The Listserve: Tid Bits about Japanese

So, I won the Listserve and my mail went live today. The Listserve is a very interesting mailing list. When you subscribe to it, you enter a daily lottery to write a mail to the listserve. Thus it has very varied content and at least for me the mails are rarely uninteresting. I really recommend you to join it.
But here now the content of the mail for you to read, too. The mail is also mirrored here.

Tid Bits about Japanese

You know what is really hard? Cursing in Japanese. There are not a lot
of bad words in Japanese. If you want to insult someone, you do it
completely by using the wrong politeness levels. Japanese has different
levels of politeness built-in and you can measure the social status
between people just by listening to them (and even what their status is
compared to another person they are talking about). So when you want to
insult someone, you use higher status vocabulary for yourself and lower
for the other person. You use different words for “I” and “You” and if
you are Yakuza-style all the words start to end in “eeeee” 😉

Japanese has two syllable-alphabets and uses Chinese characters (Kanji)
as well. Until 2010 the standard set of Kanji to be used in
official documents, newspapers etc (the so-called “daily used
characters”) were 1945. In 2010 they increased that number by 196 new
characters (and removed 5) because all the people are using computers
and cell phones to communicate nowadays, thus writing by hand is not so
important anymore and adding more characters is therefore not that much
of a problem. What reading Japanese makes hard is that one Kanji in Japanese can have
up to 12 ways readings – depending on the word it is used in or which
syllables follow. In Chinese one character has one reading. The reason
is that for one Chinese and Japanese are very different languages with
Chinese being a tonal one and Japanese being a language that isn’t
tonal, thus characters got several usages. In addition there were
several phases words got imported from China and each time another
Chinese dialect was the base for the final Japanese reading. The consequence is that its hard to learn to read Japanese. And when you
need to use paper dictionaries, you use two dictionaries usually. One
character-dictionary and another one which is more like a traditional
one. With experience you get pretty good in guessing the readings, but
its always a lot of searching if the searched combination of characters
isn’t already in the character dictionary.

The origins of Japanese are unclear but it is probably an Altaic
language with relations to Turkish and Mongolian. The language closest
to Japanese is Korean. You can easily translate one language into the
other. What is most interesting is that they are grammatically very
similar but the lexic (the words) is totally different. I.e. the word
“to eat” is “taberu” but “meogda” in Korean. But when you get to words
loan from Chinese, someone who knows Japanese can get a lot of knowing
Kanji (Hanja in Korean) and what the Korean reading for the character
is. Korean also uses only one reading for a Hanja. But nowadays Hanja
are rarely used in Korean. But Korean has with Hangeul the best
“alphabet” ever. It’s easier to learn to read and write than any other
I’ve seen. Thanks to a king in the 15th century who ordered scientists
to develop an alphabet that is easy to learn for increasing alphabetism.
In the past there were times when people tried to get rid of Chinese
characters in Japanese but it never worked out. There was even a daily
newspaper completely in one of the Japanese syllable alphabets. I can
understand why. Japanese is far easier to skim when you have Kanji in
there. Unfortunately it takes some time to recognize this. That’s enough about Japanese. If you want to talk about Japanese, Japan
(especially politics or economics) or old video games (8-/16-bit), drop
me a mail.

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