Why think about characters? (Part 2)
Why think about characters? Why is it necessary, and what advantages are there, to thinking about characters? Last time we responded to this question by looking at Japanese language education. This time I want to propose a second answer by talking about the significance of thinking about verbal characters in linguistic research. In terms of significance, the reader might remember the “discovery” of the character particle, e.g. the pyo-n in expressions like uso da pyoon (I’m kidding pyoon). As you’ll recall, character particles may be mistaken for sentence-ending particles, but actually appear after even the sentence-ending particles (such as yo), and are coupled with the character of the speaker (like pyoon). Up until now, part of speech classifications have not taken character particles into account, nor has their position in sentences been addressed in structural observation. While they may appear to be frivolous and superficial, character particles in fact have the potential to advance the areas of speech classification and structural observation. I think this is easy to grasp, and as we have already discussed them previously in various columns (parts 1, 10, and 20) I want to look at a different significance of character particles here. First, let’s consider the following text regarding the omission of the syllable ra.
Let’s think about some ra-less words. For example, using the verb mireru instead of mirareru (in the sense of “to be able to see”) is a ra-less word. Similarly, using the verb nereru instead of nerareru (“to be able to sleep”) is also a ra-less word. Why are ra-less words becoming so wide-spread, particularly among the youth of Japan?
One explanation is that heretofore the Japanese grammatical system has assigned too many functions to the auxiliary verb rareru. There is the passive voice -rareru, as in Oya ni shikarareru (be scolded by one’s parents), and the honorific -rareru used in Okyakusama ga korareru (a customer will come). There is the spontaneous -rareru, as in Yuku sue ga anjirareru (a dreaded prospect) and the potential -rareru of Doonika mirareru (be somehow visible). It’s tricky to load four functions (the passive, honorific, spontaneous, and potential forms) on one -rareru. Therefore, one explanation is that the younger generation has removed one of these functions—the potential—reducing the load on -rareru to three, instead of four, functions.
This seems fully plausible. However, is the “trickiness” of loading -rareru with four functions really our “problem?” Maybe today’s youth are nervous that -rareru will not be interpreted as they intended. Maybe they feel sorry for their conversation partners who will have to figure out what -rareru means. Perhaps ra-less words are a bold step taken by the youth of today to save our troubled Japanese communication for tomorrow’s children. If so, why then don’t adults praise the use of ra-less words, and instead denigrate them heartlessly as the “sloppy language of uneducated youths?” Why don’t the youths proudly assert themselves, but rather mutter under their breaths “I’ve gotta be careful not to use ra-less words” at my job interview?
The image of the “speaker,” which is marched out to explain grammar, has been elevated to abnormally high levels of cleverness and rationality, not only in ra-less words.
[SADANOBU Toshiyuki, Bonnoo no Bunpou (The Grammar of Earthly Desires) Introduction, pp. 10–11, Chikumashobo Ltd., 2008.]
I didn’t think I’d be quoting myself at length at this final stage, but it does directly and conveniently sum up my thoughts (naturally), so I hope you’ll forgive me. This frightfully intellectualized “speaker,” quite removed from reality, tends to be trotted out by linguists to explain changes in language, such as the spread of ra-less words. The same is true when explaining variety in language, such as jargon (terminology/associated language and slang used by members of specific professions or groups) and language used by youths.
Jargon is often given teleonomic explanations; e.g. jargon is created and used because it’s effective for “preventing outsiders from understanding what the words mean,” “increasing a sense of identification with the group,” “strengthening bonds between insiders,” “casually advertising ones detailed knowledge of insider information in one’s own field,” “providing pure enjoyment with word-play,” and “quickly conveying information.”
Certainly, jargon is created and used in vast quantities, and such explanations fit a wide range of jargon. However, there is also subtle jargon which is casually used, but which may not be completely understood by members of other groups.
(25) I work at a certain car manufacturer doing ignition timing and fuel setting. –Is every day a battle against engine knocking? Yes, but at our company knocking is called an “engine phenomenon due to abnormal fuel burning during times of high load.” Phenomenon such as those Ollie describes are called “surges” and “snatches.” When thinking about engine knocking we divide it into categories. (These terms are probably only used at our company.)(http://www.geocities.co.jp/MotorCity/9055/0403egeobook.html, April 15, 2005)
The author of this post (25) from an online forum writes that the definition of “knocking” used by his company would probably not be understood at other companies. Even if it does raise concerns, there is no need to connect this “knocking” with the above-described sense of purpose.
[NAKAGAWA (MOKHTARI) Akiko, SADANOBU Toshiyuki Senmon no Kotoba, Nakama no Kotoba (Specialized Language, Collegial Language), UENO Tomoko, SADANOBU Toshiyuki, NODA Harumi (eds.) Nihongo no Baraeti (Variety in the Japanese Language) p. 23, Ohfu, 2005.]
Oh dear—I did it again. But it’s no use. Using my own writing is just too convenient. That is to say that while, to be sure, people speak in jargon and youth slang in order to “prevent outsiders from understanding” and “for the enjoyment of the group,” this is not always the case, as illustrated by the above example. In some cases, people speak in jargon and youth slang without any particular objective or intention. Using such jargon with a wink and the air of an insider, as if to say “this is to preserve secrecy and strengthen our bonds” would just be embarrassing.
When producing language, we don’t always “set some objective and intentionally use words to fulfill that objective.” However, modern linguistic research often forgets the real-life “speaker,” settling instead for “high-altitude thinking (pensée du survol)” (uh-oh, I’ve gone and said it).
So, when speaking of variety in language, in addition to social variety such as jargon and youth slang, we must not forget about variety in individuals.
The variation in language spoken by a single person far exceeds our expectations (part 95). Traditionally, this variety has been addressed with a feasible explanation: the speaker adjusts to the context, situation, conversation content, and the conversation partner, selects an appropriate style, and uses language accordingly. There is no need to explain that in using “selecting a style” and “using language accordingly,” this means of addressing the issue assumes a rational speaker that intentionally uses language to achieve some purpose. Can we really completely address individual variations in language this way? If not, where and how should we address them? That is to say, where are the limits of this utterly rational speaker, who has both teleonomic verbal and utilitarian linguistic perspectives, and uses style as they will? What sort of entity is this new speaker, who fills in all those gaps?
Unlike style, which can be freely changed, there are things that are expected to not change. If they are seen to change (except in the context of play), they will be recognized immediately, and both the seer and seen will feel awkward. In other words, these things cannot be freely controlled. That these things undoubtedly exist in our daily lives is something I think we “intuitively understand” (part 94). I call this thing “character,” and in this series I have used it as a perspective from which to observe Japanese society. (I feel that the Japanese language—modern, common Japanese—is strongly connected to character. Thus it poses an extremely large problem to learners.)
In this series, I have attempted to provide one answer to the above-stated problem in as concrete and understandable a form as possible. As to whether this attempt has been a success or failure, I leave it up to the readers’ judgment. However, the one thing that should be clear is that our speculations on how to explain the phenomenon of linguistic variety produced by single speakers have provided an enjoyable opportunity for reconsidering and advancing the framework of linguistic research (from the perspectives of spoken language and linguistics). That this is one significance of considering characters within linguistic research is something that nobody would contest. (To be continued)