Wednesday, December 2, 2009
Lie, Stupid, Starving
We can translate “lie” into Japanese, but “uso 嘘” doesn’t exactly mean the same as “lie.” I’ve been reading a few books by Suzuki Takao, a Japanese linguist. He pointed out this important matter about “lie.”
If an English speaker says, “You lied to me,” it means that I did something morally wrong. That’s quite disturbing, isn’t it? I haven’t thought too much about it in the past, but come to think of it, the linguist is right that we Japanese think of “uso” as only “uso.”
Uso means untruth. If you say untruth is negative, then from that point of view, yes, it is negative, but there is no other negative meaning attached to it. I looked at my dictionary and found that “lie” means an intentionally false statement involving deception. I’m a bit shocked to see the words “intentionally” and “deception.” Uso is not necessarily malicious. So “lie” is malicious “uso,” I think. Fiction is uso. That’s why someone made a funny face when I said fiction is lie.
We Japanese often say in Japanese, “You’re a liar,” or “That’s a lie!” with no intention of accusation, but those speeches exclude subjects and articles, such as “You’re a” or “That’s a.” That’s our normal daily speech. Our customary grammar alone, I think, shows less accusation than in English. Definitely, “You’re a liar” is stronger than “Liar.” And the modern Japanese grammar was developed based on the western grammar, so we have the first, the second, and the third person points of view. But that’s because they have been defined according to western grammars. So that fact alone is actually problems because it forces the well-developed but not- matching grammar onto our totally different language. I think it’s been giving people quite illusion
So when Japanese say “Lie” or “Liar” to other Japanese in Japanese, it usually sounds comical and light hearted. I often hear that word repeated by Japanese with or without smiles. I didn’t think much of it all these years. But to delve into the meaning of each word takes tremendous time and experience.
Also “stupid” is not exactly the same as baka. Once I had a heated argument with my son about it, now I think back that maybe there was misunderstanding. I love my children, and they are smarter than when I was growing up. I respect them. So under any circumstances, I’d never call them “stupid.” But one time, my son accused me of it. I was furious. I said to him,
“I never said that. I never have that in my heart and brain. How can I ever say that?” I said.
That ended our argument. But I was disturbed by it. What made him tell me that? Growing up, my mother mumbled to herself sometimes when she made an error. She would say, “Because I’m baka. My brain is bad.” Those sentences are without any subject and possessive. But she was very smart person. Westerners usually say such persons have low self esteem. That does not apply to Japanese. My mother had very high self-esteem. That’s one thing I’ve been successful planting in my children without putting any extra effort.
Anyway, for three or four years, my mother was reared by her most disciplined, high-rank samurai grandfather. Putting herself down was cultural, and it’s her own way of improving herself and being humble. Baka is written 馬鹿 which is horse and deer. Well, I might have said to myself, “Baka-ne.” My son speaks only English.
I hope he is reading this.
I think we only realized something like this only when we get into troubles. Can you imagine how many erroneous but innocent words I’ve been using in the past? Wow, I have to go around all over the countries to apologize for the rest of my life!
After talking about lie and stupid, I want to cover “starving.” My daughter was twelve when she came to Japan the second time. She stayed with my mother for a few weeks, and she went to stay with a friend of mine for three weeks. Her family members do not speak English in their daily life, but with a good dictionary, they can carry a basic conversation. I don’t know how exactly the situation was, but my daughter said, “I’m starving!” The friend looked at the dictionary for the word. The following year I met her, I thanked her for taking care of my daughter. She said to me,
The fact is that…it was a mealtime and. I thought I should let you know this,” she continued in stops and starts.
“What is it?”
“I thought you should know, and you probably ought to tell her not using such language.”
I frowned a little.
“Your daughter said…well….Starving”, she said putting her hand over her mouth halfway.
“Is that all?” I said, “In English, we say, “I’m starving when we are very hungry. That’s nothing wrong with that. We all say it. It’s humorous.”
The friend’s expression turned deflated.
In Japanese, starving is the state of serious famine. So the meaning of each word demands much attention and discussion. I don’t think linguists alone can make a perfect dictionary. Besides languages are always changing, too.
In summary, I think the real problem is not only miscommunication but also how each of us sees the world in which we’re in without judging. I don’t know how many times I have done. As I read, I find even well-known linguists make mistakes on language assessment. No wonder, we all make mistakes often without being aware. Well, what’s news, right?