Life in the Land of the Rising Sun

Sunday, November 11, 2007

The True Native Tongue?

This evening I was flipping around the channels on the TV hoping to find something halfway watchable when I stumbled on an interesting program. Since I caught it in the middle and didn't see the whole thing, I don't know what it's called, but it's a sort of Japanese equivalent to the famous "Mythbusters" series. Basically they employ scientists to help either prove or debunk popular notions.

One of the experiments I saw had to do with the dominance of specific dialects of Japanese.

So-called "Hyojun" or standard Japanese, also known as "kyotsugo" ("common tongue"), which is what is found in textbooks and classrooms and spoken by most newscasters, isn't really spoken "natively" anywhere. It was originally the "proper" version of the Kanto area dialect, which includes Tokyo, but there are now many local variations. The language can change a lot more depending on where you go. I'm not just talking about the usual differences in vocabulary and pronunciation; quite often a local dialect is a more or less separate language with its own unique grammar rules. Put a sushi chef from Morioka (Tohoku region) with one from Fukuoka (Kyushu region), for example, and they probably won't understand each other at all. Their respective tongues differ from each other even more than Dutch differs from High German.

Pride in one's dialect also tends to vary from place to place. Ironically, both the largest cities and the smallest villages seem to maintain their local ways of speaking much more than medium-sized towns and small cities, whose often overly fashion-conscious populations tend to be ashamed of the "dasai" (uncool), "jiji-kusai" (old fart) traditional lingos. It's also true that people wanting to appear better cultured quite often stick to the Hyojun way of speaking regardless of location. This is by no means always the case, however. In fact, that was the point of the experiment I saw on TV.

It is often said among the Japanese that, although the proper form of the Tokyo dialect is officially labeled Hyojun (standard), the Kansai dialect, variations of which are spoken in Osaka, Kyoto, Nara, Kobe, and the surrounding areas, is culturally stronger. In fact, people from the Kansai region are fond of bragging that, if you put people from all parts of Japan together for a while, they'll all eventually start speaking the Kansai way. To test this, scientists took eight-year-old boys from Fukuoka (Kyushu), Osaka (Kansai), Nagoya (Nagoya), Tokyo (Hyojun), and Morioka (Tohoku) and shut them together in a house full of toys for an eight-hour period. Then they observed the children's speech patterns carefully. Sure enough, after a while, first the boy from Nagoya started speaking in the Kansai style followed by the one from Fukuoka. The boy from Morioka followed not long afterward. By the time the eight-hour period was over, only the boy from Tokyo wasn't speaking Kansai! (Hmm...I guess some things never change!) Bottom line: the popular notion was proven accurate. Kansai dialect seems to be culturally stronger than Kanto "Hyojun".

Actually, the scientists said there may be a number of different reasons for this. Part of it is the fame of Kansai dialect, which is coupled with its historical significance. There is also the no small fact that a lot of well-known media personalities speak it with great pride. The variant of Osaka (arguably the "New York of Japan") in particular is also a naturally strong-sounding tongue, i.e. it sounds rough and therefore more macho, but at the same time it flows more easily than the somewhat clunkier Kanto dialect. Of course, there is also the no small fact that people from Kansai, Osaka in particular, are famously talkative. Even in the experiment it was the boy from Osaka who tended to get things rolling, so it was only natural that the other boys picked up his lingo.

Have I been learning the wrong Japanese all along? Then again, I live in Ibaraki, which has a notoriously unique dialect including bits of Tohoku, Kanto, and its own lovable craziness. Chigaube? ;-)


  • That's really interesting about the dialects - first, I didn't know Japan had them! All I knew about was the two common types of alphabets. Kanji and Katakana.

    It's also strange how the boys (so young too) drifted into Kansai. Is that comparable to an Aussie, Kiwi, Saffa, Canadian and American drifting into British accents?

    P.S. I am Sooo glad you visited Nikki's blog. She is such a sweetheart!

    By Blogger Olivia, at 12:58 AM  

  • Interesting, although I have had experience w/the High German/Low German differences, I was unaware Japan had it's own regional dialects.

    Since I learned only High German, it was hard understanding anyone from "Schwartzwald" (the Black Forest, deep south), the K├Âlner (Cologne) accent sounded like a clown talking, and Bayrische (Bavarian) was competely unintelligable!

