Daigaku Z: You’re Too Tense

Daigaku Z is a weekly column about what it’s really like to study the Japanese language and culture at a major university. Z is enrolled as a student at the University of Pittsburgh after an over ten-year career in the information technology industry, and is pursuing a second degree with the aims of being a translator. This is the story of that degree.

One of the things that you learn while you are studying international relations is that English, as a language, is insanely complex. As a Frankenstein’s Monster-esque patchwork of pretty much every European language, with bits and pieces bolted on after the fact from everywhere else in the world, English is a language built around setting up hard-and-fast rules that then get broken whenever it’s convenient. For example, the Virginia-based punk/ska band Ghoti Hook took their name from the rather amusing fact that, under certain circumstances, the first word in their name is pronounced “Fish”.

Native English speakers (such as most of the OTDT cast and about 80% of my classmates) have an advantage over people learning English as a supplemental language because, when us humans are in our earliest stages of development, we make the connections between a spoken word and the concept it represents much more easily than we do later on in life. As such, most of the exceptions and quirks of the language are things we accept more or less without question, simply because that’s how it’s always been for us. At the same time, though, those exceptions trip us up when we are learning how to write and compose our speech, because now we need to understand why it is the way it is.

In comparison, the rules for some languages are simple to the point of elegance. In particular, constructed languages such as Esperanto, J. R. R. Tolkien’s Elvish, or Hiroyuki Morioka’s Baronh take great pains to ensure that the languages are internally self-consistent and that exceptions are as rare as the word implies. But even naturally-developed languages such as French have strong rules for things such as the conjugation of verbs and the order in which a phrase’s words are said affects the emphasis of the sentence.

When I first started this semester, I was under the impression that Japanese was one of these strongly-ruled languages, as evidenced by the fact that its primary and most common form of transmission, the written word, was highly regimented and very precise. I have come to understand that I am not exactly wrong about this, but neither am I right. See, Japanese does have a fairly strong set of rules; but there are enough exceptions even in these early lessons that it’s starting to become difficult for me to keep track of them all.

This is hampering my efforts to try to get a little bit ahead of the game and add new words into my vocabulary, particularly with respect to verbs. English has only a handful of verb conjugations, mostly for tenses as opposed to matching up with the subject doing the verb. French has seven, and past and future tenses are handled with additional words. As near as I can tell, Japanese verbs have about thirty different conjugations, covering tense and certainty situations that English speakers simply can’t conceive of, and that’s not counting the fact that each of those has polite and informal variants. And heaven help you if you want to learn the Kansai equivalents, too.

It reminds me of nothing more strongly than a bit from Douglas Adams’s Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy series, where one of the top-selling books in the universe at the time of the narration was a guide to verb conjugation for time travelers, a book I am onwill havinged greatly anticipateding. And if that sentence makes sense to you, dear reader, you are ready to wade face-deep into the world of Japanese verbs.