Relating Your Japanese Back to English


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Learning a foreign language inevitably gives you a new perspective on your own language. I became aware of some new things about English when I learned German a while back, and learning Japanese has added new observations. Although some of the other chapters also cover the relation between English and Japanese, in this one I want to make some more explicit statements.

Totally Ridiculous English Verb Forms

In particular, studying Japanese has given me a new appreciation of verb forms. I find myself paying more attention to conjugations and tense usage, even in English. And I've thought of a few very strange verb forms that must drive foreigners bats.

"If the sky that we look upon should tumble and fall, or the mountain should crumble to the sea..."

What? What a strange way to use "should"! The explanation turns out to be that "should" in this case is a subjunctive form (of the verb "shall"). The subjunctive often ends up looking like the past tense, but can in fact be used for uncertainty, to bring up a fictional condition ("If I were a millionaire"), and to be polite (see below). Native English speakers just aren't so aware of this tense because we know the grammar intuitively.

I got some helpful email about this: "This might not really explain where it came from, but Latin has what is called a 'historical present,' meaning they used the present tense for past actions in order to make the reader feel like they are in the story. A very prominent example of this use is almost all of Caesar's Gallic commentarii. These 'historcal present' verbs are usually translated into the past tense in English." I claim no wisdom about whether this is a related phenomenon, but I'll throw it out as a possibility.

Again, the explanation comes down to that subjunctive case. It can be used to soften language, and it looks like the past tense. Must be tough for non-native speakers.

But what about negative questions? For everyone except ourselves, this is straightforward. We say "isn't she?" ("yes, she is") and "aren't you?" ("yes, you are"). By the same logic, we should say, "am't I?"

But we don't say "am't." We say "aren't I?" I suppose the grammatically correct answer would be "Yes, I are." (Weird, huh?)

[Once again, the voices of the web have provided some insight. I have gotten several emails informing me that the perfectly acceptable contraction of "am I not" used to be "ain't." However, some dialects started using "ain't" as a contraction for all sorts of things, like "is not" and "have not." This came to be regarded as rural and low-brow, which led to the abandonment of "ain't" altogether in mainstream English. Oops, then there was no contraction for "am I not"! So people invented "aren't." At first, this sounded weird, but at least it didn't sound low-brow (according to thinking at the time). Over time, it came to be normal.]

How to Speak to Japanese People in English

OK, so you know the basics of Japanese. Guess what? You can use this knowledge to make yourself more comprehensible when you speak to Japanese people in English. Because of the grammatical structure of Japanese, some things in English are going to be hard for them to understand -- just like some weird Japanese constructions are hard for Westerners to understand. Here are some suggestions for speaking comprehensible English:

This is just way too confusing for everyone involved. Do not ask negative questions to Japanese people in English. Don't say, "It's getting late-- aren't you going to that movie?" or "Didn't you say you were from Hokkaido?"

Particularly bad are sets of embedded relative clauses. For instance, "I thought that the book he was reading, which looked long and dense, was probably for the new law class he is taking."

More generally, try to avoid putting long qualifiers after the main idea in a sentence. Japanese sentence construction always places the independent clause at the end, as the final clause. In English, we have the freedom to put the independent clause in other locations, which can be confusing for Japanese people. So after you've said the main idea, don't add a bunch of other stuff. This would be a bad sentence: "Yesterday I bought my sister this camera-- which turned out to be a bad idea after I realized my mom had already bought one because her birthday is coming up next week." (This sentence has other problems too, like the excessive use of pronouns. Remember that pronouns are a lot less common in Japanese. Try to avoid pronouns that don't have really obvious references).

I had originally thought that long "or" constructions did not exist in common Japanese usage. (It boggles my mind that Japanese does not have an "or" concept that applies universally to nouns, verbs, and adjectives, but it's true). However, I later learned that such constructions are indeed common (... desu ka, soretomo ... desu ka). So I guess the problem with long "or" constructions is that they are simply too long. They fall in the category mentioned above where you have crammed too much information into the sentence, so the person cannot parse it all.

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