The systematic appeal of the Japanese language

December 05, 2017

What feels like a very long time ago now, I spent a couple of years teaching English in Tokyo. While I was there, I got mildly obsessive about studying Japanese. I’d take two or three lessons a week, and would take any opportunity I could to speak the language, venturing out and speaking to anyone who was prepared to speak to me.

Partly I just wanted to put myself in the best possible position to explore my new home, but there was also something about the language itself that I found appealing.

Hiragana and katakana are systematic, logical elements, forming a kind of periodic table of phonetics, a grid of sound combinations enhanced by extra symbols for voiced consonants.

The human brain is good at pattern recognition, and that pattern helps to provide a structure to cling onto as you learn.

Kanji are more of a challenge, a puzzle to be solved or a game to be completed, and the Japanese system of qualifications encourages you to progress through the levels.

Each character has a meaning. Some more complex kanji are composed of smaller characters, inheriting meaning from those components. Put more characters together, and you get a more complex word.

For example, 口 (mouth) joins with 言 (speech) and 五 (five) to form 語 (language).

Meanwhile, 子 (child) joins with 冖 (cover) and 尚 (small) to form 学 (study, learning, science).

Put these two characters together, and you get 語学 (linguistics). There are so many other examples, fitting together like crossword clues that make satisfying sense once you know what they mean.

Like German words, there’s a sense in which these smaller units fit together to form a coherent, more powerful whole, like some kind of linguistic Power Rangers.

By comparison, English is illogical and chaotic, but maybe that’s its strength. It has evolved a richness by absorbing influences from conquerors and conquered, visitors and vanquished. By contrast, outside influence on Japanese was relatively limited for a long time, although it takes a writing system from China, and has more recently been adopting and adapting loan words with enthusiasm.

Robin Dunbar made similar points about Latin, with “its great precision and its systematic structure” as “the perfect counterpoint to English, whose fluidity, lack of structure and enormous vocabulary are its very strengths as a literary language.”

That’s not to say that Japanese is dry and humourless, a Spock among languages. For anyone who delights in wordplay, it holds great treasures, such as a magnificent collection of onomatopoeia, not only for audible phenomena, but also visual and emotional perceptions.

There’s a perception that Japanese is difficult to learn, but I think that the difficulty is overstated, largely due to the number of kanji, and their unfamiliarity to western eyes. At a beginner level, with the help of Roman letters, is it really any more difficult than learning a European language?

Japanese grammar is relatively logical, with no cases, not many irregular verbs, and verb conjugation is fairly simple. Pronunciation is straightforward and consistent, and the use of English loanwords (like biiru and ko-hi-) is prevalent, so if you can get over the mental block of being unable to read, you can get quite far. Besides, as a tourist in Japan, pointing at plastic food will get you a long way.

When you get into the levels of politeness, things get trickier, but isn’t that true of most languages? Japanese may be more formalised in terms of the rules, but is the distinction between taberu and meshiagaru that much harder to grasp than the difference between eat and scoff?

Does this linguistic logicality shape or reflect the society where it evolved? Perhaps a bit of both. Is Japan a more logical, less chaotic place than Britain? In some ways that might be true, although that’s a very broad-brush view, and it would be a mistake to go too far down the road of linguistic determinism.

It’s a shame that these days I don’t make much use of the Japanese that I learned, but I don’t regret spending time learning - I enjoyed it, and I’d like to think that understanding different ways of speaking opened my mind to different ways of thinking.