Blog #18: Think English grammar is hard? Try Japanese.

If possessive cases and subordinate clauses give you brain cramps, it’s safe to say you would have a hemorrhage if you had to deal with Japanese grammar.

Twenty-two years ago I moved to Tokyo and dove into the Japanese language. I soon learned that everything was backwards in Japanese. I mean that quite literally. To say “I went to the store to buy some milk” in Japanese, you would say “milk buy to store to went. “I think I caught a cold” becomes “cold caught, think.” Note the absence of pronouns. Japanese words for I, you, he and she do exist, but most speakers don’t bother with them. We’re supposed to figure all that out from context.

Don’t get me wrong. I adored the language. After a few months of immersion I became quite adept at it and was able to carry on decent conversations with my Japanese friends. When one of them told me I sounded Japanese on the phone, I walked on air for days. But even after I became conversationally fluent, the language retained a fundamental opacity for me.

A textbook I read called it an agglutinative language – a wonderful word, though I’d be hard-pressed to explain exactly what it means – in contrast to the more structural languages of the west. In the climate of collective self-doubt that prevailed in Japan after World War II, some Japanese scholars questioned whether their language had the precision to convey scientific thought. They needn’t have worried: the past fifty years of Sony and Yamaha products have settled the question beyond any doubt. Still, there’s a lovely “floatiness” in the way the Japanese express themselves in everyday conversation, typically trailing off their sentences with but… I think… maybe… it could be…  or the proverbial shiyo ga nai, meaning “it can’t be helped.”

Not that the Japanese people I met found English syntax any less enigmatic. “I xenophilic,” one man beamed at me across a table at an English-speaking café, but didn’t have the syntactical chops to order a hamburger. And one of my friends told me she could not grasp the logic behind the question “Why don’t we go to the movies?” To her mind, it sounded like “Is there any good reason we’re not going to the movies?”

That said, my overall sense was that the Japanese language posed more of a barrier to English speakers than English did to the Japanese. When all is said and done, perhaps possessives are easier to master than inferring, from context, that your boyfriend is dumping you, not proposing. Or that “it’s a little bit…” means you’re about to get fired.

This entry was posted in Grammar, Language, Punctuation and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Blog #18: Think English grammar is hard? Try Japanese.

  1. It seems I’m going to have to brush up on my Japanese before next year. My youngest son will be going to high school next year and the mandatory “language other than English” (LOTE) subject will be Japanese.

  2. tanlee3 says:

    As a writer I love reading posts like this. cultures other structure language about reading interesting very.

  3. I forwarded this to a friend who taught English in Japan a bit more recently than 22 years ago. I’m sure she’ll enjoy it.

    I must be tired, because I’m starting like Yoda to think, at the end of the sentence the very putting, which very silly is. Time for bed think I!

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