an officer and a gentleman


If you are familiar enough with Japanese to suspect that the above sentence isn’t Japanese, then you’d be right. Or, mostly right. Kindof. It’s a sentence of written in a weird Japanese-Chinese mule-child language known as kanbun, which I have had the joy and curse of studying this semester.

Why does such a language exist, you may feel entitled to ask. Well, Japanese is complicated and this tendency goes way back. Before it’s introduction from China in the 4th century, Japanese people did not have a written language. Apparently, messages were communicated through knotted cords, although I can’t imagine you could say very much with a series of knots on a rope. But then I’m not very imaginative. Curiously enough, the Incas had a similar, if not more sophisticated system with quipu.

But that’s another story. Anyway, the point is Japanese people couldn’t write and when they saw the Chinese could it was all very exciting, and the immediate response was to adopt this new, shiny thing from the continent. However, someone was clearly very enamored of this idea and really ran with it before thinking it through – Japanese and Chinese have almost nothing in common. Little things that might make such a procedure plausible, like word order and er, grammar. Rather than just rip it up and start again, Japanese developed ingenious means to render Chinese intelligible, or, to put it another way, read Chinese script AS Japanese. Confused? Good. Imagine reading a sentence written in German and ignoring German pronunciation and word order completely and actually just saying it in English. Wait, that’s too easy because German and English share the same alphabet. Think Russian. Imagine reading a sentence written in Russian and ignoring Russian pronunciation and word order completely and actually just saying it in English. That’s what we’re dealing with here.

There was no Martin Luther to insist on the use of a vernacular language, so Japanese people used both Japanese and Chinese writing systems in tandem for centuries, each with their own functions, associations, and pitfalls. Kanbun was the written language of the elite, used for official documents and military histories, and regardless of how you feel about that (me = contemptuous), it is interesting. Modern Japanese uses thousands of Chinese characters, interspersed with (two) very simplified syllabaries. Learning Japanese would probably be a lot easier if there weren’t three different writing systems, if was started from scratch in the beginning. But then kanbun wouldn’t be part of my degree requirement and I’d have one less reason to feel superior.

So, what does it mean? Well, if I shove in some Japanese particles and other miscellany into the sentence above, we get:

“Just because the book is thick, doesn’t mean it’s of value.”

It’s good advice.

Not that I like to complain (snigger) but I am ending another semester of classical language study, with only the promise of next year’s literary Chinese lessons to further depress me. For the present class, I’m back with the Professor who attempted to teach me classical Japanese last semester, a process roughly akin to pushing a (thick) book through my forehead. He additionally struggles through a translation seminar on The Tale of Genji with me once a week, valiantly persevering in the face of my unfathomable density. Sometimes he laughs at my jokes, sometimes he glances at me with muted displeasure. Mostly it’s a relationship of mutual perplexion. This sagely professor’s comment: “In the past we have always managed to have an exam, and people have more or less passed.” This isn’t very reassuring. The kanbun textbook is also very thin, and I don’t have a proverb for that.

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