Thursday, July 12, 2012

Thoughts on the Underlying Structure of Language

I have been busy in the last few weeks working on checking and editing the English translation of a book by LEX, that they are planning to publish in English in the coming year.

This type of checking takes a lot of time, as a group of 5 or 6 people meet and read through the entire document line by line, checking the original Japanese against the translation to make sure the meaning that is conveyed in the translated version is as close as possible to the original. Some times a question about one line can lead to a half-hour discussion about the meaning or connotations of words or phrases in the different languages and the larger ideas that surround the sentence. Even though it takes a long time, I think it's really interesting work because it makes you think a lot about the subtleties of language. A lot of times there are words or phrases that cannot be directly translated or even that express ideas that don't really exist in the other language, so it's a challenge to figure out how to express that idea in the other language in a way that will make sense to speakers of that language, while remaining as close as possible to the original.

In the last few meetings we had some interesting discussions about the ideas of Mr. Sakakibara and the TCL students regarding writing systems, and I read a little more from some of the other LEX publications on this topic.

One of the things that I find interesting is the Hippo Letter System, created by LEX, which uses a mix of kanji (Chinese characters) and the phonetic alphabets of different languages to write in that language. For example, the sentence:

"My family members are my dad, my mom, and I."

would look like,

"My 家族 members are my 父、母、and 私."

using the Hippo Letter system. The ideas is that if you learn the meaning of these kanji characters, you can then read them in any language. So you would read the second sentence aloud in the same way that you would read the first one, and you could write it in Spanish using the same characters, "Los miembros de mi 家族 son mi 父、mi 母、y 私." 

I've been thinking a lot about this as I have been learning to read Japanese, which uses kanji and the phonetic hiragana and katakana alphabets, and thinking about how this writing/reading system works. One of the ideas I keep coming back to is that languages which use a phonetic writing system like English aren't really that different, in terms of how we comprehend them, as languages which use ideographic characters like Japanese.

A passage from The Hippo Letter System, in a section describing the efficiency of kanji and kana in the Japanese language, reads,

"In Europe there is something called the fast reading program. Readers are taught to grasp words spelled out in phonetic symbols as whole shapes - in other words, as ideograms. People who read fast do so by subconsciously converting phonetic symbols to ideograms. This would again seem to indicate that a writing system combining ideographic symbols with phonetic symbols best fits the makeup of the human consciousness."

I think the idea that words constructed from phonetic symbols can be understood as ideograms is a great point, but I would argue that it is not limited simply to "fast reading programs" in Europe. I think this is the way that all literate adults read text in languages that use phonetic writing systems, just as they would text written in ideograms.

When young children are learning to read English they are at begin by slowly pronouncing each letter in a word and often mispronounce the word as a whole, because the sound of the word corresponds to the total combination of letters that make up that word, which is many times different than how it would be pronounced if one were to try to speak the sounds of each individual letter in sequence. But adults don't do this; most people can actually read faster than they can speak aloud. This is because we recognize the word as a whole, and can understand the meaning of a combination of letters almost instantly when we see it, rather than reading each individual phonetic letter in sequence each time we see it. If you think about it in this way, that words spelled phonetically function a lot like kanji in terms of how we recognize and understand them.

Furhter poorf taht our brians reocginze a wrod as a whole shpae and not by the individaul prats is that eevn if you mix up the lettres in the wrods of a sentnece, as lnog as you keep the frist and lsat lettres the smae (to maintian the shpae of the wrod), you can undrestnad it wihtuot mcuh diffcuilty.

The spaces that separate words in English allow them to be easily recognized by their shape.

itismuchhardertoreadenglishifthesentencehasnospacesorotherchangestoindicatethe breaksbetweeneachgroupoflettersthatmakeupaword

(It is much harder to read English if the sentence has no spaces or other changes to indicate the breaks between each group of letters that make up a word.)

In the Japanese language there are no spaces, which at first seemed to me that this would make it very difficult to read, but once I learned more I realized it's not a problem at all because the text alternates between kanji and the words written in phonetic hiragana and katakana (used for foreign words) characters. The contrast between the different letter systems effectively allows the brain to quickly recognize which group of characters makes up each word.

For example, in Japanese the sentence "My name is Stephanie," looks like this:


If you are familiar with the Japanese letter systems, you can easily see that each alternating word uses a different letter system.

私          の          名前          は        ステファ二-     です。

kanji     hiragana      kanji       hiragana     katakana       hiragana 

(me)  (belonging to) (name)  (subject marker)  (Stephanie)      (is)

When I was studying design in school, we discussed how contrast in building materials, patterns, color, etc. can create the sense of a separation of space in a given area, even if there is no actual barrier constructed. This is because the brain easily recognizes and registers a contrasting unit as separate from what surrounds it. 

You could apply this system of contrast (changes in the types of characters used) to English as well.


And Japanese that is written all in hiragana for young children who cannot yet read kanji is written very much like English; the words written in hiragana are separated by spaces.

So in both cases (and perhaps in all languages), the writing system contains a way for the brain to easily recognize and distinguish between the units that contain meaning (words), and the brain is able to do this very quickly. I think this is what Mr. Sakakibara was talking about when he said that all languages have the same underlying basic structure.


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