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Saturday, April 24, 2004


When L's and R's go mad

Having spent much of my life perplexed by Japan, I admit to a little "payback" delight whenever I catch Japan perplexed by the West. It seems it doesn't happen so often.

Of course we Westerners are not without a few unfathomable mysteries of our own. For example, how come Clark Kent can disguise himself with only eyewear? Or how did George W. Bush ever graduate from Yale? And so on. Yet, when it comes to enigmas, the West generally falls far behind the East.

But we do have a special conundrum that never fails to baffle the typical Japanese on the street. So it's time to tip the hat to that one peculiar puzzle that forever strives to shore up the gap in East-West bewilderment. From the Japanese point of view, it is simply this:

What's the difference between an "L" and an "R?"

Clinically, these two sounds aren't exactly cousins. Go ahead: Make an initial L and an R and pay attention to what your lips and tongue do. If you do it right, the first will "smile and push" while the second will "pucker and draw." Muddling the two is like mistaking koalas for grizzlies. Still, many a Japanese English speaker will do just that.

This is because the Japanese language itself has no such critters. Instead, Japanese has a "sort of/ kind of" intermediate sound that novice linguists will call a "flap r." More experienced linguists, however, will avoid such indistinct terminology and quickly turn the conversation to a more verifiable truth. Perhaps with a statement like: "Look everyone! I can lick my nose!"

Not all Japanese struggle with L's and R's, and my wife is a good example. She misses those sounds about as often as she misses a bowl of lice at mealtime. Or so she says.

Thus, the following staged dialogue is not with my wife, but -- let's say -- an old acquaintance. I have no intentions here of mocking local pronunciation of English, for in fact my own Japanese flub-ups are so numerous they could fill an entire book. (And have! See "Japanese Made Funny," published by The East in 2001.) Yet, I also find an Abbot and Costello look at Japanese L's and R's quite irresistible. So suspend disbelief and see what might happen when L's and R's go mad:

My friend and I are trading small talk at a restaurant. I start the show by asking about his daughter.

"Oh she's glowing all the time. People say: 'Hey, what are you feeding her? She won't stop glowing!' So now she's shy and tends to stay indoors."

"Gosh. Is she OK?"

"I think so. These days she's shown an interest in the frute."

"The fruit? Which one?"

He squints. "There's more than one?"

"Uh . . . yeah. There are oodles and oodles of fruits."

"I didn't know that. Hers is sort of right and rong. What kind is that?"

Right and wrong? I am tempted to say "durian," but before I do he cuts me off.

"Anyway, she prays and prays."

"Really? She's religious then?"

That surprises him. He leans back. "About her frute -- yes."

Hmm. A daughter that glows and prays to a weird fruit -- I begin to fear for him. I ask about his wife.

"It's been a hard year for her. She's been busy and then she had a health concern."

"Oh? What happened? Has she been sick?"

"No. She had a rump on her head."

I pause. "She had a what?"

"A rump. On her head. It came out of nowhere. She could cover it with her hair so no one could see, but she was still upset."

"I can imagine."

"You know, sometimes a rump can get bigger and bigger."

"I've noticed that."

"So she went to the doctor, but he said it was nothing serious. And then he cut it off."

I make a face. "That must have been painful."

"Not so bad. He used a raser."

A razor? I keep the same face.

"But the rump is gone and my wife is happy. Yet there were some side effects. For example, sometimes she would start to breed on her way to work. It was quite embarrassing."

I am not sure how to respond.

"But now she's fine."

I had forgotten her job and have to ask. His answer:

"She teaches at a clam school."

I imagine it's some sort of fishery. I ask what she teaches.

"Ancient Chinese liting. It's a difficult subject, but she makes it fun."

Ancient Chinese lighting? To fetch clams? I am eager to learn more when he calls for the check.

"I have to go. But it's been nice to talk with a native speaker. I find when I don't, I get so lusty."

I had been about to join him, but now decide that maybe I should stay.

"Sure. You sit here and have dessert -- on me. The specialty here is flesh pie. Whenever I taste it, I feel I should face the kitchen and crap."

I swallow and tell him I think I'll pass.

"But you didn't eat much. How about a sandwich? It comes with flies."

"No thanks. I'm not that hungry."

"OK, but why don't you come out to the house some time? We've got a wonderful view of a tiny liver. I could sit and watch it all day."

Right. While his glowing daughter prays to her fruit and his clam-school wife hides her rump scars.

"Yeah," I tell him. "I'd like nothing more."

Every story -- even a lame one -- needs a moral, and this one ends with wise words gleaned from a well-worn public service announcement from old FEN radio:

With only a gentle twist, it seems a rittle ranguage really can go . . . a rong way.

To contact Thomas Dillon, send e-mail to marriedtojapan@yahoo.com

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