August 10, 2011

Comprehensive Guide to Japanese Lesson 1: Screw Aisatsu, Is That a Dog?

I'm not going to teach you aisatsu (greetings) with this, the first Japanese lesson of a series that will teach you every last thing about Japanese. Why? Because you will hear that crap a million times a day if you come to Japan or take in their media! Instead, I'm going to teach you some hiragana (syllabic characters) and kanji (ideographic characters) and even characters from one more writing system.

Sample conversation between two people:

Person 2 (In response to something person 1 said earlier):あれ?
That? [points to something which he expects the other party to look to]

Person 1: ん。  。。。。えっ?!木?
Yup. ...What?! [realizes what they are really seeing] A Tree?


I thought it was a dog...

Oh come on!

And thus ends a conversation between two friends about how one mentioned a thing (before we overhear them), the other tried to clarify, then the first person at first just confirmed but then realized that the thing he thought was a dog was actually a tree, disgusting the second person. This conversation has probably never taken place, but that is not important!

Okay, so what's the deal? How do I read this? Well, I'm going to include a hiragana chart below this paragraph in the post. At some point, I'll redesign the site to have it float in a handy place, but for now consult the chart for each character. Can you find あ, ん, え, っ, 木, 犬, と, ア, and ー? Well, no, because two of these symbols, 木 and 犬, are not hiragana but kanji (also, two more symbols, ア and ー, aren't hiragana either, but hold on for them and look for all the other characters I listed). As for those pesky kanji, 木 is read き (consult the chart again) and 犬 is read いぬ (that's two characters for the price of one). We'll get to their respective meanings in the vocabulary if you can't tell from the translations above, but if you are smart, you have probably noticed a few other things about the moronic conversation of this lesson...

For instance, they have 。s instead of periods. Well, technically, 。s are only supposed to be used in vertical writing (traditional Japanese is read top to bottom, from the right side of the page to the left, or have you actually not already learned this from the Wikipedia article on Japanese before starting your very hard linguistic journey?), and Western style punctuation is supposed to be used when writing horizontally (which is read from left to right like English for reasons that elude me) but fun fact: Every last Japanese person has disregarded that rule of style for generations to the point it's not even common knowledge anymore.

The proceeding run-on sentence/paragraph/parenthetical-parse-monster was to emphasize a sad fact about studying Japanese: You won't get much help from J peeps when doing it. Seriously, most of them forget what verbs and nouns are, let alone period rules. You don't know what a noun is either? Then seriously, taking up a new language is not for you. I don't expect you to know the word parse (see sentence one of this paragraph-monster) however, but you will have to learn how to parse like a boss to figure out Japanese, so keep that in mind too. And like I said, no help from the natives. Don't even try.

You will also have to learn how to pic up on what people are talking about without using many subjects. If the subject is the least bit understood in Japanese, it is left out. Check out that first sentence, "あれ?" That sound means something like, "in yon way/style/manner/thingy?" Yeah, yon isn't used much in English these days, but it is a useful way to approach あれ. I'll teach you words for "this" and "that" some other time, but right now, the guy is talking about yon thing, whatever it is. Yon could also be an action or a concept. Of course, we would probably just say "that" in modern English, but I want to remind you that yon things are a little different from that things. Yon things are removed a bit from both the people in the conversation, either physically or psychologically.

How do you say あれ though? Well, exactly like あ, but for two mora instead of one. Mora is a word that kinda means a beat in linguistic terms (also, oddly enough, mora is totally an English word too; get used to learning English in these Japanese lessons). All Japanese syllables happen in the space of a mora, and generally, all moras uttered in one breath will be the same length if uttered by a native speaker. Utterly. There can be tones that alter the pitch, but I ain't planning on touching those as I have wooden ears. Lost them in the war.

But wait, at the end of the silly dog-tree conversation I see アーア. If I look on a katakana chart (for that's what these willy characters are called, as you can see below this paragraph), I see ア is also pronounced like an a sound, but I thought that was what あ does! Well, confused me, who is a stand-in for the audience, let me explain: Japan has two syllabaries that cover the same sounds. However, ー isn't likely to be found on either chart. But what it does is lengthen sounds. Usually just for katakana, but sometimes it gets hiragana fever too. So アーア is pronounced kinda like AaAh, if you interpret the captical a's as higher tones. Crap, I thought I wasn't gonna let myself get dragged into a tonal conversation. Monotone for me, thanks.

One more trick! っ is not the same as the hiragana chart つ. The little one is used in this case to indicate a kind of clipped sound, caused by a glottal stop of the sound of the character that proceeds it.

So to summarize, 3 writing systems combined in the same sentences, dropped subjects, implications everywhere, western punctuation can happen (but ellipses have four dots), everything said in even beats, yon mountains call to the dog. Or was it tree? Could have been trees. We'll get to the ambiguity of plurals in later lessons.
This is a beautiful way to begin an explanation of a super hard language to learn. Yes sir.

So, homework time. Find a hiragana practice chart somewhere and print out something that you can trace. Make sure it includes stroke order arrows. Look up Japanese writing system on Wikipedia if you haven't already (don't try to memorize it; save some brain space). Enter the terms below into a memory system or program of some sort (*cough* Anki *cough*), and check their pronunciation using the audio at wwwjdic (linked in the right toolbar).

Next time, maybe I'll start feeding you kanji and verbs (Holy crap did I just do a lesson with out verbs? I see what I did there).

あれ (sometimes ああ) yon (that way)
ん nasally grunt of agreement
えっ ejaculation of surprise
木 tree(s)
ええ sound of confirmation
犬 dog
と a particle that effectively quotes whatever proceeds it.
 In this case, to give the sense that this person was thinking about a dog (the word thought is not said anywhere in the sentence though, as it is often dropped and this is the first lesson anyways).
アーア sound of exasperation

Questions? I promise this silly post was not a trolling of you, and it will get easier to grok, but maybe I can answer some queries in the comments section of this post.

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  1. Hi. First time commenting on your blog.

    Thanks for sharing the useful information. I don't think I've ever used western punctuation when writing Japanese horizontally. (I'm a native Japanese speaker by the way.)

    Maybe I should dig out a good ol' Japanese 101 textbook. ;)

  2. Man, you must be a native English speaker too if you can understand my convoluted writing style!

  3. Lol, thanks. I'm studying English quite a while now.

    Learning foreign language is fun!!

  4. haha, nice. I'm interested to see more of your more casual un-textbook like approach. Looking forward to the next 1999 lessons...

  5. I'm still weird-ed out by the fact that the work for MONK is three words in Indoeuropean (5000BC) (referring to the Subject in the third person-to Give -to sieve) which i assume is a reference to flour. But to not refer to the subject directly seems to regard him as a beggar or outcast?


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