Tuesday, November 22, 2005

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.


Edy said...

Did you ever watch any episodes of the old "Batman & Robin" Tv series? All the fights had the sounds spelled out. Very interesting.

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