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SPEAK AMERICAN – Fun lesson in language

The title was just to get your attention.

I do not plan to get into politics at all with this post, (well maybe a little, I can’t help myself) but rather the VERY INTERESTING revelations I’ve had during my language studies.  These are the enlightenments which really made language learning fun and keeps the passion burning.  I am certain these will be as entertaining for you as they was for me.  The only difference is that it took me 10 years to learn these lessons and I’m going to show you in one blog post.

Further, these are FUN!  I wish my teachers would have pointed these things out from the beginning.  Academics often have a very serious talent for quickly making subjects boring.  :-(

As for speaking Amerikan, how much attention do people pay to their own language?  For most, it is just a bunch of sounds arranged in a certain order to express a thought.  But how were these sounds formed, where do they come from?  Can one language be “better” than another?

I don’t know the answer, I just hope this post will open a few closed minds to the joys of language.

I.  Kanji (The Chinese/Japanese symbols)

I’ll start with Kanji (漢字) as many might find this interesting.  Kanji is a picture symbol which represents an actual idea or physical thing.  Most of us would know what hieroglyphics are and Kanji is like that.  They can be put together to form a language but also have an actual meaning by themselves.

Learning Kanji can seem very difficult.  In fact, basic Kanji is very easy because they are just pictures.  The fact that there are tens of thousands of Kanji and they become very complex is what makes them difficult.  But exploring the basics, let me relate a few examples that are very easy.

a.) 人  -  This means “person.”  It is just a stick figure of a person.

b.) 大 -  This one means “big.”  It is the stick figure with his arms stretched out.

c.) 木 –  This looks similar to the top two but it means “tree.”  The bottom lines are the roots and the top are two branches and a top

d.) 本 – This means “origin.”  We can see the tree but there is a horizontal line at the bottom.  This line asks you to pay attention to a certain area which is the root.  It is drawn across one root and this root came from a seed.  Since a seed is the origin of the tree, this kanji means “origin.”

Now, let’s do my favorite

a.) 大 – You know this one already.

b.) 羊 – This means “sheep.”  How the heck did they get “sheep” out of this?  Well, just draw the outline of a sheeps face around the bottom half and the two pointy things on top are the horns.

c.) 美 – This one means “beautiful.”  The sheep is on top and the kanji for “big” is on the bottom.  Therefore, one would think it means “big sheep,” but no, somewhere along the line someone thought a “big sheep” might be beautiful and so that is what it came to mean.  Perhaps a larger sheep could be sold for more money which is beautiful?  I don’t know, I’m really reaching here.

-On a political side note, Kanji was imported into Japan from China.  Chinese/Japanese relations have been less than friendly for as long as one can remember but from reading “The Tale of Genji” (源氏物語) we see that 1000 years ago the Japanese aristocracy considered Chinese writing as superior to Japanese.  Just don’t point this out to any Japanese today (@.@)  It’s a great read and perhaps the most famous novel in Japan.  Genji was a playboy and got all the girls!

Back to Kanji, now you will never forget any of the above Kanji.  See!!!  Wasn’t that easy?  Now just learn 10,000 more and you’ll be fluent.  :-)

The interesting fact about this is that in Japanese class they would just have us memorize the Kanji as a whole and tell us a certain kanji means a certain thing.  Yet, one day, a Chinese classmate pointed out the origins of the individual pieces which made it really easy!!!  I was amazed to learn that the Japanese cannot do this but the Chinese can.  So, at the bar that night I informed a Japanese friend of mine about this and was making fun of him.

Yet, he promptly turned the tables on me which brings me to my next point

II. Deconstructing English

What my Japanese friend was so kind to point out was that we English speakers cannot do this the English language!  Many English words (especially the difficult ones) are constructed by combining various “parts.”  This really becomes apparent if we understand the Latin root of the word and if one has studied say French or Spanish (or Latin) then even very difficult English words become easy.  Let’s do an example.

1. Con – In Spanish, this means “with,” or “together.”   A variant is “com.”  Now that we know this, anyone can understand the meaning of the following words:

a.) Combine
b.) Construct
c.) Computer
d.) Conglomerate
e.) Congeal
f.) Conflagrate-  This one some people might not know.  Yet, if we understand what “con” means then we can come very close to guessing the meaning
Con – with, together
Fla     —- Flare, Flash, Flame
Ate – A past action (as a suffix)

2. Mal – In Spanish this means “bad.”  So in English we can figure out the following

a.) Malediction
b.) Malfeasance
c.) Malicious

- They all mean something a little different but the basic meaning is something “bad.”

Going off track a bit, what are the origins of “good” and “bad?”  My favorite explanation comes from Nietzsche in his “Genealogy of Morals” He argues that the high ranking people consider “good” simply succeeding or perhaps doing something worthy of God (A connection between Good and God here?) Whereas “Bad” is not achieving, doing something unworthy of “God.”  Here is a quick excerpt:

“On the contrary, it was the “good people” themselves, that is, the noble, powerful, higher-ranking, and higher-thinking people who felt and set themselves and their actions up as good, that is to say, of the first rank, in opposition to everything low, low-minded, common, and vulgar.”

But I do not intend to go down the rabbit hole of philosophy.  So going back to deconstructing words my last example is the following:

3. Mort – In French it means “death.”  This time, instead of trying to understand what each word means, let’s just concentrate on how these words make us feel.

a.) Morticia
b.) Mortgage
c.) Mortuary

Therefore, if you have to take the GRE (Graduate Record Examination) then instead of just trying to memorize everything, just learn Spanish or French and it is easy as pie.  (metaphors are a whole other ball of wax – pardon the pun)

Finally, once we really get into the origins of the English language we can see the various influences each invading tribe (of England) had on the language.  Saxons, Romans, Germanic tribes all contributed to the English language and therefore made it a complete mess in terms of linguistic purity.

III. Country Names

One of the most fascinating facts I learned is that the origin of country names simply come from the name of the tribe of people who lived there.  Or, in some cases, a symbolical meaning.

1. England –  Eng Land.  The land of the English
2. Germany – In German it is Deutschland.  Deutsch Land – Land of the Deutsch.
3. Pakistan – “Stan” means “land.”  - Land of the Paks
4. Afghanistan – Land of the Afghans
5. Turkmenistan – Land of the Turkmen (and so on with all the other “stans”)

It changes a bit when we get into East Asia.

1. 日本 – Nihon (Nippon) This is Japan in Japanese.  The English people couldn’t say “Nihon” but they tried and came close.  Over time this eventually just became “Japan.”

If we look at the Kanji we can see the true meaning:

- (日)  This is just a a drawing of a sun.  It used to be round but was squared off over time then a line was drawn through it
- (本) – Remember this meant “origin?”  Therefore, Japan means “The origin of the Sun” or translated more properly “Land of the Rising Sun.”

It seems to me some translator along the way took some liberties with including “rising” in there but it does sound better

2. 中国 – This means “China” in Chinese.  The meaning is “Middle Kingdom” because since China was so powerful, they considered themselves in the center of the world.  (and still do!)

- 中 – This Kanji means center.  It is a square with a line going right through the center.

- 国 – The square is the land and (玉) means jewel or Jade.  I could be a little off so please correct me if I’m wrong.  I’m guessing if we deconstruct the Kanji for “country” then it would be a jewel in a “land,” if that makes any sense.

3. Vietnam (越南)

This one takes some explanation.  First of all, in ancient times, Vietnam was called “Au Lac.”  It was also known as Lac Viet.”

I have trouble finding out where “Viet” comes from.  My guess is that it was the name of their tribe.  When we look at the Kanji above the first one (越) means “Viet” and the second one (南) is pronounced “nam” and is the character for “South.”

Therefore, my theory is that the Chinese called the country the “Viets in the South.”

IV. Mentality Change

The question is, does language form our thoughts or is it the other way around?  I would argue that our language is what gives structure to our thoughts.  Therefore, when we think in English we also “reason” in English.  In the English language there are biases and limitations to what we are able to conceive.  If we desired to be “rational” it would most likely be beneficial to dispense with any spoken language and just “speak” in mathematics.

When we learn another language, we are also learning a completely new “mentality.”  The way one thinks about things changes along with the language.  It is true that we can “translate” with great accuracy but there are subtle changes to the meaning.

Perhaps a decent example would be something I just saw on Youtube.  This guy downloaded and uploaded a video file 1000 times.  Eventually, you cannot make out anything in the video as it is so distorted.  The same would happen if one tried to translate an idea into another language and then continued on from the second language to others and repeated a number of times.  Eventually, the original meaning would become completely lost.

I’m not sure if I can think of a super great example to demonstrate but I’ll give it a go.  I won’t use English/French/Spanish because they are too close on the linguistic tree.  Instead, let’s do English/Japanese.

-  English – I want to eat spaghetti
The stress of this sentence is on “I.”

- Japanese – Spaghetti tabetai – Spagetti wants to be eaten
The stress is on the Spaghetti

-Of course it is translated “I want to eat spaghetti” but really the focus is taken off the person who wants to eat the spaghetti and put on the spaghetti itself.  And the real kicker is it could mean “Do you want to eat Spaghetti!!”  All you have to do is change the inflection at the end as in a question.

“Spaghetti tabetai?”  - Do YOU want to eat spaghetti!!!!!

In fact, we basically have to guess who it is that wants to eat spaghetti since the pronoun (I, You, He, She, It, We, they) is completely missing.  When I first started learning my mind would beg me “WHO WANTS TO EAT THE SPAGHETTI??? I NEED TO KNOW!!!”  But over time, we learn to infer from the context who it is that wants to eat the Spaghetti.

It just goes to show that the people who invented “English” which just happen to be the English are very self-centered bast…. er, people!!!

The Japanese on the other hand are very sensitive to the feelings of the group.  Therefore, the language revolves around building consensus and it is very rude to say things in a straightforward manner.  (although it can be done).

Why are the Japanese like this you ask?  Well, one theory is that they have very little arable land and therefore cooperation was necessary to ensure the survival of the village.  So, in order to minimize conflict they structured the language to be very polite and get along with each other.  Guess it all makes sense why the English fought so much against themselves and other nations.  Maybe if they spoke Japanese they would have fought less? !!!  HA!!

But, I’ve gotten off track.  The point of this, um, er, point, is to simply show that mentality changes in other languages.  Therefore, just because we have reasoned a problem out in “Amerikan” doesn’t mean the rest of the world sees the issue in the same way.

Damn, there I go with politics again.

V.  Language Changes

I have never really gotten along with Grammar Nazis.  In school, they teach us that grammar is static and cannot be changed.  Therefore, if I said, “Spaghetti I want to eat” and argued with the teacher that it is perfectly correct, I would have gotten detention.

Language changes over time and an easy way to understand this is trying to read “The Canterbury Tales,” by Geoffrey Chaucer.  (eow rædan þes?).  I picked it up for a read and it seemed as though it was in a different language.  Here is just one sentence.

“Hath in the Ram his halfe cours yronne.”

The grammar is not in the order we think it should be and just forget about understanding most of the words.

So, fast forward to today, the language will continue to change and one thing I would like to see is to drop “a” and “the” completely from the English language.  If we think about it are these necessary?  Asian students have a terrible time with them and I do not believe they really add any value to the sentence.  It doesn’t matter to me if you are “going to the store, “or “going to a store.”  In either case, “store will be visited!”

VI. The Sanitizing of English (Well, American English anyway)

I have noticed a trend in the past two decades of using certain phrases to “sanitize” or make less harsh the true meaning of an action or idea simply to make it more acceptable to the masses.  This was started by the politicians and instead of trying to justify the action as it actually is, they just changed the words to make the action more acceptable to the masses.

1. Boots on the Ground –  Increase in soldiers
2. Battle for hearts and minds – No longer war and death but instead something that would seem positive
3. Protecting my freedoms – Now, any military action is supposedly justified by this statement.
4. Loss of Life – Usually murder but just sounds so much better this way
5. Collateral Damage – Again, killing
6. Shock and Awe – Drop a big bomb on someone that kills many

and finally one that is not sanitized but is really active in our lexicon lately.

7. The FIGHT against (input here) – It seems that just about everything needs to be “fought” against nowdays.  From a linguistic perspective, it would appear that we are a very aggressive culture.  I don’t suppose “the collective solution” or “the path towards a peaceful resolution” hold as much power as “FIGHT.” If I were to try and list everything we are supposedly fighting against, I wonder if just about everyone and everything would be an enemy?

Well, it is late and I can think of no other things I would like to share.  Therefore, I’ll leave off with a final political point which I simply cannot resist doing.  For those of us who insist on everyone speaking only English, I’m afraid we would have to erase the following words and come up with “English” equivalents.  To show I’m a good sport, I’ll even offer some suggestions

1. Spaghetti – Thin strings in sauce
2. Taco – Meat in a shell
3. California – Land of the weirdos  (ROFLROFL)
4. Sushi – Raw fish on Rice
5. Hamburger – Meat paddy

Ok ok,,, I won’t leave off on a political point but rather a fun one.  And I’ll even stick with the food theme.  Let’s translate from English to Japanese to the Kanji literal meaning

1. Breakfast – Asagohan  - 朝ご飯 – Literally — “Morning Rice”
2. Lunch – Hirugohan – 昼ご飯 - Literally – “Afternoon Rice”
3. Dinner – Yuuhan – 夕飯 – Literally – “Evening Rice”

- AND if we make things even more complicated, Lunch, Dinner and Supper can mean different things in England.  Or is it Britain.  or is it The United Kingdom?  LOLOLOLOLOL

That’s all for now.  Ya es todo, Sayonara

2 Comments

  1. August 27, 2010    

    The New York Times Jumps on Board – August 28th
    Does Your Language Shape How You Think? http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/29/magazine/29lang

  2. March 29, 2011    

    If you can't think a thought, you are stuck. but if another language can think that thought then by cooperating we can achieve and learn so much more – Patricia Ryan
    http://www.ted.com/talks/patricia_ryan_ideas_in_a

    This is exactly what I was trying to explain above in "Mentality Change"

  1. Letter to American Language Learners | The Global Citizen on July 24, 2010 at 9:51 pm
  2. Did the WSJ get an idea from the Global Citizen? | The Global Citizen on July 25, 2010 at 7:20 am
  3. Tokyo – An experience | The Global Citizen on November 23, 2010 at 10:12 pm

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