Thursday, February 16, 2006

Bending Time

One of the simpler and yet harder grammar points of Japanese to grasp and use correctly and also put into practice daily is the way that we would say "I haven't done that yet," or "I haven't seen so and so" today. Or "I've been studying everyday this month." These progressive sorts of sentences can be confusing for an English user of Japanese as a second language because what happens is this:

First you learn the present progressive in Japanese. I am studying, I am eating, I am watching/seeing/looking (they're all the same word in Japanese), I am sleeping, I am writing,drawing (same word again). Or conversely, I am not running, I am not reading, I am not playing, I am not listening.

It's a simple grammar that doesn't match how we seperate ideas in English that are progressive states: For example, we say, I am studying. It means at this moment. But in Japanese you would use this same grammar to say, I have been studying. There's not another code to switch to. So basically if you want to say you've been studying for a period of time, you include the period of time and still use the progressive form within that context. "I have been studying everyday this month" becomes "This month everyday I am studying." Learning this with English time frames for grammar in mind is strange, as many English time concept grammars is odd to Japanese ears when they're learning English. An English learner of Japanese wants there to be a new type of grammar here. But there isn't. You just have to get used to this other kind of way of expressing a state of time. I personally have gotten used to this grammar by thinking about the voice of historical essays in English. You know, those history books and essays that write about history in a more present sort of tense. "At age fifteen, So and So writes his first opera and the community of Vienna falls in love with his work," etc. Hello, isn't this done and over with? But a historian sometimes acquires this present tense voice about the past. Now it's not exactly the same thing in Japanese, but it's close enough that it gave me a way to connect this idea of a continuous state.

So when I go to the elementary school and ask a teacher if last time we did a certain lesson, he or she will invariably say, "We're not doing that," which means, "We haven't done that." Or when I went to the doctor about the mumps, when my doctor asked my coordinator if she's had the mumps before, she said, "I'm not doing them yet," which of course is, "I haven't had them yet." It all starts to make sense after a while is what's so amazing. Because at first it just sounds like it's something a second language learner won't be able to get past. But after a while, if you're immersed especially, you hear the meaning without hearing the oddness to your first language. You begin to hear the second language's meaning without it immediately being corresponded to the first language and compared and contrasted for meaning.

So when I come to school and a teacher asks what I had for breakfast, I'll say, "I'm not eating breakfast," and they hear that breakfast is something I did not eat and that I am still in the condition of not eating, and scold me accordingly. Or like this morning, Yasuda sensei asked me if I'd seen Kimura sensei as I came in from the parking lot, and I answered I'm not seeing Kimura sensei. This sounds strange to my ears, but Yasuda sensei hears that I haven't seen Kimura sensei and continues on with our conversation as normal, without any hesitation in the disruption of the flow of information at all. And I would know if it sounded strange to him. Believe me, I get "What did you just say?" looks when I say something wrong.

This is amazing to me because in moments like this, it becomes apparent just how created the meaning of our lives is, how there is no one way that the world works, but many ways, so many that time periods are expressed differently in another language and makes time look weird at first but completely understandable after a while. It's a lesson that has practical value not just in speaking Japanese while I'm here, but in how we can change our lives, our cultures, our world, if we would only be more flexible with the ideas we live by, that we believe to be "the way the world is" when in fact it's only the way "your particular world is," and not how it has to be.


Blogger Jason Erik Lundberg said...

I work with several Korean graduate students at my desk job (well, not actually work with, since they're technically in a different department, but we're all in the same room together), and I hear this quite a bit. I know in narratology it's referred to as the historical present tense, and it's interesting to see how different cultures express this.

11:08 PM  
Blogger David Moles said...

We used to call it the “resultant continuative” at UCSC, but I've always found it easier to just think of the iru in nantoka yatte iru as either “to have” or “to be” depending on context. “I have done X,” “I am doing X,” you know.

Which doesn’t save me from a vague worry that I’m constantly getting the tense wrong. :)

What I really like is the Irish past tense of the form “I’m after doing X.”

10:56 AM  
Blogger Christopher Barzak said...

Hehe, that Irish past tense form is awesome!

And I think of the "iru" in that sentence the same way you do. A lot of it is contextual cues. But it takes a while for Native English speakers to get used to this, don't you think? For the Japanese, it's hard to learn the English equivalent because they have to learn a different sort of grammar and vocab used for this expression. For Nat. English speakers, we have to get used to using a grammar point that was learned already, but to listen for different contextual cues that changes the meaning a little.

Languages are weird.

11:03 AM  

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