From: Peter Rivard
Date: Tue Sep 17, 2002 9:25:02 PM Japan
Subject: Bicopric languages
I haven't written much lately because I've been quite busy. September is always a crunch time in Japanese schools--every day, until fairly late, I've been helping two students practice for a speech contest, and I've also been helping prepare for sports and culture festivals at my schools. Plus, last spring, the head of the PTA got me to volunteer to put together a display on American culture for the PTA's culture festival, immediately following the kids'. I'm short on sleep and a bit sunburnt (from sports day).
And now, it all gets worse. I'd been cruising along in my Japanese studies, knowing I was a bit shaky on a bunch of things I hadn't studied well enough but confident I could catch up and get on top of all this. I can go into a bar and have an almost normal conversation with people there--I require a bit of patience but I don't try it excessively. But tonight in class I hit the major "Oh, shit" point of the study of Japanese. Technically, Japanese is what is called in linguistic terms a "bicopric" language. That means that, in reality, it has two "Oh, shit" points. However the first one, referred to in textbooks as the "Oh, shit, these people use thousands and thousands of very complicated little pictures instead of an alphabet to make words" moment, generally occurs well before one decides to study the language, so only the second remains to shock one in the midst of serious study. It's widely believed that Chinese is the only other living example of a bicopric language. Most languages are monocopric, with the "Oh, shit" moment occurring much earlier in study. Many of you are undoubtedly familiar with the famous "Oh, shit, that was a vowel? I thought you were merely experiencing simultaneous digestive and sinus difficulties. I'll cancel the ambulance" moment in the study of French, or have at least heard of the "Oh, shit, you mean that's not just a drunken Spaniard?" moment in the study of Portuguese and Catalan, among other languages (yes, I know, I know, but you try telling a Barthelonian he's really just a Spaniard).
The second copric moment in the study of Japanese? It's called "Kei-go," meaning "respect language," and it really is like a separate language. Three (could there be more?) different verb bases for different levels of respect (sometimes completely different verbs for different levels), just waiting for me to apply the last three years worth of conjugations. I'm sure it only gets worse. They tell me that most young Japanese can't manage it, either. Apparently, businesses are having a hard time finding new employees who know how to speak politely to their clients. But, at least I'm beginning to understand some of the verbal bric-a-brac that's stood between me and any understanding of what people have been saying to me for the last couple of years: "how `bout a beer?" was coming out in complicated 45 word spiels because people have been showing me respect.
Still a lot to learn out here,