Learn Japanese with JapanesePod101.com

View topic - Kanji Expressiveness

Kanji Expressiveness

Japanese, general discussion on the language

Kanji Expressiveness

Postby CardinalGuy724 » Mon 09.05.2011 1:02 pm

Hey Everyone,

So I haven't posted in quite a long time but decided today to make a new topic :lol:

I was recently reading this old thread (http://thejapanesepage.com/forum/viewto ... ipt+reform) which started off as an inquiry as to why foreigners study kanji and quickly dissolved into an argument about the indispensability of kanji and how expressive it really is.

Before I keep writing I want to make clear that I am *not* making the claim here that kanji are indispensable to Japanese...that's not the point of this thread. I recognize the (harsh) reality that all political obstacles aside, a completely phonetic script is in theory possible.

My main point of this thread is to show all the quirky "cherry on top" benefits that kanji provide to written Japanese. It was argued in the other thread whether or not kanji in and of themselves can add to the expressiveness of a language and I think they can to a certain degree. I think there are some areas where kanji add expressiveness. Now...and this is important...I am not saying that these added benefits are so great that without them the language would lose all expressive ability...In truth these aren't be all end all things but they are still interesting to talk about nonetheless. So here are just a few examples of things that Japanese is capable of...but only in written/not spoken form and with the aid of kanji.



1) Substituting in certain kanji for others for literary affect.

Now in the other thread the point was made for example that you can use different kanji for different shades of meaning of a particular word (mostly verbs). For instance, 聞く、聴く、訊く all mean to "hear" or "listen" with various shades of meaning. But as was pointed out, the verb "kiku" already had these shades of meaning and the kanji merely reiterate that fact making them in some sense slightly redundant.

Instead I'm referring to a different way kanji can be substituted for each other. For instance, the famous movie "Grave of the Fireflies" uses 火垂るの墓 as its title, substituting the standard kanji for the word "firefly" 蛍 for the compoud+okurigana 火垂る. This has caused some debate over the true meaning of the phrase in the movie. For instance, some (and this is according to Wikipedia) believe the kanji invokes the image of senkou hanabi which are sparklers you have to hold quite still or else they go out easily-representing the fragility of life. Another interpretation was that it was a reference to the firebombings present in the movie. Whatever the interpretation may be, this was only able to be done with the aid of kanji. If Japanese was romanized and the title was simply "Hotaru no Haka" then there is no way to get that added shade of meaning to the word Hotaru.


2) Visual alliteration

We're all familiar with alliteration in terms of sounds (The black bug bit Bob's boot). But visual alliteration is also possible with kanji. For instance, the title of the video game "Katamari Damacy" in the original Japanese uses the kanji pairing 塊魂. "Katamari" and "T(D)amashii" are not alliterative in the slightest in terms of pronunciation, but when written in kanji since they both share a rather prominent radical the alliteration is there visually.
Now of course you may say that that visual alliteration is also possible in phonetic scripts as well. In my original example the letter 'b' shows up numerous times and creates the alliteration visually, but it is intrinsically related to the pronunciation. Visual alliteration that is not connected to pronunciation is really only productively feasible with kanji (I'm sure in English it *may* be possible in very limited settings if for example you try using visual alliteration with the "-ough" compound because it has so many different pronunciations, but in languages with truly phonetic scripts (not just pseudo phonetic like English) I don't think it is possible).

3) Affecting the perceived formality/feeling/character of a text overall.

The kanji/kana usage provides many options to use when writing. I don't think anyone would dispute that the following sentences all give off a different feeling when read, despite all being identical when spoken:

此れは珈琲です。
これはコーヒーです。
コレハコーヒーデス。

Even though this is just a very short very easy sentence (This is coffee) each one gives off a different feel that is seemingly intangible but definitely there. The first one seems stiff and ancient or perhaps extremely formal. The second seems relatively normal and contemporary-very neutral. The third almost seems non-human, as if an alien or robot was speaking.

The ability to do this would be lost if kanji were replaced by romaji. There is no workable way around it and it is not something that is reproducible in speech.


4) Using kanji to make foreign (read English/western) words more readily accessible

When "Tobacco" was first introduced as a Japanese word, I'm sure that many people did not know at first what it meant especially if it was their first time encountering it in a text. So imagine how much easier it was to understand written as 煙草 (literally smoke+grass) with the furigana for "tobako" written over it? Now of course, since tobako is now a standard Japanese word, virtually everyone understands what it means and the kanji are no longer a benefit. But what about if a writer wanted to incorporate an English word that had not yet been adopted into Japanese? The solution would be to simply write the word in kanji with the English pronunciation in furigana.

