrious linguistic history it has, what each radical means, how the meaning changes according to conjugational ending in Hiragana added to Kanji. It’s deep and interesting.

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