I am staring at a sign, which I believe represents the train I am supposed to get on. But it is all in Japanese. And I cannot understand it. The train number is right, but the time is wrong. Is it simply late? Or is it another 559 train on a different line? If only I could read the train name to be sure I’m waiting on the right track…
To learn Japanese, all the experts agree, you have to start with the writing system.
Now in English, we have an alphabet of 26 letters, mostly distinguishable from one another. The only real trouble I recall learning my ABC was from our dyslexic pairs s - z, g –q and b - d. Tough for some, but simple enough.
Not so fast in Japanese: first there is “hiragana,” a 46 character syllabary with characters that look like inebriated doodles. If you add little marks to each of these, you can represent 58 more sounds, ka ga ba ta tu fu, etc., make them smaller and they aspirate in word. If you combine two of them you can make a bunch more singular, umlautish sounds like kyu, and then the exceptions and other things.
Hiragana is not so bad you say, only about four times the number of figures to remember than our utterly efficient alphabet. But it’s not just Hiragana our there, kids. There is also Katakana. This is another syllabary of 46 characters, but less doodleish and more like an angry toddler slashed his homework with a penknife. These 46 also have 58 additional sounds, and so on and so on. And what do they represent? Another whole set of sounds? Nope. They represent precisely the same sounds as Hiragana. That’s at least what page 2 of my Teach Yourself Japanese handbook says, and that’s as far as I’ve gotten.
So you inquiring folks might ask Why two writing systems for the same thing? Well, that same page two says Katakana is used to represent words of foreign origin, such as restoran and shirtu, while Hiragana is for “native” words such as, well, Hiragana. Fine. It’s a bit as if English had a system whereby “bread” was written in Anglo-saxon script , while borrowed words such as “dodecahedron” would be written in Greek or the Bolshoi theater in Cyrillic, but who am I to judge?
Anyway, we’re now up to about 200 some syllables for 100 some sounds. Fine. We can manage this, right? After a stiff drink we can. But page 3 is here! It turns out that only a small part of Japanese is represented by Hiragana or Katakana. When you read Japanese, most of it is in Kanji! Yes, that’s right! There’s a third writing system! Kanji is essentially borrowed Chinese characters, and from what I’m told, there are 2000 of them that school Japanese children need to get into their noodle to be functionally literate. Oh – and most kanji have at least two ways to pronounce them, though many are homonyms, so they are sometimes written with hiragana above them to indicate how to pronounce them.
As the linguistic quagmire deepens, I consider not turning to page 4, but morbid curiosity inspires--and of course there’s more! The final twist is that Japanese also uses our alphabet (which they call romaji) and Arabic numbers for a bunch of other things. Which they are, I don’t know. So technically, Japanese has four writing systems to represent its language, three of which appear in the sign below, and all of which I figure must mean the same thing, which is "meat."
And thereby, I decide the best way to learn the language is just by listening as best I can. Am I going to be reading the newspaper or writing letters in two months? No. So my opening line to everyone I meet will just have to be:
Nihong o oshiete, kudasai! Teach me Japansese!
Except you can’t say that to a train sign in a station in a provincial town.
Or ask a question of a subway map