Tuesday, November 29, 2005

ていうか (teiuka)

This is a great phrase to learn even if you can't say anything else at all in Japanese. I absolutely love the phrase, and I wonder why my Japanese teacher at Uni never thought to include it in a lesson.

Maybe because it's not Mombusho Japanese (all-Japanese site - consider yourself warned).

ていうか can be translated in a lot of different ways. It's a slang expression for all practical purposes, and, like English slang, is fluid and easy to slip into conversation.

Some possible meanings are:

"you know..."

When I hear the phrase on Japanese television, it feels like "you know..." most of the time. Sometimes "you know..." doesn't work in my head in English, so I think of ていうか as "like..."

A few simple examples are:

ていうか、お風呂に入りたいですけど (teiuka, ofuro ni hairitai desu kedo)
You know, I'd like to hop in the shower but [something is stopping me - probably the person being spoken to]

ね、ね、これ何?(ne, ne, kore nani?)
ていうか、それは。。。え~っと。。。分からん(teiuka, sore ha... e~tto... wakaran)
Hey, hey, what's this?
Like, it's like... umm... I dunno.

ていうか、マックの代わりにモスバーガーに行こうか(teiuka, makku no kawari ni mosu ba-ga- ni ikou ka)
Actually, let's go to Mos Burger instead of McDonald's.

You can see quickly that ていうか is used to introduce a thought or what I like to think of as stalling for time.

The Japanese are famous for this. Go anywhere, meet anyone, and within the first 5 minutes you will hear a "stalling" expression like: え~っと、あのね、あのぉ、さあ、and of course ていうか.

I should point out that ていうか usually flows with whatever follows it - that is to say, it is NOT used in the same way that English speakers use "ummm" to stall for time when collecting thoughts or when lost for words.

So, if you're just starting out with Japanese, try to insert ていうか into your next conversation lesson and maybe score some brownie points with the teacher -- excuse me, 先生.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Viewing Japanese TV Programs

So I finished my last post and wanted to research Japanese television programs online.

Here's some of the stuff I've found:

http://beelinetv.com/ -- streamed Japanese television stations.

http://www.telsat.com/frequ.htm -- Satellite Feeds for those in New Zealand!

http://www.mpeg2-dvb.com/iprog1.htm -- Satellite company offering free feeds from various companies and pay-per-view feeds from others. Japan's NHK!

http://www.ftasatellite.com/JapaneseTV.htm -- Free To Air Satellite Channels from Japan!

http://www.tvjapan.net/eng/index.html -- Japanese Company's homepage for Satellite feed.

Dish Network -- not a lot going on from Dish Network...

Direct TV -- doesn't even offer a Japanese channel in it's South Asian package

Online TV Player -- could this be for real? Don't take my word for it - looks promising though.

A Note about Hiragana, Katakana, and Kanji

When I was thinking of what to write for my next post, I settled on the phrase "ていうか" which will be discussed in more detail later.

What I realized is missing from a lot of student's knowledge base is a basic explanation of why and when Japanese people use Hiragana over Katakana and vice versa, and why sometimes obvious, even easy kanji (if such a thing can be said without accusations of clinical insanity thrown in one's face) are not used when they could be used.

The best example of this in my opinion is Japanese television. Anyone who has been made to sit through one of these programs will appreciate my next statement:

The Japanese have a quirky love of subtitles.

With the exception of Japanese Drama's (like "Last Christmas" of 2004, and "電車男" [densha otoko, Train Boy] of early 2005), I'm prepared to state that all Japanese television programs employ Japanese "subtitles" of a sort throughout the show.

It's kind of unfair to call these "subtitles" because in the strictest sense of the term they don't follow a uniform font, size, or color, and they certainly don't appear in locations that do not conflict with the action.

A Japanese pop star will be on some kind of "talk show," for lack of a better term, and she will say something in her local dialect, something humorous, or something out of character, and as the show is pre-recorded, the AV people will print out exactly what she says in various fonts (even as far as changing the font within a sentence goes) in order to emphasize her words. Sometimes the text is animated.

And the quirkiest thing of all is that there seems to be no rhyme or reason to why they choose Hiragana, Katakana, or Kanji for their "subtitles."

Now ok the explanation might leave you going "huh?" if you've never seen one of these shows. So let me give you a brief example:

The Show's Host will say something to which the star replies in shock or awe. By far the most common expression of being impressed with something is "すごい (sugoi)" which can be translated as one of a thousand different English expressions. For the purposes of simplicity let's go with "wow" as one possible meaning.

But in Japanese, the word すごい can be changed based on location, demographic, or generation. That's my over-complicated way of saying language takes on a personal twist. Easy example in English is that not everyone says "wow" when something appropriate for that response happens. Some people say "whoa!" or "neat!" or "goodness!" (if we want to go back in time a bit). A professor, which I am not, could argue that "whoa" is an evolution of "wow" but I would only smile and nod to appease him. I personally think they are two distinct words which may be related, but are in no way a mutation one of the other.

