Friday, April 14, 2006

Language and Personality

It seems the language you speak has a direct effect on personality:

The personality of people who are bilingual changes depending on which language they use, lending credence to the Czech proverb “Learn a new language and get a new soul”.

And somehow this doesn't surprise me in the slightest. I've already observed that my higher-level students tend to be more willing to speak out, disagree, and in general have opinions than those at a lower level (all of those are very Anglosphere traits, at least as compared to Japanese culture.) Also, last Wednesday I attended a long and boring area meeting of all the teachers, staff, and school directors at the various Kanto area ECC schools. Towards the end we were introduced to the non-English teachers: Japanese teachers who teach Chinese, Korean, French, Italian, Spanish, and German. Each of them gave a short speech (basically, Hi my name is _______ in their respective languages), but I amused myself beforehand by trying to guess what languages they spoke. Two of the ladies were very well dressed, attractive, and friendly looking: I pegged them as speaking one of the Romance languages, and I was right. Another was hefty, dowdy, and more than a little bitter: I guessed German, and was once again right.

Kind of makes me wonder what kind of neurological hacking I'm doing by teaching myself Japanese....

On Poetry

Back when I was an arrogant, cocksure kid in high-school (as supposed to an arrogant, cocksure eikaiwa sensei) I remember mouthing off at one of the teachers in a Grade 11 English class. It wasn't that I didn't like the teacher, understand - he remains one of the few teachers that I ever actually respected - simply that I disagreed with what he was saying. The topic in question that day was poetry, and he was trying to start a discussion on what, exactly, poetry was. So I stuck up my hand and said, "Poetry is words in a pattern." Of course that wasn't the answer he was looking for, and he proceeded to take the class down a long, boring, and pointless discourse on the nature of poetry, including such flowery assertions as poetry being akin to hyacinths (bad pun intended) or some such damn fool thing.

Frankly, I stick by my description. Poetry is just words set down in a pattern. Modern 'poets' would disagree, of course, but then they mostly produce unreadable crap that no one outside of government-supported arts communities pays any attention to (personally, I blame T.S. Eliot, as it was him started the whole free verse thing ... though actually, if you read his stuff, there is a pattern, or rather several patterns: they just keep changing so fast you're barely aware of them. More recent generations seem to have ignored this, and simply decided to chuck 'pattern' altogether in favor of clumsy metaphors and political posturing, resulting in stuff that is more accurately called 'bad prose.') Anyhow, if you want modern poetry, you listen to hip-hop; regardless of what you think of the subject matter, it's hard to deny that the best of it is constructed as skillfully with regard to rhyme and meter as anything by, say, Byron or Tennyson.

What interests me, actually, is the way in which the particular kinds of patterns that are selected for poetry seem to be predetermined by the structure of the language in which it's composed. The main criteria is that, for a pattern to be impressive, it must be difficult.

European languages, for instance, almost universally favor verse that includes rhyme (or alliteration) as well as some sort of meter. This makes a lot of sense when you consider that all of those languages, Romance or Germanic, share two properties. First, they are sound-rich (ie make use of a large number of phonemes.) Second, they all include some degree of rhythym in their languages: spoken English, for instance, has a tendency to blur together words of little importance (a, the, kind of, to give a few examples), while it exaggerates words of larger importance (or, within a given multi-syllabic word, exaggerating one particular syllable.) The rhythm always follows a sort of 'DUM-dum-dum-DUM-dum-dum-dum-DUM-dum....' rhythm, which never repeats exactly, but also very rarely includes, say, three consective 'DUM's or five consecutive 'dum's.

Property 1 - sound-rich - means that it takes a certain amount of skill to find appropriate words with a similar sound at the end (ie, rhyme), whereas property 2 means that arranging the words in a predetermined rhythym is also quite difficult.

Now, compare to Japanese. First, Japanese is sound-poor: there are only about 50 sounds in the Japanese language, and consonants are almost never found separate from vowels. Thus rhyming in Japanese is ridiculously easy. Second, rhythym: Japanese doesn't have rhythym, but rather a machine-gun like 'dum-dum-dum-dum-dum-dum' with every syllable exactly the same length. Thus the very concept of arranging words into a rhythym is basically meaningless in Japanese. The result, of course, in haiku: only the number of syllables is of importance, with that number very very small (5-7-5), thus forcing the poet to load maximum meaning into each word.

Interesting, no? And the obvious reason why poetry - like comedy - is virtually impossible to translate between languages.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

In Japan, Even the Bums Are Clean and Polite

I don't pretend to be an expert on homeless people. I've never so much as really talked to them, not at home and certainly not here. Nevertheless, I've noticed certain differences between Canadian bums and the Japanese variety, differences which I think are indicative of the larger differences between Japanese society and, well, the rest of the world.

To start: create a mental image of a bum. If you're from the west, odds are you're now picturing some wild-haired, filthy, drugged out lunatic, harassing pedestrians for spare change with which to buy crack, heroin, liquor, or mouthwash. If you're from anywhere else, you can probably add 'starving wretch' to that image (you can't in the west: I lost track of the number of obese street people I saw in Toronto. Note to homeless people: I'm not overly generous to strangers on the best of days; your being well-fed is unlikely to sway me towards handing you my subway fare.)

Okay, now chuck that image out. In Japan, it's almost completely different. True, they're still alchoholic - I'm pretty sure that's a homelessness universal - but alchohol abuse is also rampant in the culture as a whole over here anyway so I'm not convinced it's a defining feature like it is in Canada. Everything else is different, though. For a start, they're generally clean: if you walk around Shinjuku station near the time of last train, you'll see neat rows of cardboard boxes - the homes of the homeless - and if you peer inside you'll see their possessions, all squared away in a fashion that would have impressed my boot camp instructors. The homeless themselves aren't particularly clean by the standards of Japan, but compared to Toronto bums they're paragons of personal hygiene.

Then there's the whole begging thing. Basically, here, they don't. I've never seen a homeless guy sit on a street corner with his hand out, waiting for spare change to fall into it and occasionally dishing out verbal abuse when it fails to fall fast enough. They know no-one would give it to them, and anyways, it would basically never occur to them to try. In the west, we have this idea that society exists to give us stuff for free; not so, here, where the direction of duty and responsibility is very much in the opposite direction. That has it's downsides, but one of the major upsides is, no panhandling. If homeless people in Japan want money, they have to do something useful to get it (one example: collecting discarded manga porn from trains, and selling it on street corners. Yes, you heard me right: there's a market here for used porn.) Otherwise, they survive through scavenging ... just like bums everywhere (and the fact that they do survive so well makes me wonder at exactly how badly the ones back home need that pocket change. Though I guess it's hard to find smack in a dumpster....) Sorry to go on like this, but this is one of the things I really like about this country: the ability to go to work without running a daily emotional blackmail gauntlet.

None of this is to say that there aren't occasional creepy moments. I particularly remember a couple of times in Yokohama station. I was coming to work one Sunday morning - this is maybe a couple of months ago - and saw a guy sitting on the stairs, head buried between his legs as though sleeping or crying; he had no shoes (it was winter, mind) and his feet were red, blistered, filthy, and cracked. One week later, and I saw the same guy, in exactly the same place, in exactly the same position, as though he hadn't moved at all. And I had to wonder: had he died, and no one bothered to check him out? Or maybe he was a ghost, haunting the station. It was like something from a horror movie.... Needless to say, I let him be.