Tag Archives: linguistics

lying through your pants

The first time I lived overseas I was only there for two months. I wasn’t speaking or learning the local language. Still, I recognized that my English skills had declined in this span of time.

When I moved to Japan, I actively pursued learning the language. But at the same time, I didn’t want to lose my other languages. While the majority of my study revolves around Japanese of some sort, I’ve given a few minutes each day to reviewing German vocabulary and to reading a bit of Spanish. I’ve also set up some English flashcards. The English I’ve been studying is SAT caliber. It isn’t vocab I’d usually pepper into daily speech. Still, it’s been helping. Maybe it’s just been keeping my brain folds wrinkly, but I feel like I’ve forgotten a lot less.

That doesn’t mean some aspects of my speech haven’t taken a nose dive. Idioms and jargon is what seems to be hit the hardest.

And it isn’t just me.

A week ago during a meeting, Coworker A told a sarcastic joke. His deadpan nature meant we couldn’t quite tell if he was serious or not. When it became clear he was pulling our legs, Coworker B accused him:

“You’re lying through your pants.”

A couple of us sat there silently for a few seconds. We had a feeling the expression wasn’t quite right, but we couldn’t remember what the correct one was. The closest I came up with was, “Liar, liar, pants on fire.” Coworker C finally figured it out.

“Oh,” he said, “the expression is ‘You’re lying through your teeth.’ And, ‘Flying by the seat of your pants.;” He wasn’t saying that to correct Coworker B. In fact, I don’t think Coworker B even heard him, as she was still talking to Coworker A. It was more of an awareness on Coworker C’s part, one that extended to a few of us nearby, of trying to remember what in the world that expression was.

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Tales of Japan

Shut up!
Unfortunately some of the first English the students here pick up is the, um, less than savory kind. Sometimes it is all out swearing. Other times it is just stuff that isn’t entirely age
appropriate.

Case in point: a scene from a couple weeks ago.

I was teaching a class of first and second graders. Though I bring a lot of energy to the classroom and like to make the curriculum fun, I do need the kids to actually listen. Usually the kids are great, but on this particular day the second graders were talking to each other instead of listening. After a few times of asking them to calm down didn’t work, I paused. I stood there holding the flashcards, slightly smiling, just waiting. This strategy works pretty well in the honor society of Japan. It is considered shameful that I can’t teach the lesson, especially as a guest teacher (I only come once every two weeks, and I’m only scheduled to teach the first and second graders once a month). The other kids, seeing that I had paused, turned around and tried to get the noisy kids to pay attention. But, of course, they wanted to show off their English too. So this precious little first grade boy turns around and clearly says to the older students, “Shut up!” The
tone wasn’t menacing or harsh. He said it like you or I would say, “Please be quiet.” Slightly mortified, I explained to them that these words weren’t polite, and I had them all repeat, “Be
quiet, please” after me. Then, since they were quiet, I went on. But I haven’t been able to shake the sight of that precious little boy innocently using words that got me in trouble at that age.

Very, very cute!
My apartment is not too far away from a preschool, and occasionally when I walk by a passel of 2 year olds is hovering near the open door. If this is the case, I often stop to say hello and give
high fives to them. This activity occasionally draws more of the toddlers to the door. Three or four of them have taken to compliment me when I stop. “Eigo no sensei kawaii!” (The English
teacher is cute!). “Arigatou!” I reply, and give them another high five. At which point another child usually takes his or her turn to affirm me. Which I thank him or her for, and give another
high five to. After three or four rounds of this, someone usually changes to, “Eigo no sensei kakoi!” (The English teacher is cool!). That statement is then echoed by another round of charming little faces. A couple of times a teacher will walk by and whisper to them. The teachers know I speak English and view this as an opportunity for their pupils to practice. “Very, very cute!” the girl will start to chant. The chorus is taken up by others. “Very, very cute! Very very cute!” Now they are jumping up and down, thrilled to pieces at my cuteness quotient and charmed out of
their minds that they can tell me about it.

There are some rough days in this country, and the culture is not one that works hard on affirmation, so as strange as it may sound, being serenaded by a bunch of two year olds chanting my praises can really make me feel better. Encouragement: I’ll take it in any language!

The Ground Shaking: just an ordinary day…
As most everyone knows, Japan is prone to earthquakes. The country as a whole probably receives at least one per day, but they aren’t usually big enough to feel unless they are decently
strong and fairly close. That combination only occurs every two to four weeks. Yet that is still frequent enough for it to become part of the background noise of life here.

What I mean is this: yesterday I was shopping. Specifically, I was shopping for comic books (manga) as a gift for a friend. I’ve never shopped for manga before, and I was simultaneously
trying to guess which copies he might have already read as well as thinking about how much money I wanted to spend. In the middle of that we had an earthquake. It registered as 4.6 on the
Richter scale. I certainly felt it, but I also ignored it and kept thinking. A few minutes later I made a decision, paid for the purchase, and walked out of the store. As I strode away, for some reason the idea that we had just had an earthquake hit me. I was a little taken aback, not that we had had one, but that I had forgotten about it so quickly. When did the earth shaking become such a normal thing?

