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2020.04.03

Green Apples, Blue Apples - Color Perception in Japanese

Article

The human eye is capable of perceiving an astonishing number of different color shades. However, when describing a particular color, we are inevitably restricted by the boundaries of the language we speak. As children, we are taught how to name colors according to the generally accepted paradigms in our culture. Nevertheless, it is not entirely unusual for two different individuals to sometimes use different expressions when referring to the exact same shade. That might be because each individual attributes a broader or narrower spectrum to a particular shade. For instance, what I perceive as darkish pink may look like purple to somebody else.
Moreover, discrepancies between the ways people interpret the color spectrum in linguistic terms can also be seen on a cross-cultural level. For instance, some languages spoken in Namibia and Papua New Guinea do not have separate expressions for "green" and "blue" but use the same word to denote both colors (Casaponsa, Athanasopoulos, 2018).
And these are not the only languages where the lines between blue and green seem to be somewhat blurred. In modern Japanese, the word for blue is "ao" and the word for green is "midori." For instance, you would use "ao" to describe the color of the sky and "midori" to describe the color of grass.
Before the Heian period (more than a millennium ago), the Japanese language actually utilized the word "ao" to refer to a rather wide spectrum of colors - it was used to denote what the English language describes as both "blue" and "green" (ITmedia NEWS, 2017).
As mentioned above, "ao" and "midori" in modern Japanese are in most cases equivalent to "blue" and "green" in English. Still, the historically vague linguistic distinction between these two shades has apparently been preserved to the present day in certain expressions.
Arguably the most well-known example is the color of the light that allows traffic to proceed. In many parts of the world, that color is referred to as "green," yet in Japan it is called "ao" (blue). Green apples are another example of this phenomenon - in Japanese they are called "aoringo" or (literally) "blue apples." A kind of healthy beverage made from kale and other vegetables is called "aojiru" or "blue juice" even though its color is normally green.
After some online research, I was able to create a list of Japanese "blue" nouns that refer to green things.

Japanese

English

aoshingo

green traffic light

aoringo

green apple

aojiru

green juice

aoba

green leaf

aomushi

green caterpillar

aonori

green laver

aodake

green bamboo log

aoi

green as in "inexperienced"

As you can see in the table above, many "blue" nouns denote green plants or animals. The last entry on the list, "aoi," can be used metaphorically to refer to an inexperienced person - or even unripe fruit.
Nowadays, the green-blue contrast mostly follows the standard pattern. Still, this semantic overlap of the word "ao" provides an interesting glimpse into the history of the Japanese language.

Sources:

1) Casaponsa, Aina, Athanasopoulos, Panos. (Apr 16, 2018). The way you see colour depends on what language you speak. Retrieved from http://theconversation.com/the-way-you-see-colour-depends-on-what-language-you-speak-94833 (accessed April 2, 2020)

2) ITmedia NEWS.(2017年3月3日)「青々とした緑?」青と緑は歴史の中で"分離"した-東北大など調査. https://www.itmedia.co.jp/news/articles/1703/03/news116.html(2020年4月2日閲覧)



2020.04.01

Translation Pitfalls: Particles in Japanese

Article

Japanese has a special grammatical category called "particles." In the context of Japanese linguistics, the term "particle" does not refer to the same notion as it does in the English language. Japanese particles function like suffixes that are attached to nouns to express a temporal, locational, directional, or modal relation with the predicate. Here is an example:

Watashi wa hon wo yonde imasu.
I'm reading a book.

In the sentence above, the underlined two-letter words in bold, namely "wa" and "wo," are particles. "Wo" is a particle that is normally used in combination with transitive verbs to stress that the object - "book" ("hon") - undergoes the action of the subject - "I" ("watashi"). The particle "wa" marks the topic of a sentence, which in this case is also "I".
There are other particles too. "Ni" denotes the location of an object (or person) or a point in time when used with a temporal expression. "De" denotes the location where an action takes place, "he" stands for direction (the "h" is silent), and so forth.
There are rules as to when and how to use particles. Here are just a few examples. We use "ni" to refer to a location where something or someone is (or was) situated:

Watashi wa nihon ni imasu
I'm in Japan.

On the other hand, "de" refers to the location where a particular action takes place:

Watashi wa gakko de benkyoshimasu.
I study at school.

In some cases, however, "ni" can also refer to a place of action, especially when used in combination with verbs that describe static actions like "suwaru" (sit) or "sumu" (live). (Interestingly enough, "neru" (sleep) seems to be an exception as it is normally used in combination with "de.")
Even though differentiating between "ni" and "de" can be a little confusing for non-native Japanese speakers in some cases, this rarely becomes an issue for translators since the meaning of these particles is rather clear. There is a much trickier particle pair, namely "wa" and "ga." The former expresses the topic of a sentence whereas the latter marks the subject. But how is that different? Take the following sentence for instance:

Nihon wa sakura ga sakihajimeta.
Cherry trees have started to blossom in Japan.

