December 2, 2010 | Japanese

Japanese Writing: Intimidating

In which my new Japanese book scares me.

I have a cold. Colds are not good for language skills, including in your native tongue.

Today I got out my Rosetta Stone disks and tried to install the software. I promptly got trapped in software-bug hell, in an endless loop of windows that kept demanding I update the software, even though I had already updated multiple times. Resolving the problem took 54 minutes on the phone with three Rosetta Stone reps.

I hate software problems beyond all reason.

So, Rosetta Stone for Japanese is now loaded up and ready to go, though I was too exhausted after my phone ordeal to deal with it further.

Instead I did some Pimsleur, then got sleepy, then realized to my delight that I now have a fresh supply of 90 Pimsleur lessons to nap to. As I have mentioned many times before, there is nothing more relaxing than a Pimsleur lesson. If I am tired, I pass out almost instantly. Pimsleur is a bad sleeper’s panacea.

I fell asleep in Lesson 2 and woke up in Lesson 5, not knowing what the hell the people in the lesson were saying. You can learn a lot in three Pimsleur lessons, but only if you’re awake.

Barnes & Noble, 66th Street, Closing Soon

Barnes & Noble, 66th Street, Closing Soon

Soon These Shelves Will Be Gone

Soon These Shelves Will Be Gone

Once vertical again, I dragged myself to a pharmacy to get some Sudafed, and then to the Barnes & Noble on Broadway and 66th to look for Japanese books. This store is closing soon—permanently. Sad, because I have bought quite a few of my language books there.

When I surveyed the Japanese shelves, my heart sank a little, as I noticed that there are entire books dedicated to Japanese particles. I have an irrational fear of particles.

For now I bought just one book, Master the Basics: Japanese, by Nobuo Akiyama and Carol Akiyama. It is from Barron’s, whose language books I have generally not loved, but I thought I’d give it a try anyway.

The book and I then went off to Café Margot, where I bought a huge tea and began reading. I learned that yama, which is the name of one of my favorite sushi restaurants in New York City, means “mountain.” I have been eating at Yama for years and never knew that.

Much more significantly, though, I read things about the Japanese writing system. Things that scared me, starting with this: “Traditionally, Japanese is written from top to bottom and from right to left. But it is also written horizontally and from left to right, as in English.”

That seems like way too much choice. Imagine if someone said about English: “It’s fine to write left to right in horizontal rows, but if you feel like it, make it top to bottom instead, and start on the opposite side of the page, and go right to left. Whatever you want!”

I am guessing there are rules on this directional issue for Japanese that I will encounter shortly. I hope so.

I Hope This Will Live Up to the Promise of Its Title

I Hope This Will Live Up to the Promise of Its Title

Next I read that there are three different kinds of characters in Japanese writing. This may explain why I’ve often had trouble identifying Japanese when I see it.

First is kanji, borrowed from Chinese. Those characters can be very complicated, with many strokes. I read, “Japanese people learn about 2,000 kanji by the end of junior high school….Most Japanese know several thousand additional kanji as well.”

That’s a lot of symbols, and that’s just the first type. Then there is hiragana: symbols representing syllables found in native Japanese words and “grammatical elements.” Not sure what “grammatical elements” means—maybe particles?

Third, there is katakana, representing syllables in words of foreign origin.

According to the book, there are 46 hiragana symbols and 46 for katakana. But the tables they gave for each type have a lot more than 46 symbols in them! I am officially confused.

As with other languages using different writing systems, one can render Japanese sounds with the Roman alphabet (the Roman alphabet being what English, French, Spanish, etc., use). With Japanese, this is commonly referred to as romaji. I will probably use romaji a lot in these entries—or at least something approximating it.

After I read this stuff, my cold symptoms took a turn for the worse. I decided I was now officially too germy to impose my presence on innocent bystanders, so I took my tea, and my scary Japanese book, home.

Comments (2)

Julie • Posted on Mon, December 06, 2010 - 8:46 am EST

Moshi moshi,

You are on a blogging tear lately.

I stumbled upon the following only because I had to Google “Japanese particles.” I actually thought you were talking about something science-related. Or maybe sushi-related. Isn’t that sad?

I find Japanese fascinating because of all its different dimensions (layout, symbols, etc.), plus I’ve always just liked the look of Kanji characters. I’ll continue to loiter and comment.

Ellen Jovin • Posted on Tue, December 07, 2010 - 1:51 am EST

Thanks for that link! Or rather, domo arigato!

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