Chuo Online

  • Top
  • Opinion
  • Research
  • Education
  • People
  • RSS

Top>Opinion>What Words Reveal: Looking at German and Japanese


Akiko Hayashi

Akiko Hayashi [profile]

What Words Reveal: Looking at German and Japanese

Akiko Hayashi
Professor, Faculty of Letters, Chuo University
Areas of Specialization: Japanese-German Contrastive linguistics and Discourse Analysis

Read in Japanese

We classify the objects that are necessary to our own daily lives more precisely than those which are not. In other words, we are also more sensitive to things that interest us, or that we consider important.

Precision of Classification of Words

In German, when one talks of a "horse," the generic name is "Pferd" but usually a horse is referred to using the alternative specific namings of stallion, mare and foal; that is, "Hengst," "Stute," and "Fohlen," respectively. In addition, classifications are extremely precise within these, with a miniature horse being called a "pony" and a white horse being called a "Schimmel." This example is frequently used in classes on semantic theory for first-year students at German universities. However this is not the case in Japanese; these distinctions can be made if we add the explanatory words which signify the difference between these terms, to make the equivalent of "stallion-horse," "mare-horse," "foal-horse," "white-horse," "small-sized-horse" (雄~, 雌~, 子~, 白~, 小型の~). But in contrast, in Japanese we use distinct words for "rice plant (稲)," "uncooked rice (米)" and "cooked rice (ご飯)," whereas in German, both the agricultural product and the foodstuff that is boiled from it are referred to as "rice ("Reis")."

Grammar and Regional Dialects

At the level of grammar, languages do not necessarily apprehend things in a uniform manner, and there may even be differences depending on the regional dialect. For example, in Japanese, if one notices a bus approaching a bus stop, one might run towards the bus stop saying "Quick! The bus is coming (バスが来ているから、急ごう)." But we would also use the same expression in Japanese, "The bus is here (at the bus stop) ([停留所に] バスが来ている)," in a situation where the bus has already arrived at the bus stop. There are also dialects of Japanese which use different language for each of these two cases, as in "The bus will be here in a moment" (バスが来よる) and "The bus is already here" (バスが来とる). In German too, it is said that when talking of events in the past, in northern Germany, they prefer to use the preterit while in southern Germany, they prefer to use the perfect form.

Phonetic Level Differences

We are very sensitive to important differences in our native language. Then differences which are less important are, sadly, fated to be automatically discarded. One famous example is the difference between "l" and "r." Since the Japanese language does not distinguish between these two consonants (Some Japanese singers choose to sing all the sounds that begin with the Japanese phonemes "ra, ri, ru, re and ro (ラ, リ, ル, レ, ロ)" as if they were "l" sounds rather than "r" sounds), even if in the German language there is a huge difference between them, to the Japanese language, it is irrelevant. On the other hand, there is a clear-cut difference in Japanese between long vowels and short vowels, so that "shusai" means "main dish (主菜)" while "sh短sai (秀才)" means "brilliant person." There are long vowels in German too, but they are not used systematically to distinguish between meanings as they are in Japanese, and thus most native German speakers learning Japanese struggle to perceive and pronounce durational oppositions of this kind.

Discourse Strategies

In everyday life, by using stress when speaking, raising or lowering intonation, and shortening or lengthening syllables, etc. (prosody in linguistics) according to the situation, it is possible to communicate the speaker's attitude or manner. Take, for example, the case of saying, "I'm sorry for any inconvenience (どうもお手数をおかけしました)" in Japanese. It is possible to attach a wide range of emotional meanings to the same phrase, depending on whether one is genuinely feeling humbled or grateful, whether one is simply paying lip-service to the phrase out of politeness, or whether one is being sarcastic, etc. There are customs specific to each language about such "ways of saying something" and we send signals to the person we are talking to with the help of prosody. Therefore, it is no wonder that sometimes misunderstandings may be generated if the other person misses the signals we have sent them, much less if the other person, in learning Japanese for example, does not hear physical differences in the same way as the speaker whether a sound was rising or falling or whether a sound was long or short, etc.

