“You’re kidding! That guy?!”
“Wow! Appearances are deceiving, eh?”
“No way! The person I know….”
These things we say in the heat of the moment are connected to character. I pointed this out early on in this series (especially in part 4) and said it again recently (part 53 and later). By making a “linguistic turn” here, we can find similar phenomena in the world of language. For now, let’s take a look at verbal characters (parts 45 and 46 of this series).
Perhaps the first Japanese linguistic research textbook to deal with verbal characters head-on was Yasashii Nihongo no Shikumi (Kurosio, 2003) by Isao IORI, Mizuho HIDAKA, Naoko MAEDA, Toshihiro YAMADA, and Shigemi YAMATO. This book was early in taking up the ideas of Vaacharu Nihongo: Yakuwarigo no Nazo (Virtual Japanese: The Mystery of Role Language) (Iwanami, 2003). It used the phrase “Sochira no oshina o asshi ni kudachai” (give me that item please) as an example of how style of speaking changes depending on character (pp. 78–80).
Although the meaning of this example—give me that item—is clear, the sentence is unnatural. The unnaturalness comes from the fact that the character is inconsistent within the sentence. In the beginning, “sochira no oshina o” (“that item,” polite form) is the language of a refined character, while “asshi ni” (“I/me”) are the words of a snappy “Edo native” character and “kudachai” (babytalk form of kudasai “please”) is a childish character’s expression. The point made in this textbook seems to be that when we consider language, it’s necessary to pay attention not only to meaning, but also to the character of the speaker.
While it is not my intention at all to question the value of this pioneering textbook, one point of which we should take note that the assumption here is “the speaker’s character remains consistent for the entire sentence.” I cannot accept this assumption unconditionally. In past columns, I have pointed out characters that are assumed to be consistent, but that in reality aren’t necessarily so. They are constantly wavering, and I think this can happen even in the middle of a sentence.
I will give just one example here that should be easy for the reader to understand. It comes from Momoko, a young girl in Morio Kita’s(1) Nireke no Hitobito(2) (1964). Momoko, being mocked by her older sister over her poor grades, says “He, sayoo de gozaimasuka, doose sono toori de gozaimashoo yo” (Yeah, whatever. I suppose it is just as you say), while not listening to a word her sister says. Also, when her older sister suggests using the word “tafusagi” because “fundoshi”(3) sounds unfashionable, she rejects the idea, and jeers “He, nani ga tafusagi de gozaimasu ka yo” (What on earth is a tafusagi?). I’m probably not the only one who thinks that the sarcasm in Momoko’s tone comes from the mixing of a vulgar character, who begins and ends the sentence with “he”(4) and “ka yo”(5) respectively, and a refined character, who uses “sayoo de gozaimasu ka.”(6)
“Sochira no oshina wo asshi ni kudachai” on the other hand is an unnatural imperative, and it is probably very safe to assume that this unnaturalness comes from the inconsistency in the speaker’s character.
I will talk about whether or not it is advisable to assume that “the character of the speaker that produces verbal behavior is consistent” another time; for now, we will just look at cases in which this assumption is valid.
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(1) Alias of novelist and essayist, Sokichi SAITO (1927–)
(2) English title: The House of Nire
(3) Tafusagi and Fundoshi both mean “loincloth.”
(4) An expression of mild surprise or disbelief . Usually only used in casual conversation.
(5) An emphatic interrogative sentence ending particle. Somewhat like “?!” in English.
(6) Polite form of “sou desu ka” (Is that so?).
Professor of Linguistics at Kobe University. Ph.D.: Kyoto University, 1998. Research Interests: Personal Experience in Grammar and Communication.
(1) Bonnou no Bunpou: Taikien o Kataritagaru Hitobito no Yokubou ga Nihongo no Bunpou System o Yusaburu Hanashi (The Grammar of Earthly Desires: How Our Desire to Narrate Daily Experiences Shape Japanese Grammatical Systems). Tokyo: Chikumashobo, 2008;
(2) Sasayaku Koibito, Rikimu Repootaa: Kuchi no naka no Bunka (Whispering Lovers and Creaking Reporters: Culture in Our Mouth). Tokyo: Iwanami, 2005;
(3) Ninchi Gengoron (A Cognitive Study of Language). Tokyo: Taishukan, 2000.