The Nuances of Learning Japanese

It’s About The Little Things

Some other things in my life have stabilized so I’m going to devote a little time to this blog to put some ideas out.

Nihongo: A Precision Instrument

In Japanese literature, the meanings of Japanese words in their own language are full of precision and nuance.

Each word fills a distinct role. Words are used with great care. Words are employed to present facts, as well as to conceal them.

These roles are well defined even when they extend beyond the literal meaning of a word. The implied, or idiomatic, meaning is well defined as well.

Therefore, Japanese authors are able to know exactly what their words are, and are not, saying.

Let’s take, for instance, gender.

Japanese has gender specific and gender nonspecific ways of referring to people. Japanese references are further divided in ways that separate references to people and references to things.

But that doesn’t mean everyone has to play by the rules, or take them as absolute. Not at all.

Plain but not rude forms of referring in the 3rd person are kare (for males) and kanojo (for females). For those who know a little Japanese, kanojo is used as a word for “girlfriend” as well. Let’s call it a female gender specific version of the English idiom significant other.

The pronoun version can always be differentiated because of the presence of the topic (wa) or subject (ga) particles.

Example: Kare wa Alan.

Example: Kanojo wa Karen.

So where does that leave us for words like koitsu and aitsu?

Koitsu, soitsu and aitsu are slang versions of kono, sono and ano. These identify objects by their physical location relative to the speaker.

Kono is for something right in front of you.

Sono is for something a visible distance from you, but still not far.

Ano is for something significantly removed.

So let’s take for example, oh…

Koitsu wa nan da?!?!

(i.e. What the heck is this thing?!?!)

A question like this punts on the whole issue of gender. The speaker has no idea whether this creature is male or female. Nor, quite likely, does the speaker have any idea what species the creature is supposed to be.

The choice of “koitsu” tells us two things:

  • The encounter is at close range.
  • The speaker is being rude for emphasis.

Incidentally, this is a Mokona, a fictional creature from the shoujo (girl’s) anime Magic Knights Rayearth. (It’s about schoolgirls who get ‘called’ into becoming Magic Knights on a fantasy world to save it at least.)

Let’s try a different version using “are” (pronounced more like “ah-re” with the strength on the “re” part).

Nan nan da yo, are?!?!

(i.e. What the heck is that?!?!)

Now in Japanese, you don’t need two “nan” ‘s to ask a question. This is the “nan” in nanda, nani, etc, 何だ、何、and so on in kanji. (Those with Japanese script enabled will see that it’s the same kanji at least.)

So, properly speaking, “nan nan da yo” isn’t proper Japanese. It’s like a stutter. “Wh… what the heck is that?!?!)

The point is, actual Japanese people will understand that the surplus “nan” is for emphasis, like bolding or italicizing the what part of the sentence. (Due to Japanese grammar, the “nan” part – the “what” – comes at the start of the sentence.)

In an anime, either outburst would be considered comedic levels of impoliteness, likely contrasted with over-politeness by another character.

Nan nan da yo, are?!?!

(What the heck is that thing?!?!)

Maa, kawaii~~

(How cuuuuute…)

…Something like that.

J Sensei

About J Sensei

Blogger, writer, linguist, former Japanese> English translator, rusty in French, experienced in Japanese, fluent English native. Writing for Technorati.com and various blogs. Skype: jeremiah.bourque (messages always welcome). E-mail: jeremiahbourque@gmail.com
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