    I often wondered if anyone from the British Isles could understand some of the folks from the Coen Brother's film "Oh Brother Where Art Thou?"....the accents are so thick it took me a couple of viewings to get all the dialogue!

    By Blogger ladybug, at 2:20 AM  

  • Since you learnt a unique dialect (combined with Tohoku and Kanto), then I wonder what type of Japanese dialect of your 2 kids learnt from you & your wife & their grandparents? :-D

    Speaking of dialects, China has eight major dialect groups: Putonghua (Mandarin), Yue (Cantonese), Wu (Shanghainese), Minbei (Fuzhou), Minnan (Taiwanese), Xiang, Gan and Hakka. Not to mention those sub-dialects, even in GuangDong (Canton) Province, there are so many sub-dialects. Hard to understand.

    By Blogger PinkPanther, at 3:49 PM  

  • Olivia
    I don't think people tend to realize that virtually every language has its local variations. In fact, there are many "dialects" that are more removed from the "standard" tongue than some supposedly distinct languages, a good example being the fact that Bavarian German (as Ladybug mentioned) is more different from High German than Dutch is!

    Is that comparable to an Aussie, Kiwi, Saffa, Canadian and American drifting into British accents?

    Considering the Kansai dialect originates from the birthplace of Japanese culture, that is a very good analogy!

    You hit the nail on the head.

    My father-in-law is originally from the Tohoku region, and naturally most of my wife's relatives on his side not only still live there but speak strong Tohoku dialects. The uncle that did the construction on our house now lives in Hokkaido, so he speaks Tohoku with a Hokkaido twist (even worse!). I often had a hard time understanding what he was saying, especially since one of the characteristics of Tohoku dialect is the weakening or voicing if not deleting of consonants inside of words as well as unifying some normally-separate sounds into a common one (e.g. "h" and "sh"). For example, my uncle-in-law would pronounce hikouki (airplane) as something like "shigoungi". I'm glad the language has so much local color, but communication was tough at times.

    Pink Panther
    I think Chinese definitely wins the award as far as its dialects being completely distinct. When I was in Taiwan, and when I talked to someone from Hong Kong afterward, I discovered that Mandarin, Cantonese, and Taiwanese, though written the same, bear almost no resemblance to each other. They are almost like completely different vocabulary arranged into a common grammar structure (if you can call it that with its flexibility). That probably goes to show the genius of Li Ssu of the Qin Dynasty, the one that standardized the Chinese writing system and made it official. It basically allowed very different languages and cultures to be tied up into one convenient linguistic package. Not a bad way to keep an empire together, is it?

    By Blogger The Moody Minstrel, at 11:45 PM  

  • I like the sound of Kansai ben... as in 'aho!!... never fails to make me roar upon hearing that word...

    By Blogger Lrong, at 5:39 PM  

  • I guess 'common english' owes as much to the arrival of tv and the BBC, as it ever did to empire and EFL teachers

    By Blogger QUASAR9, at 6:44 PM  

  • But funny how we take so much for granted.
    Latin was the language of Rome
    Arabic from Arabia was (is) the language of arab speaking countries

    And how did English become the dominant language in the US?
    I guess there were just more brits and Irish, than french, germans, italians or ...

    but still spanish speakers are growing in numbers in the US, just like english speakers are growing in numbers in central & south America

    By Blogger QUASAR9, at 6:48 PM  

  • Lrong
    But which variant of Kansai ben do you like best? There are fundamental similarities between them all, obviously, but "in-your-face" Osaka is still distinct from "melodic-and-sophisticated" Kyoto, very much like the difference between the New York and Boston accents. Kobe and Nara have their own twists, as well.

    Interestingly, the U.S. has no official language. Nowhere in the U.S. Constitution does it say that English is our national tongue. We use it out of tradition.

    As for the status of Spanish, it tends to reflect the political climate of the age. I remember when Gerald Ford (Republican) tried to make Puerto Rico a U.S. state at the end of his presidential term in the mid 70s but failed because his administration insisted Spanish-speaking Puerto Rico switch to an English standard. Then when Jimmy Carter (Democrat) was President back in the late 70s there was an effort to make the U.S. bilingual, Spanish language education was promoted, Spanish language programs for children became more common on educational TV, and joint English-Spanish product labels became more common. Then, in the Reagan (Republican) 80s (and Bush Sr. early 90s) we returned to the "America is English" creed, Spanish went back to being just one of many elective foreign languages, Spanish disappeared from PBS TV, and bilingual labels faded again. Enter the Clinton (Democrat) 90s, and suddenly Spanish language schools were accepted and bilingual TV programs and labels started appearing again. Then came the W. Bush "oughts", movements to make English official became more vocal, Spanish language schools were stripped of legitimacy, and more than one mother was accused of child abuse by a state judge (to much applause) because they spoke to their children in Spanish.

