Discussion The Japanese Study Thread

Gold Knight

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Well, I'm no translator, but I'm an art history major and I studied Japanese art in college. In one of my books, there was an article about the Japanese language, so this is what I learned about it.

Since I thought it worked pretty well to explain the basics of the language, I decided to type it out here just as an introduction to the language and to save our translators the trouble of having to answer some common questions too often. Feel free to comment on it as you wish.

The Japanese Language

Up until Japan came into close contact with China in the sixth and seventh centuries, the Japanese had not developed a written language. Actually, the early written histories indicate that there was a strong oral tradition through which historical events passed from generation to generation.

However, the Chinese precedent proved to the Japanese the desirability of having a system of writing, and the obvious beginning point was Chinese characters, known in Japanese as kanji. These are ideographs, initially abbreviations of visual images.

Two syllabaries (kana), hiragana and katakana, were developed to represent sounds. Used with kanji, the characters convey meaning.

Today the hiragana is used to supply verb endings to indicate tense and the relationship of the speakers and also to indicate the function of a word in a sentence as subject, object, or indirect object.

Katakana is used for foreign words. Most of these are English words and are used for their standard meaning. However, there are interesting exceptions. For example, the German word arbeit (work) has become arubaito in Japanese and means "moonlighting," or a job in addition to one's regular employment.

Pronouncing Japanese is relatively easy because the vowels have constant sounds. The hiragana alphabet is as follows:

A (as in father) - ka sa ta na ha ma ya ra wa
I (as in week) - ki shi chi ni hi mi ri wi
U (as in who) - ku su tsu nu fu mu yu ru
E (as in hay) - ke se te ne he me re we
O (as in oh) - ko so to no ho mo yo ro wo

The following consonants can be changed by adding small marks, called nigori, to the right of the symbol:

ka --> ga sa --> za ta --> da ha --> ba --> pa
ki --> gi shi --> ji chi --> ji hi --> bi --> pi
ku --> gu su --> zu tsu --> zu fu --> bu --> pu
ke --> ge se --> ze te --> de he --> be --> pe
ko --> go so --> zo to --> do ho --> bo --> po

The vowels o and u are often lengthened when speaking, and this is indicated in English with a macron, essentially a hyphen or bar over the letter.

Kanji often have at least two pronunciations: the on, or Chinese, reading and the kun, or Japanese, reading.

For example, the Chinese word for temple is ssu. The Japanese pronounce the kanji for temple either "ji," the on reading, or "dera," the kun reading.

Two clans fought a civil war in the 12th century, the Minamoto and the Taira. That war is known as the Genpei Civil War from the on readings of both clan names.

The traditional way of writing Japanese is to place the kanji and kana vertically from top to bottom, from right to left. The custom of reading leftward is basic not only to writing but also to the creation of visual images on a horizontal surface.

And in case you're interested in Japanese ways of naming in the old days, I'll add another article: just remember this may not be true anymore in today's Japan and that all this came from an art history book that was interested in discussing the old Japanese masters of sculpture, painting, etc. Still, it may be useful information to know to go with some manga you're reading.

Names

A Japanese at birth usually has two names, the family name and one given to him or her specifically. Family names usually have four syllables and are references to places. For example, Yamamoto means "at the base of the mountain," Kitagawa, "the north river", and Fujiwara, "a field of wisteria." Given or personal names are more complicated. Men's names often end in . Sons are sometimes named according to the sequence in which they were born. For example, Ichirò means the first born; Jirò, the second; Saburò, the third, and so on. Women's names often end in ko, written with the symbol for child. However, the symbols for given names can be pronounced in a variety of ways, and it is difficult to know exactly how the individual reads his or her own name. Japanese always give the family name before the personal. Examples: Yamamoto Ichirò and Fujiwara Akiko.

In the course of a lifetime individuals may change their names a number of times. Also they may choose an alternate reading of the kanji for their given names. Artists often take art names with which they sign their work and may change them as they feel the style of their work has changed. One artist changed his name when the seal he used to sign his work cracked. The woodblock print artist known as Hokusai (1760-1849) took as one of his last art names "Old Man Mad With Painting."

Courtiers serving in the imperial palace often had a palace name different from their original given name, and they usually changed it again when they retired from service. For example, the woman known as Akiko became Shòshi when she married Emperor Ichijò and then Jòtòmonin when she left the palace, became a nun, and took up residence in the Jòtòmonin palace. When someone took the tonsure and became a priest or a nun, it was standard practice to drop one's secular name and assume a religious one, usually of two syllables.

Name-taking is a Japanese custom that is particularly foreign to Westerners. An outstanding artist not only achieves a reputation, but also establishes a family and a studio of disciples. Usually the artist wants to see the accomplishments continued into the next generation and will decide which student can best carry out that role. That person will be asked to take the name of the master. Thus Saburò, the third son, may be asked to take the art name of the father and become Danjurò the Second. If no child within the family can be trained to succeed the father, a promising pupil may be adopted and asked to take the name of the teacher. In the West, in contrast, we tend to value individuality more than continuity of the preservation of tradition.

