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Thread: Japanese FAQ.

  1. #1
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    Japanese FAQ.

    Here I'd like to answer some of the questions concerning Japanese I am very often asked by many people who have never tried to study this language.

    1. How similar are Japanese and Chinese?
    - They are very, very different languages! I'd say English and Russian are much more similar than Japanese and Chinese are. Let me just show an example for those who don't believe they are different. Here is the phrase meaning "I like pork very much" in both languages:
    Watashi wa butaniku ga daisuki da. - in Japanese;
    Wo hen ai chi zhurou. - in Chinese.

    2. How many hieroglyphs are there in Japanese writing?
    - Hieroglyphs are ideographic characters used to write in some oriental languages. Certainly, it is impossible to give a precise answer to the question about their quantity. However, there is an official list of hieroglyphs recommended for everyday use in Japan, it's called "jo:yo: kanji hyo:". That list includes 1945 characters. Actually, a bit larger amount of characters are used nowdays. A well-educated Japanese may use c. 2500-3000 written signs, 3000 is close to the top limit in modern Japanese. To know around 1000 Japanese characters is a very good level for foreigners, though.

    3. What does a hieroglyph mean? Some people say it means a whole word, and other people think (I can hear it sometimes) it may even mean a whole sentence!
    - First. The latter statement is totally fantastic, I hope you understand. Let's not even discuss such possibility.
    - Second. The former statement is quite close to be true. A hieroglyph very often means a whole word, indeed. But that's not the rule!
    - The truth is a Japanese character usually indicates a morpheme. Morpheme is a significant part of word, i.e. bases, prefixes, suffixes are morphemes. Thus, a hieroglyph is either used to indicate a mono-morphemic word as a whole (e.g. like English book, tooth, star, cover, count etc.) or a part of a poly-morphemic word (e.g. if you used the same principle in English, you would write discover in two characters - dis and cover, and you would write discount as dis+count, and you also would write cupboard as cup+board according to its etymological structure). Japanese does not use prefixes and suffixes wide, but it widely uses compund words of several bases (as in the example with cupboard).

    4. How different are Japanese and Chinese hieroglyphs?
    - How different are English and Spanish letters? They use the same alphabet (Latin) although the languages are different. Moreover, Suahili in Africa, Vietnamese, Turkish, and modern Maya language in Mexico use Latin characters as well.
    Japanese hieroglyphs are coming from Chinese origin. They are just the same symbols with the exception of some characters which became different due to historical changes.

    5. Does Japanese have an alphabet?
    - Yes, it does. It has two alphabets, their names are hiragana and katakana. Those alphabets are syllabic, i.e. they do not indicate consonants and vowels separately, but they indicate syllables like ka, ki, ku, ma, na, so etc. Each of them includes 46 letters in total with absolutely parallel correspondence between hiragana and katakana. However, hiragana is mostly used to write grammatical suffixes and auxiliary words (while word stems are written by hieriglyphs, so called kanji), and katakana is used to write loan words and proper names of foreign origin.

    6. How difficult is it to learn Japanese hieroglyphs?
    - When you start learning a language, you do not pose the aim to learn all of its words at once, do you? You cannot also learn all the hieroglyphs at once when learning oriental languages. You will learn them gradually during several years, the same as you do with words.
    However, the hieroglyphs are not so complicated as it may seem. There are radicals (principal hieroglyphs) and compound characters. The most of hieroglyphs are compound, they consist of 2, 3, 4, sometimes even more radicals which are disposed either horizontally or vertically inside the entire character (All the characters, both radicals and compound ones, occupy equal-sized squares). For example, 語 [go] 'language' is a compound character structured of radicals 言 (left), 五 (top right) and 口 (bottom right), each of them exists as a separate character as well (meaning 'to say', 'five' and 'mouth' respectively).
    Thus, you have to learn c. 200-250 basic radicals first, and then you will visually memorize compound characters much easier.

    7. Why does not Japanese deny using hieroglyphs?
    - There are several reasons to keep using characters in Japanese. But the main reason is homonyms. Homonyms are the words with the same pronunciation and different meanings (e.g. English right and write, see and sea, left (the left hand) and left (I left my bag) etc.). Certainly, Japanese writing system makes it possible to write any word according to its pronunciation just using hiragana letters (see item 5). But Japanese has much more homonyms than English does. Using hieroglyphs allows you to distinguish between all the homonyms in writing (e.g., kawa in Japanese can be either 'river' 川 or 'leather' 革, kami can be 'paper' 紙, 'top' 上 and 'God' 神 etc.).
    Japanese can rephrase some names just changing the characters they consist of. For example, Mishima, a Japanese samurai writer, rephrased his name, which originally was 三島 (三 [mi] 'three' + 島 [shima] 'island'), as 魅死魔 (魅 [mi] 'charm' + 死 [shi] 'death' + 魔 [ma] 'devil') 'devil charmed by the death'.
    Hope, you see why it's impossible to deny hieroglyphs in Japanese.