There are also differences in whether a sound rises or falls and whether it is lengthened or clipped according to whether the speaker is male or female. Recently, there is much talk of how young Japanese people today have stopped using the "Feminine forms of the language" (those traditionally used by women, such as ending sentences with "wa" (~わ) or "no yo" (~のよ), etc.) but on the level of prosody, we can still observe differences in the language used by men and women. The current author conducted a survey of male and female native Japanese speakers aged 19 to 29, after requesting their cooperation, and focused on and analyzed scenes where they were explaining the reason for something or explaining a situation. When both men and women used the same expression, such as "I have class, that's why. (授業だから)" there was a tendency for the men to lower their intonation and clip the end of the phrase, while there was a tendency for the women to lengthen the end of the phrase and stop talking without lowering their intonation at the end, and this difference was statistically significant (Hayashi, Nishinuma and Yabe, 2007).

Various ways of talking can be employed as strategies in conversation, and in actuality, we all use these without thinking about them. If you want to borrow 200 yen from a friend or to ask them to put up 200,000 yen for you, you will make the request in a different way. The expressions you use will be more polite, you will explain your reasons in more detail and you may apologize for causing them trouble. Your air of feeling humbled to them, your air of being incredibly sorry to have to ask this of them, and your air of appreciation will also be reflected in the prosody you use. But even on occasions when a person feels that they have carefully selected the expressions they use, there are still times when the other party may refuse them, saying, "I don't like the way you are saying that, you are not being polite enough," etc. Moreover, even for the same request scene, depending on whether the language being used is Japanese or German, there are many differences in the signals given and how they are received according to the language you are using, in terms of how much detail will be given about the reason and at what point in the conversation this will occur, and in terms of how to respond if it looks as though the other person is likely to refuse you, etc.

Unfurling the World with Linguistic Observations

We all tend to think that our own way of looking at things or hearing things, in other words, "our own measure" is the most natural and correct. Because of this, when we come into contact with different languages and different cultures, it is quite understandable that friction can occur. However, it is a tremendous shame to simply cast away new ways of looking at things or apprehending things, because they are different from your own. Even if there may be limitations as to how far it is possible, it is still worthwhile to try to have a simulated experience of this other world. Languages can provide us with a vast array of such possibilities.

Akiko Hayashi
Professor, Faculty of Letters, Chuo University
Areas of Specialization: Japanese-German Contrastive linguistics and Discourse Analysis
Born in Tokyo. Graduated from the Faculty of Education, Tokyo Gakugei University (Major of Japanese Language Education). After gaining a Master's degree in Letters (Linguistics) from the Graduate School of Humanities and Social Sciences, University of Tsukuba, she traveled to Germany. She completed a Doctoral course at the Graduate School of Literature and Linguistics at Trier University (specializing in German studies and gaining a Ph.D.). She was Full-Time Lecturer and Assistant Professor at Tokyo Gakugei University, before being appointed to her current position in 2005.
Her main publications include: "Japanische Demonstrativa und ihre deutschen Entsprechungen," WVT Wissenschaftlicher Verlag, Trier (1993); Four Research Questions Relating to Spoken Language [Hanashi kotoba kenkyu wo meguru yottsu no toi], Nihon Doku Bungaku-kai (Co-authored, 2009); Aspects of Grammatical Description [Bunpo kijutsu no shoso], Chuo University Publications (Co-authored, 2011), etc. The paper mentioned in this article was Akiko Hayashi, Yukihiro Nishinuma and Hiroko Yabe, "A Syntactic and Prosodic Analysis of Utterance Final Segments: In Explanation-Giving Dialogues among Young Japanese [Jakunenso danjo ni miru hatsuwamatsu no hyogen keishiki to inritsu-setsumei bamen ni okeru futsutai kaiwa no baai," The Japanese Journal of Language in Society 9-2, 2007: 30-40.