Sunday, 15 January, 2006

More fun with Japanese writing

The book, Read Japanese Today introduces about 300 of the most common Japanese characters, giving a brief history of each character's development and explaining a little bit about how the character is used.  The idea is that remembering a little bit about the character's origin will help you to remember how to identify and interpret it.  At my current level of reading that seems unlikely.  My brain is still fighting with the whole concept of a pictographic written language.

For example, the character 便 is  a combination of two others.  It is a man standing beside a horse, getting ready to mount.  We're viewing from behind the horse here.  This character was originally developed by the Chinese to mean "mail."  The Japanese also use it to mean "mail."  However, it can also mean an airplane flight, a ship departure, convenience in general, and feces.  Feces?  I can understand how the other meanings might be derived over the years, but feces?  Much of spoken (and I assume, written) Japanese depends on context.  I sure hope there's enough context in whatever signs I'm reading that I can determine the meaning of this particular character.

This could get kind of confusing.  The character means negative:  dis-, un-, mis-, not.   The word 不便 means "inconvenient," but it wouldn't be much of a stretch for somebody unfamiliar with the language to think that it means, "no shit."

Don't get me wrong.  I'm not intending to poke fun at the Japanese language or imply that their system of writing is inferior or stupid or anything like that.  I'm just pointing out that somebody unfamiliar with the language and culture can make some interesting mistakes.

If you're interested in seeing what Read Japanese Today has to offer, check out Leo Hourvitz's Japanese Language Study information.