However in Japanese, the term すごい doesn't get dismantled and reassembled with new kana like "whoa" gets the 'a' and 'h' and drops a 'w' making it a cousin to "wow."

No no - in Japanese, the word literally morphs in a way based on, well, where you grew up. There are also some gender issues, but that doesn't appear so much in English, and is at best a thing you "have to accept" when learning a European language with gender roots (like "el" and "la" in Spanish - never really could grip it myself - just had to bite the bullet and go "ok sure").

So back to my original point - the word すごい can change to be すげぇ (sugee) - yes that is a little え on purpose if you haven't seen something like it before. Now most Japanese people will tell you that this word makes you sound like a boy (if you are a boy I don't suppose that it's a problem), but let's assume this pop star on the TV show says すげぇぇぇぇ because, most likely, it's something she heard a lot growing up from her siblings (brothers) or it is a popular (read: common) expression where she grew up. Or maybe she's just trying to be cheeky on purpose. Who knows.

The point is that they AV people will print すげぇぇぇぇ on the TV right over her head in some kind of strange orange and black flaming font that adds an ぇ for as long as she holds the sound. But here's the kicker - most Japanese people will tell you that a word like すごい is written in Hiragana. Indeed, you will not find it on your JLPT or other test written in Katakana (at least I hope you haven't because I would be a liar then). However - on the TV show, you can see the word in Katakana! Then it would be スゲェェェェ instead.


I have no clue. I've asked and received laureat-worthy answers from academic and drunken salaryman alike, but honestly, I don't believe there really is a reason. It's one of those feeling situations that a very very long time living in Japan will breed inside a person. This stuff goes beyond classroom learning and into that special area of linguistics that I don't know the name for. I call it "touchy feely lingo," but I'm sure someone much more in the know has coined a far more complicated and less understandable term.

The popular response is that katakana adds emphasis over hiragana, but even that theme doesn't hold across all television shows, nor situations which can be paralelled with the example I've given above. It seems like AV people at studios just do it on a whim.

Of course kanji is used extensively to print what people are saying. And the only evidence I can find to support why the AV staff working on a television show needs to do this is:

  1. It's culture. They've been doing this for years and years (hmm - might be interesting to research that actually - note to self) and it just sticks. Fair enough.
  2. Japanese people are terrible at speaking Japanese. They really are bad! Someone living here 10 years or more who has traveled to remote areas of Japan would swear in court that Japanese skills among Japanese people are very very poor. They need these subtitles at times just to understand the various dialects of these pop stars and other personalities who appear on TV.
Quirky. Funny. Something probably interesting only to people currently living in Japan or those receiving Japanese satellite feeds in other countries. Imagine if a show like the old Jerry Springer stuff had the English printed on the screen every time a guest became a bit passionate, shall we say? What would they do in the spots with the expletives? Smiley faces?

Imagine that - that's how strange it can be at times.

Monday, November 21, 2005

Let's Talk About 羅

I was prodded in the direction to make my blog more about the things I find interesting. I suppose that was always the original intent of this blog, but as of this moment I'm taking a renewed interest in writing in my own "voice" so to speak, rather than trying to appease the ghost of many a lit professor of the past looking over my shoulder and constantly grading for sense and sensibility. Here we go.

You might notice in the navigation bar to the left that my name is listed as 帝羅. I can promise you, whether you are Japanese or Chinese, you probably cannot read this kanji as I intend it to be read the first time.

I don't particularly want to discuss the first kanji, because it's very easy. It is the kanji used for Emperor in the Japanese sense. Soothill's Dictionary of Chinese Buddhist Terms (login with the UserID "guest" for full access) can be quickly consulted to show the meaning of 帝 and it's list of pronunciations. If you're not of the mental persuasion to visit such a site at this time, I can tell you for naught that there are ten listed pronunciations two of which - だい (dai) and たい (tai) - are used in Japanese.

So - 帝 means Emperor - sorted.

羅 on the other hand is a very mixed bag. Keeping in mind that I'm not a professional please accept my explanation on faith alone that, yes, I was told these things about this kanji when I first chose it as one of the characters to represent my name. Opps - that was a bit of private information thrown in there accidentally.

Of course I consulted a few online sites for help with understanding the history of this kanji. First I found Kiki's Kanji Dictionary which returned the results as:

gauze, thin silk, Rome

This kanji has 19 strokes: 6 in the "net crown" radical (あみがしら) and 13 other strokes. (I copied the stroke count information just for those wishing the full range of mental anguish per new kanji).

Look at that, the kanji 羅 can mean gauze and Rome (depending on context!).

