Home > Life in Japan > Features
  print button email button

Saturday, March 1, 2008

WHEN EAST MARRIES WEST

Dialects: How to addle your brains


The verb, "addle," meaning to "make muddled or confused," can be used into only two contexts. This is from a linguistics prof who taught me years ago.

"You can," he said, "either addle eggs or you can addle brains. Nothing else."

"Ooh, ooh, ooh," a young coed in the front row cranked her arm for attention. "But professor, that's not true! I know it's not!"

Now to faithfully reproduce what this girl actually said, I would have to type something like, "But, professuh, that's naht true. Ah know it's naht." For, you see, she hailed from deep in Georgia and bore a Southern accent as rich as her hair was blond.

And then she said, "'Cause I addle my car every morning."

Get it? Addle? Idle? Southern accent? — Or are your brains the ones that are now muddled and confused?

American English is a herd of dialects, from drawls of the South to the absent R's of the northeast to the voiceless/voiced switching of the Iron Range and more. But while the herd be motley, it's not so very wild. There are no bucking broncos stampeding out of control. Meaning to most ears most accents are tamable with a little patience. The coed who "addled" her car every morning being a case in point. Ah scream, you scream, we all scream for ahscream. It's not so tricky at that.

Which leads us to Japanese dialects — where the level of the trick changes. Here we're no longer talking Harry Houdini-type slights of hand with sounds. We're talking wholesale metamorphosis. The dialects of Japan's north and south not only buck like stallions, they snort fire.

Almost all Japanese get thrown by either the Zuzu dialect of upper Honshu or the Kagoshima dialect of lower Kyushu. Most give up trying to understand and just throw back their heads and laugh.

Curse my luck that my wife hails from lower Kyushu. Which means I've had the pleasure of bumbling across both regular Japanese and one of its more dreaded dialects. Fortunately, bumbling is one of my gifts.

Although born and bred in southern Kyushu, my wife also struggles with the local dialect. Her accent announces her place of birth, but her own language bears none of the wild lexical variety for which the region is renowned. Those touches belong to either older generations or residents a bit farther to the south.

So when the old-timers talk, my wife can often only guess at what they're saying. When we lived in Kyushu and attended parties, the old folks would always end up being scooted to the same end of the table, for they were the only ones who could understand each other.

Except — invariably — that's where I ended up too. Somehow it was the perfect match.

Most of the elderly were eager to talk with a foreigner. None spoke a syllable of English — which did not curb their enthusiasm. The Kagoshima dialect soon shot out like water from a fire hose.

That my Japanese — especially in those days — communicated little better than dog barks had no detrimental effect. They would listen calmly to my ragged attempts at proper speech and then respond with excited outbursts in a tongue that might as well have been ancient Aztec. And not only to me, but to everyone.

So there we would sit. Them gushing on in a language no one could follow and me yakking right back, only in a different language. It was like the blind leading the blind, with no one stumbling. We chatted down a road of cheery conversation with both sides unaware of the potholes.

Of course this road was paved by alcohol. After a bit I had no idea what I was saying, even in English. It made little difference. I nodded at anything anyone offered and they did the same for me. It was cross-cultural, cross-generation, cross-language communication. Much heavier on the "crossing" than the "communication."

"How can you sit and converse with them like that?" my wife would say. "It's almost like you can understand."

Funny, but at the time I thought I did understand. And in the morning, as I coffee-ed my way out of a hangover, I felt we had somehow exchanged truths that echoed loud within any human heart, even those in Kagoshima. I just couldn't remember what they were.

And neither could the old-geezer guests, who would now look at me with smiles on their lips and confusion in their eyes. Until the next time we got together and it all happened again — each of us happily lost in different words and rhythms and understanding both nothing and everything at once.

Meaning? In the end, I suppose, there are really three things that can be addled: eggs, brains — and the Japanese language.



Back to Top

About us |  Work for us |  Contact us |  Privacy policy |  Link policy |  Registration FAQ
Advertise in japantimes.co.jp.
This site has been optimized for modern browsers. Please make sure that Javascript is enabled in your browser's preferences.
The Japan Times Ltd. All rights reserved.