Sociolinguistics in Japanese Contexts

By Tetsuya Kunihiro; Fumio Inoue et al. | Go to book overview

22. Consciousness of language norms

0. Introductory notes by the editors

This chapter was originally written as an essay for the popular periodical Language Life, and so is written in a casual style from the first person point of view. (First person pronouns do not actually appear in the original Japanese text. In Japanese, they are omitted when they can be inferred from contexts.)

The content of the paper is worth noting. Here a distinction between spontaneous “norms” and compulsory “rules” is drawn. The importance of “prestige” in the adoption of a rule is also indicated. One can easily infer from this essay the liberal ideas of Dr. Sibata toward language policy.

In section 6 of the original version of this paper, “Rules of okurigana” were discussed. Okurigana are supplementary kana affixed to the Chinese character roots of verbs or adjectives to indicate their conjugations. When the original work was written, the proper orthographical rules for okurigana were a topic of dispute. The content of this section would be very complicated however for those readers with no knowledge of the Japanese writing system, so this section was omitted from the translation here.


1. Paying attention to language

I am in a taxi and can see the traffic lights at an intersection approaching. I have to tell the driver to turn right at the corner, but for some reason I say “left”. It might be because ‘left’ and ‘right’ are semantically similar and they might be stored in my head next to each other. I might also try to forewarn myself by saying “not left, right”, but ‘left’ comes out. Of course I then immediately say “right” and all is well. This correcting of myself is a kind of feedback and is possible because my ears can hear it, and I can match what I hear with what I know to be correct. This is an example of consciousness of norms.

Sometimes, even though I have said “right”, it sounds to the driver as if I said “left”. In the noisy environment of a taxi, hidari ‘left’ and migi ‘right’ are nearly homophonous. In comparison, the Sino-Japanese words usetsu ‘right turn’ and sasetsu ‘left turn’ are clear and not confused. Since my taxi experience, I have on occasion stalled to say hidari, corrected myself by saying migi, and finally settled on usetsu ‘right turn’. There is nothing wrong with saying migi by itself, but the “rule” that usetsu is better takes over and I virtually stutter until I find the right word. Such “rules” are examples of consciousness of norms.

When writing, feedback becomes even more active. When speaking I may say mutsukashii ‘difficult’, but when writing I would never write mutsukaihii but would use muzukashii. The word katsute ‘in former times’ I pronounce as katte, but when I write it, I write katsute and take care to check this before sending papers off to be published. I am aware that even Tokyoites also sometimes use

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