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The Linguistics of Cuss Words

On Fridays my junior high’s academic schedule is a little more laid back than the rest of the week, meaning there is time at the end of the day to visit the table tennis club before my driver arrives. A couple Fridays ago I chatted with the seventh grade girls who were there, then borrowed a paddle and began volleying with Misaki. After a little while Chihiro and Mao made their way over from the other table. They had a question about English: how does one spell “oh my God” and what does it mean? 

This didn’t completely take me aback. For reasons I haven’t yet discovered, taking the Lord’s name in vain is some of the only English students in rural Japan know. They offer it unprompted and unaware of its offensiveness to my faith. Discussion with my teammates has yielded only the theory that some popular comedian or television personality must use it. But we often suspect the students don’t know what it means. Chihiro is one of my brightest students. If she doesn’t know what it means, none of them do. 

The words both “oh” and “my”, have appeared in their lessons already. “Oh, my net!” the character in the textbook exclaims while engaging in a carnival game of scooping goldfish. In this game, which appears at most festivals, the customer purchases a certain number of special nets. Any goldfish he or she manages to scoop up and into a plastic container is theirs to take home. The catch is that the nets disintegrate after about 25 seconds in the water. And of course fish are very skittish things. Nor are they guaranteed to live through the night. Still, as long as one is strategic and isn’t too attached to the pet, it can be quite exciting. 

In other words, the seventh graders around me knew the first part of the sentence and how to spell it, but not the third word. I carefully explained the spelling to them and then translated the word. Then came the tricky part: how to explain the nuances of the word. 

See, in Japanese, they don’t really have swear words. In America we somehow invented some. In other parts of the world they insult people with curses. My Arabic teacher once told us that the worst thing you could say in Arabic was, “May your house be utterly destroyed.” My employer in Amsterdam told me that as a Dutch person he is far more offended by the vernacular of “damning” someone than he is by the words that merit censoring in American films. And a friend once told me that the worst thing one could say to a Japanese person was to tell them to disappear. In Japan, at least, because of this absence of swear words, they don’t seem to have a grid for what the concept is. Once last fall I heard a kid use the “f” word at lunch, but once I strictly told him not to, he said okay. A minute later he asked me in Japanese what the word meant. About a month later I watched a kid raise a certain finger to the turned back of a teacher. In the States I would have hauled him to the principal’s office. Here I gave him the benefit of the doubt and sufficed with a look. Upon realizing I had observed the gesture, he quickly put his hands together in penitence, bowed his head, and said “Sorry, sorry” in English. But he had a grin too, full blown during the gesture and twitching at the corner of his lips during the apology. He wasn’t acting in anger. He literally had no idea of the full meaning behind what he had just done. 

Unfortunately, there really isn’t a good translation for most of the cussing. My default has been to explain that the words are rude, for being rude is a big deal in this culture of honor. The “f” word, I said to the boy at lunch, is the rudest word there is. To my seventh grade table tennis girls I said that many people in the United States use this expression to express frustration, but it is rude towards God, so Christians don’t use it, and as a Christian I don’t use it. I am fully well aware that this is an oversimplification of the issue, but even explaining that much was challenging. The girls didn’t know the word, “Christian,” and I couldn’t remember the Japanese, so I called myself a “church person.” In the end I was able to make Chihiro understand, and she in turn explained it in normal sentences to the other two. 

It isn’t just me that has a hard time translating these words for the Japanese. Once I was watching the movie The Darjeeling Express with some friends, some of whom were Japanese. Therefore, we opted to watch it with Japanese subtitles. At one point a character emits the “f” word in a stand alone capacity, not enveloped by a sentence. I immediately glanced down to see what the words on the screen read for this. ”ダメ” they said. In English letters that is “dame”, with the “da” pronounced to rhyme with “pa” and the “me” pronounced like the fifth month of the year. “Dame.” I knew this word. It simply means “bad.” We use it when students are misbehaving. Once last spring I noticed a student picking all of the beans out of his salad at lunch, and I asked him in Japanese, “Do you like beans?” “Beans are a little bad,” he replied in Japanese. It was that same word. It doesn’t carry anything close to the connotations we have for cuss words in English. 

So, cuss words or curses, which would you rather have? Personally, though I don’t cuss, I believe it is wrong to speak in anger, and I try to avoid those who do, I am rather grateful to be from a country that has ceased to employ full out curses. Recently I’ve been reading a book on the power of blessings. Blessings are all over the Bible, from the patriarchs of Genesis to the salutations of Paul’s epistles. Speaking a blessing over someone carries. I believe this and have committed to speaking blessings over people in my life. But it stands to reason that if words have that amount of power, curses can be terribly destructive. They too are words spoken over someone, a prayer for destruction, woe, and sorrow. I’d rather have cuss words tossed at me than have curses spoken over me. 

How about you? Thoughts?

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