"Nihon" stands for "Japan" and "sakura" stands for "cherry trees." The topic of the sentence is "Japan" because it is marked by the "wa" particle, and even though it is replaced by a preposition in the English translation, its literal meaning is "as far as Japan is concerned..." or "regarding Japan..." The subject of the sentence is "cherry trees," modified by the predicate (verb) "sakihajimeru" (start to blossom).
Learning how to properly differentiate between the sentence topic ("wa") and its subject ("ga") can be challenging but it is also absolutely vital for a proper understanding of the Japanese sentence structure. The sometimes puzzling distinction between "wa" and "ga" represents a major potential pitfall for translators, especially when it comes to complex sentence structures, and it often leads to serious mistranslations.
The relation between topic particles that are used in multiple sentences also needs to be considered. Here is an example.

Kuni wa keizaikiki ni ochiitta. Shitsugyoritsu wa 10% wo koeteiru.
The country has fallen into recession. Its unemployment rate has exceeded 10%.

The topic of the first sentence is "kuni," which stands for "country," and the topic of the second sentence is "shitsugyoritsu," which means "unemployment rate." Even though both nouns are marked by the topic particle "wa," the second one is contextually related to the first. In the English translation, this connection is reflected in the use of the possessive pronoun "its," which refers to "country."
This is just an illustrative example of how topic particles can be used in the Japanese language. Still, it clearly shows that compared to sentence subjects, topics have a much broader semantic scope spanning over several sentences and can represent quite a challenge for translators.

2020.01.30

Politeness in Japanese: Why Second-Person Pronouns Should Be Used with Caution

As a Japanese learner, I discovered at a very early stage just how important the sociolinguistic factors are if you want to master this language. I was introduced to the concepts of "keigo," a term that literally means "respectful language," and "kenjogo", which stands for "humble language," when I was still a beginner. As I continued to upgrade my linguistic skills, I realized that almost every single interaction in Japanese is affected by the age, gender, and social status of the interlocutors and that this is heavily reflected in the language used in various social situations. In other words, if you want to avoid any communication hiccups, you really need to be careful what you say, how you say it, and who you say it to. And while this is true for practically any social situation in any culture that exists in anywhere in the world, it is a particularly salient characteristic from a linguistic standpoint when it comes to Japanese.

One thing I have always found particularly intriguing is the fact that one should be extremely careful when using second-person pronouns in most social situations. As opposed to the English "you," which is completely neutral, most Japanese second-person pronouns are heavily marked and can quickly turn a perfectly innocent utterance into a very rude remark. Interestingly enough, there are a large number of second-person pronouns in modern Japanese. Arguably, the "safest" one would be "anata," and although it is not impolite per se, its use is restricted to people of equal or lower social standing (don't say it to your boss). It can also carry an endearing connotation, which is why you will often hear women use it to address their husbands. Drop a vowel, however, and the situation changes. The variant "anta" loses the respectful undertone of "anata," which is why it can only be used in very friendly or straightforward interactions (such as banter or arguments). It can also sound rather blunt, depending on how you say it. Next, there is "kimi." Just like "anata," it is often used as a term of endearment, but the difference is that "kimi" is used predominantly by male speakers. Pronouns like "omae," "temee," or "kisama" are extremely offensive, and even though you might hear people use them every now and then, my suggestion is to avoid these at all costs (unless, for instance, you use them jokingly when talking to people you are really close to).

As you can see, there is a whole series of second-person pronouns in Japanese, and this is not even a full list. But as I have already pointed out, all these expressions are highly marked and may sound very inappropriate depending on the context. So what is the best way to address someone in Japanese without running the risk of losing face? Simple - just use their name and add the honorific title "-san." For example, let's say you are talking to a man named Satoshi and you want to ask him what his hobbies are. In Japanese, the question would sound something like this: "Satoshi-san no shumi wa nan desu ka?" ("What are Satoshi-san's hobbies?") The fact that you need to use the person's name instead of a personal pronoun in cases like this one may take some getting used to if you are a native speaker of a European language such as English, German, or Italian. However, this is by far the most acceptable way of addressing people in Japanese. Things can get a tad more complicated in professional environments where, for instance, you often need to use "-sama" instead of "-san" because the former carries a more respectful connotation. Also, when talking to your superior at work, you may need to use their job title instead of "-san."

In Japanese, nothing is more important than honorifics, and learning how to properly adjust your register to the situation is one of the most challenging aspects of studying this wonderful language. Addressing people can be tricky, and rules are not always so clear-cut, which also applies to second-person pronouns. I am not saying you should avoid all of them at all times - just proceed with caution.

2019.12.04

More Onomatopoeic Expressions - Describing Food Textures in Japanese

Article

Tourism is one of the most frequent genres we come across in our line of work as translators. Since the number of foreign visitors has sky-rocketed over the past few years in Japan, there is a growing demand for localization of pamphlets, websites, and guides for travelers from all around the world. Such texts contain a large variety of cultural expressions, and translating those expressions from Japanese to other languages is a very challenging task. A simple translation often may not be enough to convey the essence of a particular tradition, custom, piece of clothing, or tool, which is why one needs to enhance the target text with a succinct and clear explanatory note.

