Sunday, July 3, 2011

I'm Going to Geek Out Over Language for a Bit

Let me start by saying that learning Japanese is one of my favorite things ever. Someday I hope to speak it well enough to communicate with my neighbors that speak no English. In the meantime, my friends are exceptionally patient and helpful in encouraging the practice of and correcting my  (often not-quite-right) grammar and vocabulary.

And if I've made any mistakes here, some of those friends will hopefully correct me and I will edit it quick like a bunny.

Component Parts
Some words sound complicated until I know how they are put together, then the light bulb comes on.

Like  おてあらい、otearai, the polite word for bathroom.  
O is honorific and goes at the beginning of many nouns to show respect,  te is hand, and arai is the root of the word for rinsing. It is literally the place to rinse your hands, and this makes sense because it implies why you would need to do such a thing without coming out and saying it. (Non-direct-ness is one of those notable cultural characteristics.)

ちかてつ、chikatetsu, is the word for the subway.
Chika is underground; tetsu is iron. It literally means "underground iron."

くつした、kutsushita, is the word for sock.
Kutsu is shoe, shita is under. It is what you wear under your shoes.

Vowels are Very Important
For those of you unfamiliar with written Japanese, there is a syllabary instead of an alphabet. This means that there are vowels representing the same vowels we use, but the other letters are all the equivalent of a consonant-and-letter combination. "Ka" is the single character か, for example. (For the sake of this post and my sanity, I'm pretending kanji doesn't exist.)

When a vowel sound is elongated, that sound is held for an extra beat. This can be very important for vocabulary. Proper spelling and the ability to speak sense go hand in hand. Adding or subtracting a vowel can change the meaning pretty drastically.

shujin = husband
shuujin = prisoner
Hello, I am Kim and this gentleman is my prisoner. Nice to meet you.
こんにちは、わたしは キムです。こちらは しゅうじん です。はじめまして。

chizu = map
chiizu = cheese
Where are we? Please let me see the cheese.
どこに いますか? わたしに チーズを みせて ください。

Expanding Definitions
Some words are interesting to me because they encompass two or more words in English that have similar meanings if you think about it.

けします、keshimasu, can be used for erasing written marks or turning off electricity. So you can, in a sense, erase the light when you flip the switch.

かきます、kakimasu, can be used for writing or drawing. Those sound like two different ideas unless you consider calligraphy.

The Same But Different
In English we can talk about personality with a few different adjectives. With teachers, for instance, we can imply how strict someone is by saying they are an easy teacher or a tough teacher. In Japanese, they describe personality with amai or karai, sweet or spicy.

I have also heard a friend describe a co-worker as having a spicy tongue, meaning that they were very direct and perhaps not always tactful when they spoke. I had not thought to describe personality with spicy, but it really makes a nice counterbalance to sweet, which I use fairly often.

As of the last couple classes, and this is very exciting for me, I can talk about how long it takes to get from one place to another! We are planning a trip to a theme park. I can say, in Japanese, how long the park is open, how long it takes to get between our house and a someone else's house, and suggest a time to pick him up on our way.

ふじきゅは ごぜん9じから ごご5じまで です。
Fujikyu (Fuji-Q) is open from 9am to 5pm.

うちから くるまで 2じかんぐらい かかります。
From our house it takes about two hours by car.

うちから おたくまで 30ぷん かかります。
From our house to yours takes about 30 minutes.

7じはんごろ あいましょうか。(Is that the right way to write 7:30?)
Shall we meet  (I don't know the word for "pick up") at about 7:30?

ごぜん7じに うちを でて、ごぜん 7じはんに おたくに ついて、ごぜん9じに ふじきゅに つきます。
We will leave at our house at 7am, arrive at your house at 7:30am, and arrive at Fuji-Q at 9am.

I'm looking forward to it!

Random Amusement
I was recently practicing my Japanese and wanted to say my husband is the best (because he is, and I'm not just saying that because he's taking me to see the Blue Man Group for my birthday). I learned that the word for "best" is さいこう、saikou, which is pronounced a lot like "psycho."

Come on, could you pass up a setup like that? I have saikou husband! Technically saikou no shujin, but that's still funny. And now, you will never forget the Japanese word for "the best." You're welcome.


  1. "Chikatetsu" is actually short for "chika-tetsudo". "tetsudo" means "railroad", and literally translates to "iron road".

    Alex (tall Dutch guy) once tried to used Japanese with some important guests at our company. He wanted to ask them "Have you had a look at the map?", but he said "chitsu" instead of "chizu".

    "Chitsu" means "Vagina". :-D

  2. I nearly choked on my tea when I read that.

    I always learn something new from you. In this case, TWO things and some sympathy for Alex.

  3. crocodile dundeeJuly 03, 2011

    Yeah. Another one you might want is 'dokusetsu'.
    Meaning to speak acrimoniously about someone. The kanji is 毒舌.. as in poison but really if someone is too direct in their speaking...

    One of the funniest one is when the Japanese quote someone as an advisor '顧問' or こもん pronounced rather like 'common'. But if you are not careful you might say koumon 肛門 which means 'bum hole'. You need to be careful when that you are not calling an esteemed learned advisor an asshole. A lot of the Japanese dont realize it but it is a 敬語 faux pas to call your own wife 'okusama'. You can say 'kanai', 'tsuma', 'nyobo' (for older guys) or 'uchi no kamisama' etc., but you cant say 'okusama'. You use okusama when you refer to the other persons wife not your own wife. I try to correct Japanese when they make the mistake. Its mainly the uneducated ones that fall into the trap.
    I guess for 'psycho' ones, the Japanese don’t really say 'he/she has a screw loose'. You might say 'hyaku pa janai'. (bakusho)爆笑. Basically, that means 'they are not 100%' or 'not a full quid' as we would say down under... ;-0)