This is where kanji always does my head in. It's fine if the kanji is used to mean gauze or thin silk because it does, in deed, have the kanji for thread (糸 いと) right inside it! Hint: You can use the Edict Kanji Dictionary to verify that if you'd like. Just type in いと (ito) in the search engine and use your browser's Search or Find On Page function to seek out the text "thread" quickly. When you find 糸 on it's own you can come back and say "ok now I believe you."

But "Rome"? How does a kanji get to share the meaning for one of the greatest civilizations ever with the rather drab word "thread"?

I didn't buy it either - so I moved on in my search to:

category: 常用漢字
nb of strokes: 19
translation: net, put in a row (conf.)

あみ: net
つら.ねる: put in a row
うすもの: light stuff

Which comes from the English-Japanese Dictionary of Kanji Character #136.

So "net" can be made of something like "thread" and I can go with it linking the meanings "gauze" and "thin silk" because we're discovering a kind of clothy theme with this kanji. I still don't buy "Rome."

So I continued in my search towards a point that I felt was more accurate. Here is where my personal story enters.

This kanji was chosen for me by some of my favorite students. They chose it because it is "cool." Which doesn't mean something is "cool" at all by traditional definitions. However, I confirmed with independent sources that 羅 is cool because a lot of YAKUZA MEMBERS like to use this kanji for their nicknames.

Perhaps the beloved students I thought were looking out for me were trying to get me into trouble with the Japanese mafia?

Anyway - I liked the look of it, and it was a far sight better than alternative kanji with the same reading like 平 (たいら taira "flat, smooth surface" /yawn /cough /lame), so I stuck with it. One of my professor friends with degrees and awards and other pieces of paper besides relating to Chinese Poetry and Buddhism told me that 羅 was the kanji used representing one of the Buddhist "realms" of reality outside our own. This 羅 represents the Realm of the Titans where there are, presumably of course, some rather large beings of titanic size doing rather large things with themselves. I immediately imagined Cyclops from Roman tales (Greek?) and "got" the connection with Rome. It's also far more cool to us 羅 just for the sound effect. 羅 should be said "ra~" with a kind of trail one uses when opening one's mouth to let a doctor look at the back of the throat. Better than "net" anyway.

Still I am not satisfied with this explanation. My electronic dictionary also confirms that 羅 can be used as a noun for "net" or as a verb for "put things in a straight line" which I suppose is what a net is like when it's constructed. I am not a maker of nets, nor do I plan to try anytime in the forseeable future (read: never).

I turned up at a site by Soothill and Hodous which gave me this interesting defintion that I've linked and copied for you:

多羅 tārā, in the sense of starry, or scintillation; Tāla, for the fan-palm; Tara, from 'to pass over', a ferry, etc. Tārā, starry, piercing, the eye, the pupil; the last two are both Sanskrit and Chinese definitions; it is a term applied to certain female deities and has been adopted especially by Tibetan Buddhism for certain devīs of the Tantric school. The origin of the term is also ascribed to tar meaning 'to cross', i. e. she who aids to cross the sea of mortality. Getty, 19-27. The Chinese derivation is the eye; the tara devīs; either as śakti or independent, are little known outside Lamaism. Tāla is the palmyra, or fan-palm, whose leaves are used for writing and known as 具多 Pei-to, pattra. The tree is described as 70 or 80 feet high, with fruit like yellow rice-seeds; the borassus eabelliformis; a measure of 70 feet. Taras, from to cross over, also means a ferry, and a bank, or the other shore. Also 呾囉.

Now the first kanji listed there is "た (ta)" and means
【多い】 [おおい] (adj) many/numerous/(P) by itself. So you'll immediately think "right, a large number of nets." But instead, almost cruelly, you get the meaning "in the sense of starry" which may refer to the skies where these other realms of Buddhism are thought to exist. So perhaps we have a connection to the Realm of the Titans meaning by virtue of "a lot of RA" being starry or scintillating. I remain unconvinced.

I wanted a definition of just this one kanji, so I refined my search and came up with:

A net (for catching birds), gauze, open work; sieve; to arrange in order; translit. la and ra南羅 S. Lāra; Lāḍa; Lāṭa, in Gujarāt; 北羅 N. Lāra, Valabhī, on the western coast of Gujarāt. sounds, e.g.

Now we're back to the gauze meaning. Although we have gained "sieve" which could be a good thing, time has yet to tell.

The interesting point of all this information is that I was shown a site very soon after I started using this kanji with the listed defintions:

1. Realm of the Titans
2. Penis

I'm not big on making my discussions anything more than PG-13 at worst, so I'll let you re-read it to avoid re-typing. I have been unable to find this definition again through the websites I used today, but I will persevere and find out how "net," "Rome," and "XXXXX" all came to use the same kanji (probably 1 kanji among many for the latter of the three words).

Moral of the story: choose your kanji wisely. Like all elements of language (any language) one definition does not satisfy the range of possibly interpretations (which is like saying "green" is in the eye of the beholder).