    Bottom line: the language issue has been politicized along partisan lines along with just about everything else.

    By Blogger The Moody Minstrel, at 8:57 PM  

  • i find it quite interesting that all the children took on that dialect. is this the one that is spoken in movies? it seems very masculine to me as well... very hard words or such strength taken in speaking it.

    i had no idea that japan had so many different ways of speaking to others until we had coffee w/ a bahraini guy that is studying there. he told us about the 3 alphabets and such. fascinating.

    sorry i haven't been around much. i've been totally stressed out. if it's not in-law stuff it seems to be baby stuff, and if it's not that then it's my own family stuff.

    makes me want to take a deep sigh and say "ok, back to that happy place".

    hey, what happened to memo? every time i go there none of the links work, no pics come up and such. did she decide to stop blogging?

    By Blogger Um Naief, at 2:27 AM  

  • This is an interesting discussion, and Moody, this time I didn't get the message - that something will slow down my computer! In Fiji there's the Standard Fijian (based on the Bauan dialect) which is used in schools, newspapers, govt. etc. but in the homes and villages Fijians used their local dialects. Peceli's is the Labasa dialect which deletes 'k' and 't' so it does come out strange to outsiders. In Fiji there are probably about 30 main dialects though most are intelligable to a degree to one another. Why Bauan became Standard is from the missionaries use of it of course! Young people in the towns now though use an odd kind of mixed garble of English/American/slang shortcuts in writing with Fijian and even wrong spelling as they are getting to use text-messaging.
    ps. Re Olivia's comment about us using 'British' English - NO WAY!

    By Blogger Peceli and Wendy's Blog, at 5:46 AM  

  • Um Naief
    A lot of movies are made in Osaka and Kyoto, so it's possible.

    BTW, Memo had a problem with her site not long ago and had to remake it. This is the URL, but she hasn't posted anything since early September.

    It's fascinating that the Fijian language has so many colorful variations considering the modest size of the country. Some day you'll have to give us some examples since I'm sure most of us are more or less totally unfamiliar with it!

    ps. Re Olivia's comment about us using 'British' English - NO WAY!

    Oy! A fair dinkum barney! Avegoyermug!

    By Blogger The Moody Minstrel, at 4:04 PM  

  • Years ago I saw a show on Japanese TV, with a person from Kagoshima at the southern tip of Kyushu and a person from Aomori or Akita at the northern tip of Honshu, each speaking their dialect to each other with a standard dialect translator on each side. It was amazing how completely different and utterly incomprehensible the dialects were, both with respect to each other and the standard dialect. I imagine even kids from the areas would have a hard time understanding, as they were old people speaking their traditional dialect.

    By Blogger Ningen, at 4:30 PM  

  • Dear Minstrel,

    I read with interest your post about Kashima High School (even if it was a while ago), as I'm heading to teach at the Junior High School end of November. Unsure whether this is the same place or not, but perhaps you could email me and tell me a bit more about your experience.


    By Blogger tommy, at 6:26 PM  

  • Ningen
    That would have been an interesting show to see! Then again, as I mentioned, we deal with the same thing on a lesser scale when my wife's uncle comes to visit. We get to hear Tohoku, Ibaraki, and "standard" Japanese all in the same conversation!

    Well, if that's true, then welcome! The school where I work is very close to Kashima Junior High.

    By Blogger The Moody Minstrel, at 8:15 PM  

  • I discovered that Mandarin, Cantonese, and Taiwanese, though written the same, bear almost no resemblance to each other. They are almost like completely different...

    That is true, MM, and brawls have been started due to misunderstandings because a certain word in one dialect means something else in another dialect even though the written form is the same and if they were to communicate in writing instead of verbally, they would be able to understand each other. I speak a few dialects myself and that's a blessing.

    By Anonymous happysurfer, at 10:06 PM  

  • thanks for memo's new URL. :)

    By Blogger Um Naief, at 6:26 PM  

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