Thursday, November 10, 2005


Last night, after doing about 4 hours of hinshi bunkai, I fell asleep and dreamed that I was in an amusement park themed on classical Japanese language. To get around the park, you had to travel on subway trains through sentences. You started at the end of the sentence, and to navigate through you had to know, say, whether the adverb you were currently in should be preceded by a mizenkei or a renyoukei, and if you were right the train would move accordingly.

I never made it up off the trains to check out the park.


Azuma said...

Considering the quiet marathon that is the classical Japanese sentence, that's some roller coaster. I admire your perserverance, though. Learning Classical Japanese without much modern is

For example, the substantial usage of 連体形. Like, "美しき死にたり”、”the beautiful one has died"、or, "死にたる美しい", "the one who died is beautiful", is totally derivable from modern patterns. Nowadays, they'd feel obligated to explicitly nominalize with a の, or a もの, but the idea is the same, the way of phrasing things.

amida said...

The thing about Classical Japanese is, I think it actually makes more sense than modern Japanese--it's just you have to know how the complex system works in order to parse it correctly. Things that people would know intuitively gradually came to be omitted, leaving things less clear to the outsider but easier to manage for "natives." I kind of enjoy the fact that the nominalization is in the grammatical form in the example you mentioned. I actually enjoy grammar, and I got a close look at it while teaching English and Chinese, not to mention learning Chinese and Japanese. I like how in the Pillow Book a rentaikei is often used with an omitted nominalizer to make phrases-- "naninanitaru ito okashi."

Maybe I am being too modest about my modern Japanese ability. If I didn't have Chinese to compare it to, I would probably be pretty happy with it. I can carry on a basic conversation, and even a pretty decent conversation if the other person is patient and willing to write out the occasional Kanji for me. I can read simple stuff like Tensei Jingo easily, and Murakami Haruki and academic papers with recourse to a dictionary. I can follow the spoken Japanese used in class. It's a lot of work, but it's not like I am going in without knowing how to say "konnichiwa."

Azuma said...

Forgive me, friend--I took you far too literally about your Japanese. If you can read Murakami, you're about ten years ahead of almost every JET I've ever met, and some of them have been here for three years. Don't be so modest!

I have to say, though, out of the wildly statistically insignificant number of people with whom I've discussed Classical Japanese, you must be the first to find the modern language LESS explicit than its more refined forebear. True that in conversational Japanese a lot of the particles tend to drop out and a lot is left implied, but compared to kobun, it feels so clear. Atleast I think the Japanese feel this way. In the high school teaching of it, a lot of effort seems to be devoted towards explicating in context the meaning of say "mu" which independently can have like six meanings. Though my perspective isn't too objective in this, I'll admit.

amida said...

By the way, I mention those things not to show off but because those are the things I have taken upon myself to try to read. Knowing the kanji from Chinese has been a big head start, of course, but it's almost a hindrance to oral communication. You want to use a bunch of $5 words all the time. Maybe I am like a Japanese person who's learned French and is now struggling with English, asking "What is your appellation?" I am sure I can read a lot more than those JET guys, but I am sure they could talk circles around me down at the Hub on a Saturday night. I was in Japan for more than two years but just never got to where I wanted to be with Japanese, so that's where the modesty comes in. Let's just say I would have a pretty good chance to pass level two of the nouryoku shiken, but I wouldn't be a shoo-in, and of course some sections would be harder than others.

Classical vs. modern-- maybe it depends on what your learning style is. I am terribe at memorizing things, so I avoid doing so if at all possible. I'd much rather learn a pattern or a system and see how things fit into it. I failed music theory in college because the instructor was always saying things like "The fifth always wants to resolve to the tonic," and I thought "It doesn't want to do anything, it's a sound!" Learning classical Japanese is a bit like learning why that tone wants to resolve to the fifth. You get to see why there is a chiisai tsu it a word like matte. Things like that. Other people have no interest in patterns and focus on gathering data. Like that big book that has all the conjugations for hundreds of Japanese verbs-- wouldn't it be easier to just memorize the two patterns that cover them all? Some people would say no, I guess.

