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Japanese: More expressive?

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Japanese: More expressive?

Postby CajunCoder » Sun 08.23.2009 3:50 am

Those of you well acquainted with both English and Japanese, what comparative characteristics do you find the languages to have? Do you find that Japanese is more expressive? Or that, in contrast, English is better suited for speaking more technically, or neutrally?

One of the reasons I ask this is because I've been trying my hand at translating (specifically, subtitling dramas) just for fun. And I've been alarmed at how many simple sentences and ideas can't be rendered well in English, or take a lot more words and rewriting. In fact, speaking English, I often find myself lacking the ability to easily express ideas that can be in Japanese (granted, the reverse also happens when I am speaking Japanese, but that is more due to my poor Japanese, I think). In this aspect, Japanese seems more natural and versatile, and English much more clumsy.

Conversely (and again, this may simply be due to my unfamiliarity with Japanese), I find Japanese to be more clumsy when describing technical things.

Do these observations ring true for everyone else? Or is it just my limited experience/perspective?
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Re: Japanese: More expressive?

Postby furrykef » Sun 08.23.2009 4:29 am

I don't really believe in the idea that any language is more or less expressive than any other, due to the simple fact that languages will "grow" features that they need and will often (but less reliably) get rid of ones they don't. The only time you'll encounter considerable difficulty in expressing a thought in a language that you speak at a near-native level is when trying to communicate an idea that the speakers of that language just don't talk about very often, or they don't consider it important enough.

There's an interesting Japanese word I found in EDICT once. It's 無精ひげ (ぶしょうひげ) -- a beard you have because you're too lazy to shave. (I have no idea how common this word is, just that it exists.) You take this concept, squeeze it into a few syllables, and go, "Wow, this is an expressive language!" Except, of course, we still understand the concept perfectly in English, too; it just takes more words to say it. So the Japanese word is more compact, but not more expressive. If you really do need a shorter term for it -- perhaps you're about to refer to the concept repeatedly -- you can always coin one, like "laziness beard"; you'll only have to explain it the first time, after all. That's how such words get invented in the first place -- and the Japanese word itself does mean, in fact, "laziness beard".

If you want to look into compact languages, though, you might try Classical Chinese. Most of its words are only one character and hence only one syllable (although that's just in written form; the spoken form was probably more verbose).

A famous example, from Sun Tzu:
知彼知己,百戰不殆

"If you know your enemies and know yourself, you will not be imperiled in a hundred battles." (Literally: Know others know self, 100 battles without danger.")

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Re: Japanese: More expressive?

Postby becki_kanou » Sun 08.23.2009 5:57 am

While some things may be capable of being described in one word in one language while requiring a descriptive sentence in another language, on the whole it balances out and I don't think it's accurate to say that one language is more or less expressive than any other. All human languages are capable of expressing any concept their speakers are capable of having.

Also, 無精髭 is a pretty common phrase (my husband usually has one...) but there's a perfectly good expression in English as well: 5 o'clock shadow.
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Re: Japanese: More expressive?

Postby furrykef » Sun 08.23.2009 8:25 am

Hmm, I didn't know that the meaning overlapped that heavily with "five o'clock shadow". Thanks :)
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Re: Japanese: More expressive?

Postby mbridge » Sun 08.23.2009 7:28 pm

becki_kanou wrote:While some things may be capable of being described in one word in one language while requiring a descriptive sentence in another language, on the whole it balances out and I don't think it's accurate to say that one language is more or less expressive than any other. All human languages are capable of expressing any concept their speakers are capable of having.

Also, 無精髭 is a pretty common phrase (my husband usually has one...) but there's a perfectly good expression in English as well: 5 o'clock shadow.

Yeah, I was about to say....
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Re: Japanese: More expressive?

Postby jcdietz03 » Tue 08.25.2009 9:45 pm

I think English is more expressive than Japanese, but I don't know Japanese, so that' s probably why I think that.
English borrows words from other languages, but usually not from Japanese (though we do have a few, like Sayonara and sushi).

Japanese borrows words like crazy from English. I saw "Yay" on some Japanese pop idol's website (in katakana) - I never saw that before (though I don't read very much on the Japanese web). Seriously, you never know which word they're going to steal next.

Awhile back there was a guy who wanted to know how to say "teamwork" in Japanese, and he made a side comment about how Japanese is more expressive. Naturally, the best way to say this is using katakana...