Let's say for instance that Japanese didn't have the word 吸血鬼 (kyuuketsuki-literally suck+blood+demon) in its vocabulary. Let's say that most Japanese people also didn't know what vampires even were. Now someone has the idea of translating Bram Stoker's Dracula for the very first time into Japanese. How do you translate Vampire? One solution would be to simply write the English pronunciation of vampire on top of the newly coined kanji compound 吸血鬼 and I doubt anyone would have trouble understanding what that means.

---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------


So as I said in the beginning, these are not (and I repeat...NOT) arguments intended to be used to foster the idea that kanji are indispensable. I do not necessarily believe that. These are also not intended to imply that if Japanese did abandon kanji it would lose all or even most of its expressiveness and be a dry, boring language (obviously not true). All I am saying is that there are indeed specific instances where Kanji can and do add expressiveness to written Japanese (it's the icing on the cake in some ways) and that these specific ways that kanji add to the expressiveness of written Japanese cannot really be replicated by completely phonetic scripts.
CardinalGuy724
 
Posts: 21
Joined: Sun 05.15.2011 4:14 am
Native language: English

Re: Kanji Expressiveness

Postby phreadom » Mon 09.05.2011 2:21 pm

I just wanted to say thank you for the interesting post. :D It was a big of a long read, but very much worth it. :D

ありがとうございます :bow:
猿も木から落ちる
User avatar
phreadom
Site Admin
 
Posts: 1762
Joined: Sun 01.29.2006 8:43 pm
Location: Michigan, USA
Native language: U.S. English (米語)
Gender: Male

Re: Kanji Expressiveness

Postby AJBryant » Wed 09.07.2011 11:32 am

Neat stuff.

Especially the bit about "Hotaru no Haka," which traumatized me when I saw it when it first came out. :)
User avatar
AJBryant
Site Admin
 
Posts: 5313
Joined: Sun 10.09.2005 11:29 am
Location: Indiana
Native language: English
Gender: Male

Re: Kanji Expressiveness

Postby phreadom » Wed 09.07.2011 6:55 pm

AJBryant wrote:Neat stuff.

Especially the bit about "Hotaru no Haka," which traumatized me when I saw it when it first came out. :)


Not to stray too much, but yeah... that movie was kind of soul crushingly depressing. :cry: I might have to watch it again one of these days... it's been many years.
猿も木から落ちる
User avatar
phreadom
Site Admin
 
Posts: 1762
Joined: Sun 01.29.2006 8:43 pm
Location: Michigan, USA
Native language: U.S. English (米語)
Gender: Male

Re: Kanji Expressiveness

Postby Ongakuka » Wed 09.07.2011 8:15 pm

But as was pointed out, the verb "kiku" already had these shades of meaning and the kanji merely reiterate that fact making them in some sense slightly redundant.


But you proved that they are not redundant with your point. 3 right? The different kanji help the reader understand which shade of meaning the author is describing.

You noted that without kanji Japanese would still be a beautiful and expressive language. I entirely agree with you, and that's why I love Japanese so much: it's like learning TWO beautiful expressive languages :dance:
なぜなら、おまえは・・・・・・人形だ
User avatar
Ongakuka
 
Posts: 1000
Joined: Mon 09.26.2005 1:07 pm

Re: Kanji Expressiveness

Postby CardinalGuy724 » Fri 09.09.2011 6:22 am

Ongakuka wrote:
But you proved that they are not redundant with your point. 3 right? The different kanji help the reader understand which shade of meaning the author is describing.




I thought of that too, but a part of me was persuaded by the argument YudanTaiteki-san made in the above-linked thread that a native speaker could probably understand which shade was meant without kanji based off of the surrounding text, context of the story, etc. I think there are parallels in English too. For example, in Japanese the verb toru/take can be written with its "regular" kanji 取 or with the kanji 盗 which has the nuance of to steal. In English as well we have this double usage of to take but it can be obvious from context a lot of the time. If one were to write "the boy took the woman's purse while she wasn't looking", the verb "take" is used instead of "steal" but it is obvious from context that the stealing nuance was meant. Likewise if that sentence was translated into Japanese (男の子がこっそりとあの女性の鞄を盗りました), you'd probably use the "steal" kanji, but it would feel redundant because the boy's actions already convey the thought of stealing in our head without the kanji.
CardinalGuy724
 
Posts: 21
Joined: Sun 05.15.2011 4:14 am
Native language: English


Return to Japanese General Discussion

Who is online

Users browsing this forum: No registered users and 7 guests