April 06, 2005

"The Japanese are Japanese because they speak Japanese"

An article by Roger Pulvers in The Japan Times, dated 4/3/2005, discusses the widespread belief among Japanese people that their language is uniquely difficult. Pulvers describes a conversation with a cab driver -- an argument about the comparative difficulty of Japanese and Polish morphology -- and looks for a more general moral:

Is his quaint obstinacy an indication of a wished-for ethnic "exclusivity"?

I believe that this irrational belief in the difficulty of their language bestows upon Japanese people, willy nilly, a false mystique, as if through their language they were able to harbor secrets to which the outside world could never be privy. This false mystique allows them to entertain a feeling of national sharing without having to prove it explicitly. "We all think and feel the same way," it tells them, "and we can express this in a way that is only open to Japanese. The fact that non-Japanese cannot decipher this is proof of our ethnic cohesion." If they admit that the Japanese language is no harder than any other, and maybe even easier in some ways, their self-styled aura of exclusivity loses much of its shine.

Pulvers' article was cited by Bridget Samuels at ilani ilani, who saw it on the Language Feed; Language Hat picked it up from Bridget, and gave Pulvers an appropriately hard time about grading the difficulty of languages according to morphology:

...the idea that a simple morphology means a simple language is ridiculous. Complexity is to be found in many areas of a language, and if morphology is simple I guarantee you syntax and other aspects pick up the slack.

The rhetorical structure of Pulvers' article is familiar from deadline-haunted columns over the decades. An allegedly general characteristic of some group (New Yorkers, the French, the Japanese) is established by citing its display in the person of a cab driver, and then used by the writer as the basis for an even broader set of generalizations.

However, the idea the Japanese language is somehow unique, and that this is causally connected with unique properties of Japanese people, does really seem to be widely held in Japan, and not just among cab drivers. One of the odder books on my shelves is a little volume entitled The Japanese Brain: Uniqueness and Universality, by Tadanobu Tsunoda, translated by Yoshinori Oiwa (Taishukan Publishing Company, 1985). From 1958 to 1970, Dr. Tsunoda was the chief of the department of Otology and Audiology at the National Center for Speech and Hearing Disorders, and at the time of the book's publication, he was a professor at the Department of Auditory Disorders at the Medical Research Institute of the Tokyo Medical and Dental University.

Here's a relevant passage from Tsunoda's Foreword:

...there is part of human speech which cannot be simulated by the computer and which might be called pre-verbal or semi-verbal sounds. I have investigated at depth the responses of the human brain to this little known type of sound, using normal subjects and a variety of sounds existing in nature and in our everyday environment. As a result, I have found that the normal human brain has an elaborate subconscious mechanism which discriminates sounds on the basis of their physical characteristics on the sub-cognitive level. [...]

My findings seem to provide an explanation of the unique and universal aspects of Japanese culture. Why do Japanese people behave in their characteristic manner? How has the Japanese culture developed its characteristic features? I believe the key to these questions lies in the Japanese language. That is, "the Japanese are Japanese because they speak Japanese." My investigations have suggested that the Japanese language shapes the Japanese brain function pattern, which in turn serves as a basis for the formation of Japanese culture.

Tsunoda claimed to find differences between Japanese and Westerners in cerebral lateralization for the processing of certain sorts of sounds. Although he attributes the difference to the effect of the Japanese language, he confuses things by also asserting an oddly-distributed racial or ethnic effect:

It has been found that there are esssentially two brain function patterns -- one shown by Japanese and Polynesian people and the other by the rest of people.

As far as I know, other researchers have not been able to replicate his findings.

There is a long and distinguished tradition of speech science and neuroscience in Japan, and this sort of thing is by no means typical of it. But the Japanese version of Tsunoda's book, which was published in 1978, was enormously popular for a decade or so. Nihonjinron -- the discussion of Japanese identity which often seems to invoke popular feelings of Japanese essentialism -- often seems to be part of the background here, for intellectuals as well as cab drivers.

[Update: Ray Girvan emailed:

A relevant cross-link: it was reading about Tsunoda that led me to that list of Japanese ideophonic terms you mentioned a while back ( http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/001238.html).

Ideophones, I recall, fitted into his conclusion that the Japanese process natural sounds in the language sphere (as if we heard ducks literally saying "quack quack" rather than making a noise conventionally written as "quack quack").

See " The Japanese Language Brain"

Ray has some excellent further discussion on his Apothecary's Drawer Weblog.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at April 6, 2005 06:07 AM