Monday, February 22, 2016

An aside on how I was taught to romanize Japanese

When I first started studying Japanese in an official capacity, I did it at the University of Pittsburgh. We had two "main professors" and a set of 5 or so native-Japanese speakers as graduate student instructors that switched off for our recitations (it was a 7-hours-of-class-a-week course). I don't really remember the main professors very well, but they were rather large proponents of the romanization used in "Japanese: The Spoken Language" by Eleanor Harz Jorden with Mari Noda.

A quick Google search reveals that this text has a LOT of detractors, and it's pretty frustrating to look back and think about how it's handicapped me.

But to the point, today I was watching a video made by a Japanese YouTuber and the word "eigo" flashed on the screen, to which I immediately interpreted as "English" and was pissed right the eff off because I had been imagining the word as "eego" for my entire adult life because of the stupid, stupid way this book romanizes Japanese.

This style of roumaji is apparently called the Nihon-shiki roumaji or 日本式ローマ字.

It's just stupid and it doesn't really make much sense.

What's the point of roumaji? Is it so that someone that reads the Latin alphabet can make an attempt to read or speak what it is they're reading? Because I sort of feel like that's the point. Am I wrong on this? Should the point be that no one can understand it on either side of the language?

So let's obscure the pronunciation of Japanese in an attempt for "purity" or whatever the flip the argument is for using it. I can't propose a single one.

Japanese doesn't have a single symbol for how Americans would say "tea" or how we would say "too". You might think they would, because hiragana/katakana is usually split up in categories of consonant + 5 vowels (ah, ee, ay, oh, oo—as an American would read them—and a, i, e, o, u as Japanese should), and there is a "t" category; but what this book would have you believe is that "ti" and "tu" exist as one would expect. They do not. "Ti" would be "CHI" if you ask anyone over the age of 5 in an English-speaking country to transliterate and "tu" would be "TSU'.

I broke myself of that absurd habit years ago (thankfully)—and to be honest, I'm pretty OK with hiragana/katakana, so when I see ち / チ or つ / ツ I am used to thinking "chi" and "tsu", but then there's this vowel lengthening nonsense the book advocates.

In Japanese, you basically pronounce everything. So e + i  ("ay" + "ee") sounds like "ay" + "ee". But go ahead and try to say that. If you say it fast enough, it just sounds like a longer "ay". Similarly, your mouth makes an "oo" sound at the end of "oh", so to elongate "oh", you write o + u ("oh" + "oo").

This makes perfect sense and it's reflected in the hiragana: ei is えい and ou is おう, but again, this effed-up book would have you learn these as "ee" and "oo". Never mind that the English-speaking brain wants to interpret "ee" and "oo" as the vowels in he and food and not hay and toe, but it's not even what they should be in a direct translation of Japanese character for character!

Why hamstring the readers to do this?

Not to mention the deep-seated trauma caused to my understanding of Japanese in keeping the "y" sound for j-.

To write "ji", it's じ.

This is basically the only j- hiragana, so to get other vowels, you combine it with the hiragana for y-. When combined, the y- is dropped. So we get something that looks like "jyaa" but the "y" isn't pronounced and shouldn't be included in the roumaji. Ji + ya + a = "jaa" and is written じゃあ (notice the ya is smaller to indicate it's doing this vowel replacement thing), but the point here is that most of the other consonants don't do this. When you add ya to them in this manner, the "y" sound stays. So ki + ya is kya.

I still find myself writing out jyaa when I'm saying "see you later" which is bad, because it's so ingrained in my brain that I write it all the time. I regularly end conversations with jyaa. I've probably signed off on blogs that way in the past. You may have been like, "What a bloody moron this Zero kid is. He doesn't even know how to say goodbye in a language he used to be halfway competent in."

I feel like those students I sometimes get that were taught 5 ÷ 0 = 0 (spoiler: it's not).

It's also very frustrating that I have two college textbooks on Japanese and there's so much crap in them that they're effectively worthless.

Anyway, so yeah, why do we teach things that are counter to learning? Also, why do people (and by people, I mean teachers) think division by zero has an answer?