Food is particularly tricky. Many people associate Japan with gastronomy, and in recent years, traditional Japanese cuisine has gained a lot of visibility on a global scale. In Japan, a great deal of care is devoted to what, how, when, and how much one eats. Food preparation itself is also a highly sophisticated matter. Traditional Japanese cuisine varies greatly from region to region, which is why the culinary map in this country is extremely colorful.

So are the expressions related to food. In one of our previous blog posts, we discussed a variety of onomatopoeic expressions that Japanese people use to describe rain. In this article, we are going to focus on those related to food, particularly the ones that describe different food textures. Please keep in mind that this is by no means an exhaustive list - one could actually write an entire book about this lexical category - but just a few common examples you may come across in everyday life here. (When creating this list, I relied on the definitions in the KOTOBANK (https://kotobank.jp/) dictionary.)

mochimochi: Refers to a chewy, springy texture, similar to that of Japanese glutinous rice cakes (which incidentally are also called "mochi").

sakusaku: Recreates the light, crunchy sound of a fresh apple or cabbage leaf.

karikari: Also denotes a crunchy sound. However, this expression is normally used for foods that are much crispier than apples (e.g. French fries, potato chips, or bacon).

pasapasa: Describes a dry and sometimes powdery texture you will find in certain types of bread or vegetables such as pumpkin. It may also have a negative connotation (when describing grilled meat that is too dry, for instance).

fuwafuwa: Describes a soft, spongy texture similar to that of sponge cakes, thick pancakes, or marshmallows.

nebaneba: Refers to the highly viscous consistency of vegetables like okra or fermented soy beans called "natto," an extremely popular and healthy dish eaten in Japan.

torotoro: Denotes a soft, creamy, or syrupy texture, resembling the consistency of soft serve, soft-boiled eggs, or melted cheese.

hokuhoku: Refers to the hot and soft texture of a baked dish such as freshly baked potatoes.


Sources:

「食べるの音」~感性豊かな日本語のオノマトペの世界~ (Retrieved: November 28, 2019 from https://shoku.hapiku.com/labo/001/100koto-008/)

2019.07.30

Six Japanese Words That Describe Rice

Article

Studying a language automatically entails learning about the culture that has created it. Each language is like a mirror that reflects the way a particular society has evolved. Every language is a living organism that never ceases to change and develop, with its speakers constantly introducing new concepts that continue to emerge through societal progress.

Every new concept is introduced into a language out of necessity. Whenever there is a new thing that people need to refer to on a regular basis, they obviously need a new concrete linguistic means to be able to do that. To give a banal example, the now ubiquitous expression "social media" probably did not exist 40 years ago because there was absolutely no need for it.

Culture and environment also influence how elaborately a particular object or concept can be described in a particular language. Take for instance the Inuktitut language, one of the main Inuit languages spoken in northern parts of Canada, which uses a large variety of expressions to describe snow and ice. According to the Canadian Encyclopedia, "taking into account the base words, derived terms, and words with a broader meaning, the total number of terms referring to the various aspect of snow and ice goes far beyond ten or a dozen" (Source: Inuktitut Words for Snow and Ice, The Canadian Encyclopedia). Although the exact number of those expressions has been a rather controversial issue among linguists for decades, it still represents a good example of how a language is shaped by the living circumstances of its speakers.

The same is true for expressions that refer to food, one of the most crucial elements of our daily lives. Expressions that describe staple foods are normally very diverse and elaborate as they reflect the dietary habits of a particular culture. The staple food in Japan, for instance, is rice. It is pretty much everywhere - people have it for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, it is used to make all kinds of snacks from crackers to rice balls, and it is also the essential ingredient in sake, arguably the most famous Japanese alcoholic beverage.

Due to the indispensable role of rice in Japanese cuisine, the Japanese language has a rather large spectrum of words to describe this staple. Let's have a look at some of the most common ones. (I used Japanese dictionary definitions from KOTOBANK (https://kotobank.jp/) as a reference point when creating this list.)

1. Ine

The word "ine" refers to rice that is still in the husk.

2. Kome

"Kome" is threshed rice, i.e. uncooked packaged rice you can normally buy at a supermarket.

3. Genmai / Hakumai

Threshed rice or "kome" can be further divided into two categories, "genmai" and "hakumai". "Genmai" is rice that has been dried and threshed but with bran still attached, i.e. unpolished rice. "Hakumai" (lit. "white rice"), on the other hand, denotes "milled rice," i.e. rice that has been milled to remove bran.

4. Gohan

Cooked rice is referred to as "gohan." Interestingly, the word gohan is also used to denote "meal" or "food" in a very broad sense. For instance, if you say "I haven't had gohan yet" in Japanese, it simply means you have not had breakfast/lunch/dinner yet. In Japan, the word for cooked rice is a synonym for food in general.

5. Meshi

This word also refers to various types of cooked rice and food or meals in general, but it has a more informal undertone compared to "gohan."

6. Raisu

And finally there is "raisu" (rice). Some may find it unusual for such an essential element of Japanese culture to be referred to with an English loanword. In fact, the word "raisu" is mostly used to denote rice that is served with foreign dishes. You may also come across it at restaurants, most notably in names of dishes such as "karē raisu" (curry and rice) or "chikin raisu" (chicken rice).

Sources: