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March 28, 2006


OK, Butuki came over and woke me up, so here I am, but I'm afraid I don't have anything new and exciting to contribute. I agree with the general consensus that language loss is a bad thing, the growing hegemony of English has a serious downside, and Chirac is the last person who should be bitching and moaning about it. And I totally endorse Dale's comments; he's a man after my own heart.

Great discussion!

Butuki, no offence, but your estimate of 1/4 is WAY too high, and as you note, it's not like Japanese is turning into English -- the changes are almost entirely lexical, and I would drop that "almost" except for jokey things like adding "ingu" to Japanese verbs. Chinese, for example, has had a much bigger, wider-ranging, and longer-lasting influence on Japanese, but the two languages and cultures remain entirely distinct. Japanese is only growing into a new language in the sense that all languages evolve as time passes.

It is certainly true that older people have difficulty understanding and remembering foreign jargon, and this is a problem (which elements of the government are struggling to remedy, as I understand it, at least in official documents), but it is a bit of a stretch to say that this is causing linguistic, musical and artistic traditions to erode away. The traditions remain intact, and kids could learn the jargon if they wanted to... but they don't. Partly because the traditions themselves are so rigid and inflexible and just plain hard that most kids don't see them as a rewarding or enjoyable means of self-expression. This is happening all over the world, including English-speaking countries. It's sad, but like you say, you can't force people to take up an artistic pursuit.

Languages die. It's what languages do.

What is sad, in my view, is not knowing English well in a world where knowing English well (or, at worst, one of the top-fifteen languages) is strongly correlated with financial prosperity, health care, social stability...

And international debates, like this one, are also happening in English, not in Xhosa or Twi.

One of the languages I speak will be effectively gone in one or two generations. Probably in one. Another might hang on for another hundred years before it fades to endangered status, and becomes the preserve of nice chaps in universities. I can't get worked up about this. Yes, I see what's wonderful about minority languages, I really do. But I've also seen what's far from wonderful about being left out of the conversations that affect your life, and being trapped in the strictures of a language that is lacking certain helpful modern concepts.

English, now, belongs also to those of us who don't look "English" or carry "English" genes in our bodies, in the same way that aeroplanes belong to those of us who don't undertake aeronautical research, and chicken curry belongs to those of us whose climates don't grow the constituent spices. Long camels on journey are fading from the world's consciousness, and many a tepid dish is dying a well-deserved death. The whole thing might trouble me more if English were a wretched language, but it's not. It's pleasant to the ear, it's deep, it's flexible and it has a wonderful fund of both old and new literature, by people of all backgrounds and colors.

If you'll forgive an overheated metaphor: it is as good as some synthetic fabrics, and saves us the trouble of ascending certain Everests draped in animal skins.

And when it's the turn of English to fade away, too, I won't be a mourner...

Thanks, St. Antonym, for that very thoughtful comment and for sharing your particular viewpoint on English...

Matt, welcome, it's great to have your thoughts here!

Hi Matt. Nice to see a new face. Also I'm looking forward to hearing more thoughts on life here in Japan.

You are probably right about 1/4 being too high. I've no idea statistically just how much English has become part of the language. I was merely trying to come up with a ballpark figure to show just how much English has infiltrated the language. Do you have any figures by any chance? Is there even a way to measure it?

But I disagree with you that Japanese is not changing into a new language. I speak the language almost as a native, every day, have done so since 1969 (I grew up here, went to both a Japanese school and an international school), most of my social contacts are Japanese, and a great part of how I gauge the world is through Japanese. Through my own daily use of and contact with the language I simply cannot agree that English-influenced words in Japanese are not a major part of the language today. I challenge you to randomly pick any blog or homepage by a native Japanese and not find a whole array of English words written in katakana peppered throughout the text. I haven't had a chance to look more thoroughly at your homepage (and I will, it looks like a lot of fun), but you can't tell me that manga and anime are not heavily, heavily influenced by English.

I think perhaps you are interpreting my earlier comment as the idea that when English infiltrates a language that language is somehow switching to English. That is not what I was trying to say. I see all the English vocabulary, PLUS the culture imported through movies, music, art, books, politics, the experiences that Japanese travellers bring back with them from abroad, etc, as collectively influencing how people see their own culture and surrounding world, and those people take this new perception and marry it to the language they already use. All those English words are NOT just some whim on the part of the Japanese; they are using the words daily to describe wholly new ways of acting out their culture. I think it is a mistake for English speakers to criticize the use of the English words Japanese are adopting as "inaccurate". That is not the point... the Japanese are interpreting the words in their own way and making them theirs. Thus the words are no longer English, nor Japanese. They are something new.

I also don't believe that Japanese culture or people are as rigid as you claim. Things change slowly, but they do change, often in much more fundamental ways than American or European culture, in part because they must, if they are to survive in this modern world. It's part of what it is to be Japanese, to adapt things from the outside and make it theirs. And it is simply not true at all that western culture has not profoundly and unalterably changed Japan, on a very similar level to that of China's influence, perhaps more so (when was the last time you saw anything designed in the Chinese way?). Just step out your door and look at the physical landscape... the architecture you see today, the clothing, the food, the technology, even the changing trends in the use of land... all have been fundamentally influenced by western culture (and this is not just Japan... it is happening everywhere in the world). The Japanese are no longer an agricultural people, which they still clung to when I was a boy (west Shinjuku was fields of barley, if you can believe it. Shimo-Kitazawa was a slow local train ride out to the country). In just one generation the entire nation has been emptied of its rural population (most rural villages are dying) and filled to bursting at the seams as the Tokyo-Osaka megapolis. There hasn't been enough time for the language to evolve enough to call it something separate, only about fifty years, but it is definitely moving in that direction.

I think it is hard for anyone from one of the big influetial societies like America (just like it was hard for nationals of the British Empire to perceive their influence on India and other colonies) to perceive the changes and what it is like to be on the receiving end of all this influence unless one has lived in the society a long time and speaks the language with local people over a course of their lifetimes. Even though I grew up here and consider myself partly Japanese, culturally, I am still learning about Japan and will never have a grasp of the enormous tumult of changes the culture is going through. English's influence is truly huge, even on a larger society than the ones Dale is referring to. If it weren't do you think that the vast majority of the huge number of language schools in Japan would focus solely on English?

I feel about endangered languages virtually the same sense of crisis I feel about endangered species.

I was thinking about this as I sat waiting for my daughter to emerge from surgery yesterday...
Languages DO change, that is natural, they're not static, written in stone, laid down in law... they're fluid and evolving from the mouths and minds of their speakers
and some die
which is sad but... perhaps that's a part of the natural processes of the world?

The global spread of English is good in that it enables people to communicate
English is a natural 'Esperanto'
People do need a common tongue in which they can meet and exchange ideas and info

I don't say that English is the best-suited to this purpose, nor that it will retain its linguistic hegemony, but cicumstances led to it becoming the dominant language of the last century...

Optimistically I feel that since English IS so dominant people have become aware of the threat to 'smaller'languages and are concerned for their well-being. I read reports of schools that teach Chinook to the children, Breton has its own TV station, Welsh is now an official language in schools in Wales, to give just a few examples... all of this a recent and exciting move tgowards protecting languages

Does anyone have other examples and references to show this?

I know that Ainu is being taught in Hokkaido (northern Japan. The Ainu are the original inhabitants of Japan. Their culture is very similar to that of Native Americans), but there are so few Ainu left that the language will probably not last much longer.

Re the figures, you're right, it's hard to measure and depends on context... There are some hard statistics from TV broadcasts here:


indicating, on average, 68% native Japanese, 18% Sino-Japanese, 5% other foreign (not just English, although I imagine English is most of this 5%) and 9% mixed (which I presume is mostly mixed Sino- and native Japanese). I doubt the figures have changed much since then. Note that in the breakdown a bit lower, English is more common in sports and entertainment contexts, while Sino-Japanese is more common in high-falutin' informational broadcasts, which is what I'd expect.

Of course I wouldn't try to argue that English hasn't had a huge effect on Japanese, or U.S. culture on Japanese culture, but I think that those figures show that the effect has still been smaller than Chinese's, overall. It just seems more major because it was more recent, more rapid, and because society is structured differently today. (Rather than a few privileged people learning Chinese and this gradually filtering down to the upwardly mobile, and eventually everyone through compulsory formal education, the English adoptions occur at all levels of society, from political commentators to kids in Shibuya.)

And, like you say: "All those English words are NOT just some whim on the part of the Japanese; they are using the words daily to describe wholly new ways of acting out their culture." Right, additions rather than replacements, often used to refer to things which were themselves imported from overseas along with the word. I have to disagree with "Thus the words are no longer English, nor Japanese. They are something new", though. They are as Japanese as the words "marvellous" and "television" are English. Even if they weren't part of Japanese 20 or 50 years ago, they are part of Japanese now.

"I also don't believe that Japanese culture or people are as rigid as you claim." -- Oh no, I don't think that Japanese culture or people are rigid at all! But I do think that the Japanese _traditional arts_ are incredibly rigid and this is what is causing them to die in a world where there are much easier options. It is incredibly difficult to get meaningfully involved in Noh except as a spectator, unless you were born into one of the traditional families; it is incredibly easy to get meaningfully involved in Western-style drama, even as an actor, no matter who you are. It is this, plus the perception of traditional things as stuffy and boring (a worldwide phenomenon!), which is making these things disappear... not any language issues.

"There hasn't been enough time for the language to evolve enough to call it something separate, only about fifty years, but it is definitely moving in that direction." I guess this is our fundamental difference in perspective. I think that after fifty years of continuous change, something can (will!) be different, but not separate. Societies change and develop -- the U.S. was once mostly farms too, as I understand it. But it's still the U.S. today, even though its economy and cities are very different.

It seems that basically we agree that Japanese society is changing, but we disagree about what this means and where it is heading. I disagree that Japan's young people are unsure about what it means to be Japanese, etc. I admit I haven't done any research, but most of my friends here (not many of whom are English-speaking) seem quite comfortable about their identity as Japanese folks -- they just see it as something fairly fluid that does not preclude enjoying or incorporating aspects of other cultures either. If anything, such people seem much more secure in their identity as Japanese people than their elders who worry about English taking over, although really I suppose the issue is that my friends are happy with the notion of what is "Japanese" changing over time, and their parents would prefer that it stayed the same. I can see validity in both points of view but I ultimately have to come down on my side of the generation gap.

In fact, this is kind of a side thought, but I think that in a weird way the drive to learn English IS part of that older, say post-war pre-Bubble Japanese identity that my friends do not wish to be bound to. Most of my friends who are actively learning a language are not learning English, and I know people who chose their high school because it would let them learn a language other than English. It would be ironic but not surprising to me if the same U.S. influence which brought English to Japan in such a big way led the next Japanese generation to insist on their U.S.-style personal freedom not to care about English!

Thanks for the thoughtful reply! It seems that we mostly disagree on the definition of terms like "turn into a new language" rather than any substantive issues.

And thanks for the welcome, Beth.

Matt, wonderful and very enlightening reply. It's not often that I can share a dialogue on Japan with someone from outside the country who also has an in-depth experience of the society, but when it happens it's exciting to get into the details!

I really like your point of view; obviously you've spent a lot of time thinking about it.

"I think that in a weird way the drive to learn English IS part of that older, say post-war pre-Bubble Japanese identity that my friends do not wish to be bound to."

I never thought about it this way and I suspect that you are younger than I am. Which means you have much better access to what the younger generation is thinking about. My friends these days tend to be in their mid-thirties to mid-forties, though I do spend a lot of time talking to my students who average about 20, but they most likely don't open up to me the same way they would with someone their age. It seems very likely that the younger generation is reacting against the single-minded approach of their parents and especially their grandparents, who seemed to think of nothing but getting the nation back on its feet after the war. English seemed like the only vehicle to success back then, so it makes sense that they focused on it. I know that almost none of my younger students spends much time traveling to the States any more. Unlike my generation who, back when I was in high school, would actually do things like dress up as "rock and rollers" or outfit their big American cars to mimic the dragstrip muscles cars of the States, and of course watch all the latest American movies like Star Wars and Towering Inferno and The Poseidon Adventure, the younger generation seems to be traveling much more to Europe (especially Italy) and Asia (especially Viet Nam) these days, and adopting a much more universal approach to clothing and music and such. I know that a lot of younger people are just beginning to look back at their own culture with more interest these days. WItness the shamisen music of the Yoshida Brothers and the recent trend in wearing modernized kimonos. And Chinese and Korean movies are enjoying an explosion in popularity. Pretty exciting stuff!

So perhaps I am out of the loop and my knowledge is slowly atrophying? Might very well be. I really need to get out more. I do think we agree on most points, and after reading your reply I want to take some time to talk to younger people and learn what they think, especially about language and the use of English. It would be very encouraging for me personally to learn that Japan is switching to a new direction in terms of pride in their own traditional culture. But it has a dark side, too. Have you noticed that nearly all public expression of the official name of the country, "Nihon" has recently switched to the harder, more forceful and therefore more belligerent "Nippon"? I've never heard it used so often before. Do you think nationalism is growing?

P.S. Matt, what I found really funny about the link you provided, was that so many of the words used in the text are those katakana English words we talked about. You just can't get away from them! It's like someone trying to give a serious speech but unable to stop hiccoughing. Sometimes a bit ridiculous.

Thanks to everyone who has contributed to this great discussion. I think 37 comments might be a record for The Cassandra Pages!

Here in Québec, one of the linguistic "issues" affecting the separatism debate is that immigrants who come from non-English and non-French countries overwhelmingly choose English as their preferred second language. They do so out of the conviction that it will give them and their children greater opportunities and more choices. This doesn't go down well with those who want the province to be strongly French-speaking. On the other hand, the idea of separatism worries the immigrant population because they are concerned that they'll feel less welcome and accepted here; other opponents of separatism warn that it would create another exodus to the English-speaking provinces of the rest of Canada. This debate takes place within a tremendously diverse population, in a province with a stated goal of creating a mosaic of cultures, where diversity is encouraged and appreciated as a positive aspect of life. My own hope is that younger politicians will find ways to embrace and encourage the ethnic and lingusitic diversity as well as the historic French culture: both of which are part of the attraction for nearly everyone who moves here.

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Who was Cassandra?

  • In the Iliad, she is described as the loveliest of the daughters of Priam (King of Troy), and gifted with prophecy. The god Apollo loved her, but she spurned him. As a punishment, he decreed that no one would ever believe her. So when she told her fellow Trojans that the Greeks were hiding inside the wooden horse...well, you know what happened.