    8. How difficult is Japanese?
    - I will not mention the Japanese writing here since it is already discussed above. I'd like add a few words about the language as it is.
    Many people think Japanese is extremely difficult to learn. Let's see.
    As for Japanese phonetic system, it is very simply organized. That's not too difficult to learn Japanese pronunciation too, neither for Russian nor for English speakers.
    As for Japanese grammar, it might be difficult for some learners, I think it's more difficult for English speakers than for Russians. The reason is Japanese has highly developed morphological system, especially concerning verbs: tenses, moods, voices, transitivity, and so on. However, all those grammatical features are constructed very regularly, and there is almost no exceptions. Unlike in Russian, there is not so many different declension and conjugation types and irregularities in Japanese. Therefore, as for English speakers, the Japanese grammar would be much easier to learn than Russian one. It is construced very logically and, I would say, mathematically.

  2. #2
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    Interesting. I agree that the japanese and chinese are very different, but isn't it so that a Chinese person can read japanese and understand it roughly?

    E.g. in Chinese, 人 is pronounced 'ren2', but in Japanese, the same sign is pronounced as, I believe, 'hito'. Now Japanese does have a much more complicated grammatical system than Chinese, and I know a Chinese wouldn't be able to finely appreciate every nuance. But I'm sure he could get the gist of any Japanese text.
    Army Anti-Strapjes
    Nay, mats jar tripes
    Jasper is my Tartan
    I am a trans-Jert spy
    Jerpty Samaritans
    Pijams are tyrants
    Jana Sperm Tit Arsy

  3. #3
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    @Jasper: Actually, you could put it this way: If an English-speaking man learns just the Cyrllic alphabet and is given a Russian-English dictionary, and trains with it so he can look up anything he wants almost instantly, how much of a Russian book will he be able to understand? I would say he'd hardly be able to understand squat and only somtimes get an idea of what they MIGHT be talking about. I remember my early days when I approached a Russian book with most of the basics of grammar down, thinking I owned the world, and I had an extremely tough time deciphering what was written, sometimes not being able to understand entire pages.

    About Konstantin's post: Wow, you speak Japanese too!??! What else do you speak? I used to speak a little bit, but lost interest. I am putting Chinese on hold for now because I'm being lazy and don't have good books to learn it with anyway(for the moment).

    As for me, a native English speaker, I found Russian grammar much more easy to understand than Japanese grammar. I think I liked that it was a bit more flexible. But I do like the logic of Japanese grammar.

  4. #4
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    No no, Pravit, you're not getting my point. I meant that essentially every word in Chinese is written the same as in Japanese. Pronounced as differently as possible, of course, but written almost the same. I mean, even with my limited knowledge of basic Chinese, I can understand the gist of Japanese signs. I wouldn't be able to tell the difference between the tenses, aspects or cases, but the kanji (=hanzi) I can understand.
    Army Anti-Strapjes
    Nay, mats jar tripes
    Jasper is my Tartan
    I am a trans-Jert spy
    Jerpty Samaritans
    Pijams are tyrants
    Jana Sperm Tit Arsy

  5. #5
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    Quote Originally Posted by Jasper May
    No no, Pravit, you're not getting my point. I meant that essentially every word in Chinese is written the same as in Japanese. Pronounced as differently as possible, of course, but written almost the same. I mean, even with my limited knowledge of basic Chinese, I can understand the gist of Japanese signs. I wouldn't be able to tell the difference between the tenses, aspects or cases, but the kanji (=hanzi) I can understand.
    That's not the case, Jasper May.
    There are really lots of Chinese origin words in modern Japanese which are written exactly the same way as they are in Chinese. Examples: 先生 (Ch. xiansheng / J. sensei) teacher, 雑誌 (Ch. zazhi / J/ zasshi) magazine, 鉛筆 (Ch. qianbi / J. enpitsu) pencil and many-many others. There are also Japanese origin words which are pronounced completely different from Chinese ones, but written the same, e.g.: 猫 (Ch. mao / J. neko) cat, 鳥 (Ch. niao / J. tori) bird, 車 (Ch. che / J. kuruma) car etc.
    However, if you try to understand Japanese sentences having learnt only Chinese, you find it absolutely impossible in most of cases. You maybe only understand some separate words, but not the sence. Japanese widely uses Hiragana and Katakana symbols, and some Kanji either used grammatically (unlike in Chinese) or have different meanings. Thus, 本 in Chinese (ben3) is either a classifier (used for counting) or 'root' (original meaning). In Japanese 本 (hon) means 'book'.

    If you learned Chinese, just try to understand this one:
    あなたが日本語を勉強しなかったら、日本人が書いたことは分かるまいと思います。

    So, you know Chinese hanzi and you don't know Japanese at all. I hope, you understand what 日本語 means, 日本人, probably, 勉強. But, please, try to guess what did I write there?

