Flexibility of Japanese in Books

Hello, all! My name is Terryon Larkins and I have been working at the Special Collections & Archives since the fall of 2018. Initially, I was a Federal Work Study employee but not too long after I became a part-time worker. Although I have been working here for a number of years, I do think that this blog post will be my first. So far, working at the Special Collections & Archives has been a great opportunity for me, especially when I think of all the books I can potentially read on language learning and art, or stories written in Japanese.

I’ve always found it interesting at how little or how much one can understand in a book or magazine written in a foreign language. More specifically, I find it interesting how fast or slow we can learn languages based on how closely related the target second language is to our first language.

An example would be a native-born speaker of English trying to learn Spanish or French. Although these are three different languages they have some similarities that make it possible to learn the others fairly fast: grammar, sentence structure, alphabet, etc. If a native English speaker wanted to acquire fluency in Spanish rather than Japanese, one reason why they would be able to do so at a faster rate is because both Spanish and English are derived from Latin. With that being said, one would be able to recognize words in Spanish that look similar and could potentially have the same meaning as words in English.     

Since I’ve been learning Japanese for about a year and a half, I’ve come to notice and admire how flexible the Japanese language really is. Normally, one would think that Japanese has some sort of structure but they would be wrong. Generally speaking, the structure of Japanese sentences, whether written or spoken, is subject object verb (as illustrated below).

So the related image would read “boy sentence write” if translated literally. But when we translate the sentence so that an English speaker can understand it, it would be “the boy writes a sentence/the boy will write a sentence.” Although this is the general structure of a sentence in Japanese, sometimes sentences that are similar to English in structure are created. This is possible due to the particles that are shown below. Each one of these particles can have multiple uses, but to keep it simple, if these particles are used correctly then the order of the sentence does not matter much. The verb and the object in the sentence above could be flipped but the meaning would not change and one would still be understood if the appropriate particles are used. Also to make it more interesting, sometimes particles are dropped and sentences are structured like English sentences.

Japanese can be read in a multitude of ways too. Specifically, in this book 冷蔵庫にパイナップル・パイ (Pineapple Pie in the Refrigerator) the text is written from top to bottom and then right to left, which is normal for me. But there are certain instances when books are written in formats that a native English speaker would be used to (left to right and then top to bottom).

For example, this artists’ book, It is bitter to leave your home : a true story depicted in typographic images, is written from left to write and top to bottom just like in English. Some of the numbers that are used with the text are not Kanji and are actual Roman numerals. I suspect that this flexibility of the writing styles is due to Japan’s struggle to decide what way they would like to modernize, not only their language, but also their culture.

If you have the same interests in language learning or you want to read a book in another language, visit the Special Collections & Archives and we can help with that request easily!

Published by Kristin Hagaman

Research Services Associate, Special Collections & Archives, Florida State University Libraries

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