It's interesting you mention about Japanese people trying to figure out which sense of "mu" is being used. For me, it's the same thing figuring out how something like "darou" or "~n ja nai" is used in modern Japanese. It's not that one is intrinsically more difficult, it's whatever you're used to. I try to think of that as an actual advantage we as foreigners have in learning kobun. It's also how I psyche myself up to read ancient texts-- it's just a foreign language, even if it happens to be more than 1000 years old!

Azuma said...

Are you kidding? Show off. There has to be some reward for the blood price of all those kanji and tones and conjugations.

And unless my prefecture is just some blot on the map of JETdom, you seriously overestimate the conversational abilities of most JETs (I wonder if Matt found it any different in his area). Heck, someone who failed sankyuu on the nouryokushiken gave the last talk on "How to Study Japanese" that I heard at one of those awful meetings, so there you have it.

I know exactly what you mean about those five dollar words. When I first got here and still spoke better Chinese than Japanese, I devoted a lot of time trying to grasp the formulas for translating the Chinese pronunciations of characters to their Japanese readings, figuring I could cheat and increase my vocabulary tenfold thereby. I even still have the huge excel file I made for that, somewhere. In the end, as you say, it didn't work quite that way. By the time I knew enough when to use those words, it was already easier to remember the Japanese readings, sigh.

Funny though--through all of it, even when Chinese was ascendant, I still thought of them as "kanji", not "hanzi".

Matt said...

I try not to get snobby about it, since a lot of JETs just came here for a year of cultural exchange and would rather spend their time doing diverse stuff they can't do elsewhere, like tea ceremony, hiking in Hokkaido, etc., than brute-forcing their first Murakami novel because it's an investment in living here long-term (and also I just like books more than hiking)... I haven't gone to Hiroshima or seen the golden pavilion yet, they haven't read Dazai Osamu yet. We're even.

Even having said that there were a non-negligible minority who could speak Japanese perfectly well, some who could read better than me I suspect (looking at you, R., if you ever read this) and almost everyone could at least order food and talk about names and hobbies (and phone numbers). We were a big, populous prefecture, though.

amida said...

Matt has a point. I tend to forget that not everyone is a language nerd like myself who would get excited about learning a language just for the sake of it and not just utilitarian purposes like getting around in the country you live in.

But that said, the two go together so well. Hardware and software. It was so great to be in Kyoto and read Genji (albeit in translation) when I was just a stone's throw from places mentioned in it (I lived right off Sanjo). Or checking out writings by Dogen while being just around the corner from Kenninji. Things like that inspired me to learn more. Like I said, I like to learn the underlying systems, and I felt like that sort of stuff would give me an idea about what Japan was.

By the way, Matt-- Kinkakuji is overrated. Check out Kenninji if you go to Kyoto. You'll most likely have the rock garden all to yourself.

amida said...

And by the way, what are you guys doing on JET? I am sure with your skills you could get a nice Monbusho scholarship to study something.

Azuma said...

First, I agree with Amida on Kennin-ji. It was the only peace and quiet I got when I went along with the third years for the Kyoto trip this year. (Reading Genji in Kyoto!)

Matt, you're very right about the reasons most JETs come here, certainly. And, like you, I haven't done nearly as much travelling as a lot of my fellows. All the power to them.
On my part, the feeling is wistful rather than snobby. Our non-negligible minority amounts to only about a handful here. I wonder why the difference?

Matt said...

I don't know about Azuma, but when I first arrived here I was still struggling through Takahashi Rumiko manga. Definitely not Monbusho material! And now I have a job I enjoy, so...

I think that the JET screening process itself tends to cut out a lot of the language obsessives. (I almost didn't get in myself -- they called me up when somebody cancelled.) From their point of view, their goal is to find cheerful, outgoing, talkative non-Japanese people -- it makes sense that they'd favor extroverted travellers and new-experience seekers over quiet bookworms.