This whole issue you're talking about is why fansub groups have editors. They take a more literal translation and change it to sound more natural. When you see "localization editor" on the credits of a translated work, that is what these people do for a living. These people are very good at what they do.

So...when you translate...do you drop the name suffixes? I tend to like the suffixes dropped when watching anime, because English does not use name suffixes. However, it can be a little confusing when the onscreen character says Kagome-chan while the subtitle says Kagome.

I put in an EDICT amendment request for 無精髭 adding 5-o'clock shadow to English definitions list. We'll see if it is approved!
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Re: Japanese: More expressive?

Postby Harisenbon » Tue 08.25.2009 10:03 pm

jcdietz03 wrote:I think English is more expressive than Japanese, but I don't know Japanese, so that' s probably why I think that.
English borrows words from other languages, but usually not from Japanese (though we do have a few, like Sayonara and sushi).


You'd be surprised how many japanese words are in english, but you just don't notice it (mostly because they're so mis-pronounced or mis-represented that most people don't realize that they're japanese).

jcdietz03 wrote:Seriously, you never know which word they're going to steal next.


I had to check the markup to make sure my eyes weren't playing tricks on me...
Is there any particular reason you decided to bold the word steal? Do you really think that vocabulary assimilation is stealing?
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Re: Japanese: More expressive?

Postby jcdietz03 » Tue 08.25.2009 10:34 pm

No, I don't really think that. It's more like copying since English speakers don't lose any words.
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Re: Japanese: More expressive?

Postby keatonatron » Tue 08.25.2009 10:35 pm

English stole every word in its vocabulary...
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Re: Japanese: More expressive?

Postby phreadom » Wed 08.26.2009 3:23 am

Harisenbon wrote:
jcdietz03 wrote:English borrows words from other languages, but usually not from Japanese (though we do have a few, like Sayonara and sushi).


You'd be surprised how many japanese words are in english, but you just don't notice it (mostly because they're so mis-pronounced or mis-represented that most people don't realize that they're japanese).


List of English words of Japanese origin - Wikipedia

Why wonder when you can Wikipedia! :D
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Re: Japanese: More expressive?

Postby Harisenbon » Wed 08.26.2009 5:37 am

phreadom wrote:Why wonder when you can Wikipedia! :D


I had actually JUST come from that site when you posted that. ;)
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Re: Japanese: More expressive?

Postby keatonatron » Wed 08.26.2009 6:22 am

Photographers use the word ぼけ in English???

That's.... so wierd :shock:
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Re: Japanese: More expressive?

Postby JaySee » Wed 08.26.2009 6:46 am

Although admittedly the vast majority of these words are for typically Japanese things that were previously unknown in the Western world, so it would make sense to just copy the Japanese name along with the item. If you look at English words in Japanese however, I think that this is much less often the case, and there are quite a few for which there were already "perfectly good Japanese equivalents available before" - something often brought up by people who aren't happy with the increasing amount of English borrowings in Japanese. That said, in many cases there are subtle differences between the English borrowing and its Japanese "equivalent".
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Re: Japanese: More expressive?

Postby phreadom » Wed 08.26.2009 6:52 am

JaySee wrote:Although admittedly the vast majority of these words are for typically Japanese things that were previously unknown in the Western world, so it would make sense to just copy the Japanese name along with the item. If you look at English words in Japanese however, I think that this is much less often the case, and there are quite a few for which there were already "perfectly good Japanese equivalents available before" - something often brought up by people who aren't happy with the increasing amount of English borrowings in Japanese. That said, in many cases there are subtle differences between the English borrowing and its Japanese "equivalent".


I think this has been brought up on the forum a few times, with some heated exchanges... I'd have to go digging to be sure. Personally I'm of the camp that dislikes things like ぎゅうにゅう→ミルク etc. As you said maybe there's some subtle difference in meaning, but it seems that a lot of it is just being copied because it's "cool". But it seems to me that you lose the etymological interrelationships between words when you do that and rather than having a chance to infer the meaning from its parts, you're left having to learn words entirely by rote... not to mention that once borrowed they are often times unintelligible to both Japanese and English, so that both groups have to learn "new" words etc.
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Re: Japanese: More expressive?

Postby astaroth » Wed 08.26.2009 9:10 am

keatonatron wrote:Photographers use the word ぼけ in English???
That's.... so wierd :shock:

Yeah I know. I never quite understood how it came into being and sort of suspecting that a long vowel or a っ is missing.
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