Looking at language(s)

After writing the update to one of yesterday’s posts, I ran across several more language-related items, so I decided to wrap them all together. This post is slightly video-heavy, rather than just linking to the sites where I found the videos.

First, from Barking Up The Wrong Tree (via Dyspepsia Generation), we have what English sounds like to foreigners (Italians, in this case).

It actually sounds pretty good to me. Not understandable, of course, but there are many songs in actual English whose lyrics I can’t make out, either.

That led to this video, at Bitter Laughter, with an English-language speaker demonstrating gibberish in several foreign languages.

He’s pretty good, but it seems obvious that he’s reading at least some of it. That got me thinking about the master of pseudo-foreign-language gibberish, Sid Caesar. He was able to do it ad-lib. I’ve seen television performances in which he’s done it several times. The best one I could find wasn’t one of his older performances, though, it was from Whose Line Is It, Anyway.

Also from Dyspepsia Generation, we have a site for learning foreign languages through the use of games. I’m going to have to give this one a try.

Another article gives a lead, but unfortunately, not a link, to a NY Times article on the degeneration of Japanese due to technology (blogs, cellphones, and the like). As you can see, the article wasn’t hard to track down. It’s interesting.

I’ve long been despairing over the state of English proficiency here in the US, and that’s without getting into Ebonics or slang. Too many people don’t understand punctuation, particularly apostrophes, or which spelling to use to get the correct homophone. Grammar falls by the wayside. Some of the problems with English are inherent in the language, but others are due to simple ignorance or laziness on the part of the people using the language.

I’ll admit to reading on my cellphone, an activity that will likely increase if I move to an Android phone. I seldom send text messages, though, which may be one reason my language skills are deteriorating more slowly than the language skills of heavier texters. I don’t have the vocabulary I used to, though, and the change in my reading habits may be partially responsible.

As far as Japanese deteriorating, they currently have four alphabets in common use. The kanji alphabet went through a major revision/simplification after World War II; I believe it has an official effective data of 1963, but I’m not certain. As a result, that alphabet was reduced to about 2000 “everyday” characters, with each character having from 1 to 26 individual strokes of the pen (with a defined sequence and direction for each stroke), as well as a hundred or so characters that are only used in proper names. It takes the Japanese through high school to learn them all. They also use two phonetic alphabets with about four dozen character each, as well as “Romaji” (the Roman alphabet that we use). I understand how technology can interfere with being able to write the kanji characters – I’ve used Japanese word processors, and what you do is type the phonetic representation of a word, then select the kanji you want from a list. Very convenient, but you don’t get practice drawing the characters.

Will technology cause Japanese to become a “local” language, as some of the people mentioned in the NYT article claim? Possibly, but not in the near term. It will make things more difficult, though. Japanese has a number of homophones (which makes puns popular in Japan). For example, the word spelled “kami” in the Roman alphabet could refer to the Japanese words for hair, paper, or gods/spirits. Business cards are very important in Japan because knowing how to pronounce someone’s name does not mean that you can spell it. Unfortunately, knowing how to spell it doesn’t always tell you how to pronounce it, either.

For example, my favorite simple kanji character (δΈ‹) has several different pronounciations (ka, ge, shita, shimo, moto, sa, o, kuda) and a number of meanings. For the most part, they’re things like below, lower, beneath, and such, but when used in the combination pronounced “kudasai,” it’s normally translated as “please” (the polite request, not the verb form of “pleasure”). You can understand why technology is exerting forces on Japanese that aren’t being exerted on English.

Written Japanese is quite difficult, but the spoken language is grammatically fairly straightforward; the difficulty comes in the cultural nuances. The linked book, at one point, provides twenty-four translations of a single sentence, giving you everything from “Get the hell offa my lawn!” level to a form that would normally be used only when speaking with the Emperor. The cultural nuances cause problems for the Japanese themselves, as well. I remember reading an article years ago about the problems newspeople have performing “man-in-the-street” interviews, because Japanese does not have a polite form of the word for “you,” so the only polite way to refer to someone else is by name. The only word they have is “anata,” which is used as a term of endearment in couples (often shorted to “anta” in that case), but is otherwise impolite.

As I’ve said before, I like language and languages. There is just so much about them that I find fascinating.

One Response to “Looking at language(s)”

  1. These are great. I hadn’t seen that whose line is it anyways. The guy above looked like he was just reading names. At least that’s what he seemed to be doing in the Japanese one.