Sunday, January 27, 2008

Words, what are they?

I'll tell you how I feel and I wonder if anyone agrees or disagrees.

In English, I feel that most words are tied to a distinct meaning. "This" is this, and "that" is that. This not that and that is not this. Such as a car. A car is a car and not a truck. A truck is not a car. But a vehicle can be a car or a truck. But a bicycle is not a vehicle. Anyway, most words are pretty distinct and do not cross over into another dimension.

But not so in Japanese! In Japanese "blue" can be blue or green! In fact, there are so many examples like this, where we would say they are not the same in English but in Japanese the words may not have as specific of a meaning as what they are translated to in the dictionary. This is a real source of frustration for learners of Japanese. That is why when you look up a word in the J-E dictionary you get so many words and many of them have very specific and distinct meanings in English.

Many Japanese words do not have English equivalents. What that means is that ideas and things are thought about in a completely different way. You will hear "shikaku." And you would probably associate it with the meaning "square." What it actually means is "four angles." So it can be a square or a rectangle. A real square is "mashikaku" but I've yet to hear that used. I look in my dictionary and it says "shikaku" is a square. So you confirm with the dictionary what it "means" and people are using "shikaku" for squares all the time and then one day somebody calls something "shikaku" that isn't square, it's a rectangle! And that's when you start pulling your hair out and going crazy.

OK, so those are just the nouns. I won't be going into "expressions" which are completely different from your native language!


  1. Oh great! Another word for the same thing! I didn't know that one either. All I can say is that I only knew about 四角 and that is probably the only one that we really need to know. If you took a mathematics course in Japanese, then you would learn one of the other words I think.

  2. Keith, could it just be that you are still rooted in, and thinking in English.

    I am dredging up a memory of an article that I cannot find at the moment but I remember reading about an interesting experiment in which people from different culture and language backgrounds are given a selection of shapes in different sizes, weight colors and made from different materials. They are asked to select objects that they consider similar.

    If I remember correctly English subjects for example would often select on shape and then color so two pyramids were considered similar no matter what the size. Other cultures would make entirely different choices, interestingly the choices made aligned with clues in the language.

    I would guess for example that many Japanese would not select on shape but may start from material (the two foam object being considered similar in a selection of foam, stone, metal, wood etc.).

    I find similar differences in Chinese but if I think hard enough I can always find just as much frustrating vagueness in English for a Chinese speaker (we don't differentiate between older and younger siblings for example and many other family relationships cannot be expressed in single word in English)

    Rather than feeling frustrated I would rejoice that you now have deeper understanding of 四角

  3. Chris, thank you for your comment.

    I think the main problem is "translation." I have another dictionary that defines 四角 as "square; rectangle."

    What I wanted to point out is that an English speaker would always call a square a square and never use the word "rectangle." It's very specific. But in Japanese, less specific words are used more often.

    So the problem is translation, in my opinion. What we need are definitions and explanations but not translations.

    Here, I just found one that is wrong. In this Dictionary, it shows
    異母兄|a stepbrother
    but this is wrong. In fact, you can click on 異母 and you will get the correct translation. It means a half-brother, not a step. The Kanji characters tell you that it means "different mother." That implies brothers with different mothers (same father).

    I want to warn all the learners of Japanese. English and Japanese are very different languages and it may take time to learn what the words really mean. Translations are quick fixes to long-term problems.


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