Posthumous names are also a part of Japanese culture. An emperor during his lifetime would be known by one name but might choose or would be given another upon his death. A recent example is the emperor Hirohito (reigned 1926-1989), who chose his own posthumous name of Shòwa by which his reign will always be known. His son Akihito has chosen Heisei as his reign and posthumous name. The syllable go before an emperor's name indicates that he is the second to be so designated. For example, the emperor Daigo reigned from 897 to 930, and Godaigo was on the throne from 1318 to 1339.
 
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njt

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Re: The Japanese Language

sweet man that's some interesting stuff :ossu Thanks for taking the time to write it out ;)
 

Saithan

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Re: The Japanese Language

hmm... when the kanji was introduced in Japan it was mainly (probably only) men who used it, women had to developed their own written langugea thus Hiragana later on the men (or was it the monks) found out that they needed to know how to pronounce the kanji and developed katakana.

Anyway this is more or less what I can remember, can't guarentee it is right, but according to my teacher some of the oldest hiragana/katakana could be traced back to the shell of a turtle or something....
 

Anax

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Re: The Japanese Language

This is all very interesting... now we need someone to come here and teach :tem
It'd be great if a japanese person came here (don't know why one would, but hey) and provided us with usefull information on Japan of today vs Japan of yesterday. Ok, I'll keep on dreaming :D
 

bebong

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Re: The Japanese Language

Whooo, sweet!! A great addition!!! Time to memorize the important parts!! Thx GK!!!You're da man!!
 

Chapel

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Re: The Japanese Language

hello i'm new and and this summer i started to study japanese.
i can't teach you it for two reasons:first i'm italian so i'm finding very difficult to write everything in english,second i stopped studying it immediately.
i studied only hiragana and katakana;but if you want i can post those things.they're very useful:at school i writed on my desk some rules and nobody noticed it.
let me know if i can post these alphabets

ps excuse me for the various spelling mistakes
 

Gold Knight

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Re: The Japanese Language

Go ahead, Chapel. It would be very useful. ( That reminds me, I had meant to get NJT to do that himself, but if you can do it, it would be appreciated. :thumbs )

And yes, if anybody here is willing to teach Japanese ( Pazuzu, Nihongaeri, Hisshou, Ratfox, NJT... ) please come by and teach a few lessons. ;)
 

Gold Knight

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Re: The Japanese Language

Er, Chapel - might want to fix these links. Can't click on them to open new windows. ;)
 

Chapel

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Re: The Japanese Language

there are some problems.
i'm working on it

EDIT:yuhu did it.i don't know why but tags didn't work

Thanks! - Gold Knight
 

Ahab

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Anax

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Re: Japanese Learning Resources

Umm, are any purists around here that like me feel Japan's writting system is part of the magic of it? Personally I would never like a tatoo in the latin alphabet but I really like a -quite large at that- tatoo a guy at uni has, it's the chinese word for dragon, if I'm not mistaken "long" in pinyin.
 

Gold Knight

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Re: Japanese Learning Resources

Yeah, I love the kanji and kana as well. But that's here nor there - walkie & KOLE, don't make these type of discouraging comments here. (Deleted 'em.) If you want to learn, then come here. ;)
 

_reticentness

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Re: The Japanese Language

hey could someone tell me what these characters are. I'm pretty sure they're hiragana but i dunno. I'm just beginning to learn this stuff.

 

Nihongaeri

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Re: The Japanese Language

_reticentness said:
"rita". Yes, it's hiragana.
 

_reticentness

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Re: The Japanese Language

thanks for that.  the ri thingy looks different than the one I learned. 

I have another question.  I've figured out the sounds to this next one sort of.  but I have no idea what word or words it is. 


something else...
and is it ok to just have a random katakana character in the middle of a bunch of hiragana?  I know it'd be ok if it were a word but it's just one character.
 

Jisinai

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Re: The Japanese Language

_reticentness said:
thanks for that. the ri thingy looks different than the one I learned.

I have another question. I've figured out the sounds to this next one sort of. but I have no idea what word or words it is.


something else...
and is it ok to just have a random katakana character in the middle of a bunch of hiragana? I know it'd be ok if it were a word but it's just one character.
いかといえば
i-ka-to-i-e-ba

From my experience, having a single katakana character is usually just an accent. The most frequent one I say is the katakana character "ン" (n). I'd have to see it in context to let you know.
 

_reticentness

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Re: The Japanese Language

I figured that much out but I'm having trouble figuring out where one word stops and another one begins. I guess I need to just go study vocabulary stuff. can someone tell me what i-ka-to-i-e-ba means. please.
 
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