Daigaku Z: The Revenge of Context

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.

Welcome to the second semester, kids. The gloves are officially off, even if the bitter cold of January means they’re more necessary than ever.

Rather than my previous approach of taking on more work than I could handle and then dropping out of a class, I decided I was only going to take the bare minimum to qualify me for full-time status. With the daily recitation classes for language class, that actually means just three courses plus getting my “writing-intensive” requirement out of the way. That said, I gotta say, I picked some real winners this time around. The other two courses on my plate this semester are a meatier Japanese Culture and Civilization course and the scarily-titled Pragmatics of Japanese. I don’t really have a good handle on the professor for the culture course; as of this writing we’ve only met once and most of that was spent fooling around with Google Earth, until it got derailed entirely when the professor started talking about Perfume.

The Pragmatics course, however, is an entirely different animal, and deals with that most wonderful of aspects of any language: context. The first thing that needs to be said is that every single language has a dependence on context and also has wildly differing rules for how that context is established, built upon, and violated. I’m not using the negative connotation of “violated”, but rather more in the sense of McGraw and Warren’s “Benign Violation Theory” of humor: breaking the rules of language or context for an intentional effect. Since I’m looking to study Japanese humor as a side to my classroom instruction, you can see why I would think that a course all about context would be beneficial to me.

The thing is, though, my background is in computer science and software engineering. I didn’t have to take very many language or literature courses during my first degree, even though I was at what most people consider a “liberal arts” school. Worse still, I frontloaded a lot of those courses into my freshman and sophomore years, which meant that by the time I would be looking for a break from constant coding, I no longer had the opportunity to. About the only thing I can think in my existing background that really prepared me for this was the very first class I ever took at Gannon: a course on composition, writing, and rhetoric. That course shaped me so much, it’s not even funny (ironically enough).

So in order to understand what pragmatics is in Japanese, it would be good to know what they are in English. I could go into a long and drawn-out discussion of the topic here, but it’s probably better to say that this sentence itself is an example of the sort of thing that pragmatics handles. At first blush it doesn’t seem connected to the previous one: that sentence sets up an expectation that I’ll tell you about pragmatics, but then the sentence in question just kinda meanders its way to a point that doesn’t explain much of anything. The sentences that follow it in this paragraph are in contrast exemplary of the other side of the coin; they explain plainly their connection to both the “meandering” sentence and the first one of this paragraph. In the end, though, pragmatics isn’t necessarily the content of the sentences, but rather the mental logical leaps the reader (i.e., you) has to take in between the sentences to get at the whole picture.

Confused yet?

Where things get interesting is that the study of language pragmatics is, to put it into technological terms, reverse-engineering language such that rules can be determined from what evolved naturally as the language was used and developed. Take a classic Pittsburgh error like the word “need”. By itself, as a noun, it signifies something that is both required and lacking– stuff like food, water, shelter, companionship, etc. etc. As a verb it indicates a state of lacking something: I need food, I need water, etc. But in combination with an infinitive verb, it indicates that the verb must be done by the subject: I need to eat, I need to drink. If you use a past participle (an -ed verb) to indicate that a verb must be done to the subject, standard English rules say you must include the infinitive “to be”: the donut needs to be eaten, the car needs to be filled with gasoline. Pittsburghers drop that infinitive, shortening the phrases to “the donut needs eaten” and “the car needs filled with gas”. People who grew up learning that truncation find it to be the most natural thing in the world; to most Americans outside of the Three Rivers, it makes little to no sense. It’s not like Sam Pettigrew (first elected Mayor of Pittsburgh) just up and changed the language one day. It just kind of happened.

I never even noticed that I did it until I was 27. And now I’m going to start studying how a civilization on the other side of the world does it.

Buckle up, kids: pragmatics is gonna be a bumpy ride.