Archive for the ‘Japanese Language’ Category

There’s a lesson in everything, however small. Recent events have resulted in some additions to my Japanese vocabulary.
The word for earthquake – jishin (地震) is in the vocabulary of every resident of Japan. Of late, we have more specifically:

東北大震災 – Tohoku Daishinsai, literally: Tohoku (Northeast) big quake disaster.

This is short for the technical term, which is

東北地方太平洋沖地震 – Tōhoku Chihō Taiheiyō-oki Jishin, literally Northeast region Pacific Ocean offshore earthquake.

For obvious reasons, we have also a heightened interest in words such as

原子炉 – genshiro, nuclear reactor
原子力発電所 – genshiryoku-hatsudensho, nuclear power plant
which is often shortened to
原発 – genpatsu.

Daiichi (第一) btw, means simply “number one”. And since we’re at it, Fukushima (福島) translates as “island of good fortune”, not a case of “nomen est omen”, it seems.

As a consequence of the above, we also learn

節電 – setsuden, electricity saving.


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All my Syllables

The Japanese language contains relatively few sounds. In general it is made up of syllables containing a consonant and a vowel. Several consonants in a row do not exists, and words can’t end in consonants, either, with the exception of the n.
The sounds r and l are conceptually felt to be the same. The Japanese will genrally choose the pronunciation “r”, while Chinese would go for “l”. Also n+consonant and m+consonant are felt to be very close. “Si” and “shi” are the same as well.
Two syllabic writing systems exist, Hiragana and Katakana, which contain all the sounds that appear in the Japanese language. Some syllables come in all flavors, say “ka, ki, ku, ke, ko”. Not so with the letter “t” for example. Here, the syllables go “ta, chi, tsu, te, to”.

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Now, we’ve been in Japan for two months. We’ve had rather intensive Japanese classes, and they start to pay off a little. But we are still far from being able to communicate. What made a big difference was being able to read Hiragana and Katakana. Especially Katakana is useful, as all foreign words are written with those. Many brand names, too, so it is useful when shopping. Buttons on electric appliances are often in Katakana. Also with the Kanji it is going better. I can recognize the most common characters (say, I can tell milk from soy milk), the days of the week, the names of train and subway stops we see most, etc. In general, we learned quite well to extract information from something written in Japanese. Say you get a bill. You first look for the numbers. Dates you can recognize easily. Or numbers in addresses. You see that it’s your gas bill, because gas is spelled in Katakana. You see for which period it is and when it is due. By looking for a number before m^3, you even figure out how much gas you used. And the meaning of the number before the Yen sign is also quite clear….

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“Two, please”

In most languages, you can, once you learned the numbers up to ten and the word “please”, start doing your shopping without looking too bad. You just point at something and say “Two, please”. Unfortunately, this does not work in Japan. For each class of objects, you have to use the specific counter word. This adds a lot of difficulty, to the point that (so I am told) not even native speakers get it always right.
The concept is best illustrated by examples like sheets of paper. You can’t say “two papers, please”, but must say “two sheets of paper”. Like you say slices of bread, or “a table for two persons“. Only, in Japanese, a counter comes with every noun. You end up saying things like “hamsters, two-small-animals, please”, simply meaning “two hamsters, please”, or “pencil, one-long-thin-object, please”. Or you would say it, had you managed to memorize all of this. Say you learned the word for “two”, ni. But this doesn’t get you far. Two people are futari, two small animals nihiki, while for mechanical devices and household appliances you would say nidai, etc. Should you want to count more extravagant objects like, say, suits of armor, you can refer to the following extensive list.

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Praise taste period limit

I already complained about being illiterate here. This, on the other hand means I am very motivated to learn to read, which, unfortunately, is not an easy task.
In Japan, three writing systems coexist:

  1. Hiragana, which is syllabic and is used mainly for grammatical inflections and particles.
  2. Katakana, which is also syllabic and is used for all non-Japanese words.
  3. Kanji. These are Chinese characters and make up the majority of written text.


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