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Wednesday, Aug. 4, 1999

WHEN EAST MARRIES WEST

How to keep the main clause interesting


Many years ago when she was studying for the TOEFL exam, my wife asked me to explain the difference between a main clause and a subordinate one. She somehow had it in her head that as a native speaker I would instinctively know what those words meant.

At the time, she had yet to learn that the only thing instinctive about her new husband was his ability to blink. Still, I was able to grope deep within my gray matter and yank out the following definition:

"It's sort of like our marriage. Here, I am the main clause and you are the subordinate."

My sweet, gentle bride narrowed her eyes at me -- the very same squint one gives a nail before whacking it through a hunk of wood. Then she growled.

Who would have thought a subordinate clause could get so uppity? Enough so to make the main clause even sleep on the sofa.

This would not be the only time the G word -- grammar -- was to botch our matrimonial accord. In fact, over the years we have been so routinely tripped by language rules and phrasing that our syntactic kneecaps are not only scabbed, they are scarred.

Usually English grammar is not the culprit, though in the early days of our wedded life my wife would sometimes confuse participles and make sudden bold confessions like, "Oh, I am so boring!"

At such moments I would immediately grab her and encourage her to change her ways. But she would always instead push me off and insist, "No! I am not interesting now!"

I would argue this too and the whole routine could, and sometimes did, domino on for hours. I, of course, understood her goofs and could have corrected them, but I generally preferred being amused by her English bloopers to being confounded by her correct Japanese.

Specifically, I am referring to the Japanese habit of aligning statements after first beheading all the subjects. A grammatical bloodletting that can be linguistically apropos, as long as the context is clear.

The problem is that to understand the context I need all the help I can get. Lopping off the subject and then expecting me to follow along is similar to handing me a road map without any words, just a bunch of lines. Getting lost is guaranteed.

Here's how it works: My wife mentions herself, her mother and a friend in a short sequence. Then, with these three possibilities hanging, she begins cranking out verb phrases.

"Went shopping with mother and met Sachiko. Lost wallet! Asked for help! Ran back to hunt! Both looked and looked. Could not find! So worried! Then found in pocket! Hooray!"

But her listener is too dizzy to cheer.

"Who?!" I screech. "Who did all this?!!" My wife is puzzled too. What was verbal slight of hand to me, was to her as clear as a picture book.

The truth is, most Japanese have no trouble tracing contexts and antecedents, no matter how much they flip-flop about. It's sort of a sixth sense, similar perhaps to the way JR always figures out how to break down right when I'm in a desperate hurry.

Some scholars even assert that true skill in Japanese is proven not by being able to comprehend what is said, but rather by being able to fathom what has been left unsaid. A function known to these linguists as . . . (pause for a blast of organ music ) . . . "the fathom of the inoperable."

Another Japanese grammar feature lurking through our marriage is keigo, or honorific language, which I have a tendency to butcher. In this respect, my wife says she never knows whether I am going to address her as one of the Imperial family or as something that entered our house on the bottom of my shoe.

While I understand that the Japanese language has different social levels, I prefer a more democratic approach and tend to treat all words equally -- whether it makes me sound like a lunatic or not.

For example, in my particular mix of the vernacular, the simple question of, "Hi, honey, what's for supper?" might snake out in Japanese as something like:

"Oh thou most noble feminine creature, what's that swill you're sloppin' up?"

Usually, however, my Japanese leans to the polite side -- so much so that my wife says she sometimes feels married to an overly drippy undertaker. As in:

"Oh, I'm so sorry to learn you cannot locate your missing sock. Nevertheless, I am certain you will meet again in another life."

What bugs my wife most is that after a while she starts to talk like this too, the end result being that, rather than standing firmly awash in the double eloquence of two languages, we find ourselves casually adrift in twice the babble instead.

Having bilingual children only puts a frame on our shortcomings.

While our boys tend to giggle at Mom's English and find fun in making picayune corrections of her every error, with me they take off the gloves.

"Whoa!" says one. "Is that a skunk I smell? Why no . . . it's just Dad's bad grammar."

"Yeah, Dad," adds the other. "Were you speaking Japanese? Or did you get another thorn in your paw?"

At which point the lion roars and scatters the mice. We main clauses can be touchy.

Or as my wife so deftly puts it:

"Grammar can make me very irritating!"



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