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    Yes, that was exactly my point. Besides that, there are a good amount of Japanese words that are written only with the kana, the one I can think of right now is "kawaii", but I'm sure given some time I can remember others. Trying to read that Japanese sentence gave me a comparable amount of confusion to my very early days in Russian when I just sat there flipping through a dictionary at every word What I meant is that you might be able to pick out a couple things, but "car (kana) man (kana) sun (kana) proceed (kana), car (kana) fast (kana) woman (kana)" isn't going to tell you a whole lot.

    Consider that Japanese is SOV whereas Chinese is SVO, and that all you've got is maybe a couple characters you recognize and a sea of kana. The verb "da", which is more or less like chinese "是", is written only in kana, as are all its forms, like "desu", "deshita", and so on. Same goes for "arimasu" etc. Street signs is one thing, but actual sentences are another thing.

    I'll attempt to read that sentence later, but only because I have a very bad(although existent) memory of kana, plus a Japanese dictionary with a kana guide in the back if I need some help.

    EDIT: Heh, it filtered out "deshita" because of that word lurking in there.

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    Did I say I could read japanese sentences? I only said I could get the gist of japanese signs. Then I said I could understand most of the kanji. Certainly, I can't read katakana/hiragana and I don't know the grammar, and I don't have any intention of learning them. But if a Chinese person was so inclined he could just learn those, and forget the kanji, right? He wouldn't be able to pronounce japanese, but he could read. Or am I still horribly wrong?
    Army Anti-Strapjes
    Nay, mats jar tripes
    Jasper is my Tartan
    I am a trans-Jert spy
    Jerpty Samaritans
    Pijams are tyrants
    Jana Sperm Tit Arsy

  8. #8
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    It is partly true. If a Chinese person had learned KANA and Japanese grammar (especially, sentence structure, since it is completely different in Japanese), he would be able to understand most of written (not spoken!) Japanese. But he should know a lot of Japanese words as well, since many of them have know KANJI writing.

    But some of KANJI have really different meaning in Japanese (see my previous post). And some of KANJI are used as ATEJI, i.e. to express a word pronunciation irrespectively of its meaning. Example: 真面目 is pronounced MAJIME in Japanese, and it means "serious". Notice that 真, 面, and 目 mean nothing more here than just syllables "MA", "JI", and "ME". There's no 'face' and no 'eye' here! That's an example of ATEJI.

  9. #9
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    If my memory serves me correctly, the kanji in the Japanese language can have on-yumi (a Chinese reading) or kun-yumi (a Japanese reading), or both. Such as the ideograph for 'person' having the on-yumi of nin or -jin, and the kun-yumi of hito or -bito.

    I could be wrong, however. I've only been studying kanji for a few months now.. and I'm trying to work on some other languages, too..

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    Краткая справка по японскому языку

    ЯПОНСКИЙ ЯЗЫК - язык японцев, государственный язык Японии. На Я. я. говорит около 112 млн. человек (1976, оценка). По звуковому и грамматическому строю близок к алтайским языкам (до 8 в. не было r-, нет l- и h-, сказуемое в конце предложения, препозиция определения). Диалекты: западная ветвь (лежит в основе старояпонского литературного языка) и восточная ветвь (лежит в основе национального литературного языка). Фонетико-фонологические черты: за каждым согласным следует гласный (ср. тюркское qaz и японское kari — «гусь», среднекитайское luk ® японское roku — «шесть», корейское cilgop- и японское yorokob-u — «радоваться», тюркское, монгольское tag — «гора», малайское daki — «подниматься» и японское take — «гора», английское New York ® японское N'u: yo: ku). В древних соответствиях конечнослоговые чаще отпадали (ср. вьетнамское mat и японское me/ma — «глаз», тюркское -lar и японское -га суффикс множественного числа, монгольское dargil и японское taki — «быстрое течение», tagir-u — «кипеть»; нанайское namo-kta ® япон. namida — «слёзы»). Утрата конечных согласных компенсировалось музыкальным ударением (неодинаковым в разных диалектах): hana — «цветок», hana — «нос».

    Японский язык — синтетический, номинативного строя. Грамматические роды, лица, числа, артикли, суффиксы притяжательности отсутствуют. Агглютинативных падежей 12, у флективных глаголов 3 залога, 10 наклонений, 3 относительных времени (предшествующее, непредшествующее, плюсквамперфект), аналитический длительный вид. Корни в основном неодносложные (atama — «голова», mushi — «насекомые»), близкие по звучанию близки и по значению (ср. mi-ru — «смотреть» и mori — «няня»; nami — «волны» и numa — «болото»; shiro-shira- — «белый» и shimo — «иней», «низ»). Есть древние общие корни с алтайскими, австронезийскими (субстрат) языками, а также заимствования из этих языков, из китайского (до половины словаря) и индоевропейских языков (6% слов). Письменные памятники известны с 6—7 вв.

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    The bear looked at the car, and reflections of fire danced in his eyes. He knew what to do.

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