Sunday, July 20, 2008

On Studying the Japanese written language

In preparation for my studies at Kyushu I've gotten back into studying Japanese, which (it turns out) I missed.

My hope is that I'll get myself up to a level where I can do some legal research using Japanese source material, though this would be over my head at this point (I know virtually no Japanese legal terminology).

Anyway, I've dragged out my Japanese books and am reading again. During my stay in Japan I built up a pretty good library of Japanese books, mostly novels. They have a chain of used book stores called "Book Off"which I used to frequent, looking to build up my collection on the cheap (most of my books come from the 100 yen section). Of the couple hundred books in my collection I have read a grand total of 2 of them cover to cover (both by Haruki Murakami, whose books are written in modern colloquial language and thus quite easy for the student to read).

Ena and I also used to go to the Toji temple market in Kyoto, which is a great place to buy antiques. I picked up a quite a few old Japanese books there.

On looking over my collection, its interesting to note how the development of the Japanese language over the past century and a half or so has made older books almost completely incomprehensible. The above images, for example, are taken from books published in the mid-19th century.

The top one is a page from a book of Chinese poetry that is written in Chinese. You can tell it is a Japanese book because of the little interlinear characters. These allow a Japanese person to read it even though it is written entirely in classical Chinese. The Japanese know the meaning of the characters but the grammatical rules, etc. are different in Chinese. But with these little interlinear cues they can follow the meaning. I have a textbook somewhere that explains how to do this, but I've never been able to get a handle on it, mainly because my Japanese is nowhere near good enough to be learning a third language through it.

The second image is a page from a school textbook. Unlike the top one, which has sharp, well defined characters, this one is written in a calligraphic style that, while visually appealing, is virtually impossible for someone who has solely studied modern standardized Japanese to read. The characters flow into each other and a lot of the strokes used in the more complicated characters are abbreviated so it is difficult to decipher which character each one is.

Basically they look like a bunch of elegant but indecipherable squiggly lines to people with no familiarity at all with Japanese and that is basically what they look like to me too.


EM said...

Fascinating Blog! Your deep insight into the Japanese language is very impressive. It is so exciting that you're going to a law school in JP for your LL.M and I believe it will bring you another great opportunities. Wish you all the best for your great future!

Sean said...

Thank you kindly!