Saturday, February 25, 2006

Seeing Language

I've been thinking a lot about language as I've been writing my second novel, which has a structure that I tried to make feel like the experience I have when I look at those paintings done on Japanese folding screens, which sometimes encompass a vast array of areas in the country, the pictures flowing in and out of each other, then coalescing into their individual narrative image before flowing into the next. Those screens in Japanese are called "byobu" which means "wind wall". I love the names for so many things here. They make more sense in many ways. "Screen". What does that mean? It's just a sound, isn't it? I mean, I can't look at it and see any meaning. I mean literally *see*. Of course it means something because we grew up hearing it over and over until it finally clicked into place and our brains registered its meaning, but there's nothing about it that makes me think visually of what a screen is. This is one thing that happens in Japanese. Words become very visually, palpable things, moreso than in languages that utilize the roman alphabet, in my opinion. I think it's because of kanji, it makes words very detailed visual things that call up pictures in your head and this was recently confirmed for me by a Japanese friend who says she tried to describe the difference between Japanese and English to a Canadian friend and had a hard time. She thinks Japanese is almost like you're displaying language, whereas with English it's such a specific language, utilizing plurals and pronouns all the time, that the listener's processing/imaginative centers are less engaged because English communicates so specifically what the speaker wants to get across, whereas in Japanese there is more responsibility on the listener to understand what the speaker is talking about, you must really engage with what they're saying because there are so many things left out in Japanese, and you have to put them in yourself as a listener. This is yet another reason why so many Westerners trying to learn Japanese have a hard time. We're used to having many details given to us. Here, you have to give more as a listener to engage in conversation. Luckily I was able to get past that stage where it's frustrating because you don't know what a person is trying to say because things are left out, and you're waiting and waiting, and then finally if you make yourself engage with this process more and more, you can start to fill in the information yourself. It was strange when this first started to happen for me because I thought, whoa, I totally knew what that guy was talking about even though I would have used about twice as many details to get the meaning across more specifically. I'm glad I've learned how to say as much with less words, and understand as much, perhaps more even than before, by sticking it out and not giving up on the language. If I hadn't I'd really be missing out on something special.


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