Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Jukugo Deconstruction

非 不 無 末 否 反 
 安心 ->不安
     ease       unease 
In Japanese, there are several kanji used for negation.

There are specific situations where these Chinese characters tend to be used. By understanding the concepts underlying these kanji, you will be better equipped to interpret them inside new compound words you have never seen before, as well as guess which one should be placed in front of or at the end of an existing compound in order to negate it. This may be of particular use to those studying for the JLPT N2 and N1. In addition to helping better interpret the language, this also helps in using it, as we now have some basis to choose between synonyms in Japanese that the dictionary informs us mean the same thing. It also allows us to create our own internal systemization of the language, instead of the systems the native speaking professors who write our textbooks or the "language hackers" who try to pragmatically fill the void, would have us attempt to follow. So, let's have a look a kanji for negation in Japanese. 

An apple is an apple is an apple in your native language. Learning to internally re-construct conceptual hierarchies is the task of learning a new language.
is used to talk about negatives where a situation or quality is “outside what is normal or expected” or “non-normalized behavior/occurrence”. What qualifies as the normalized status quo is relative to Japanese culture/traditional Chinese culture. Generally speaking, that means maintaining social harmony.

非常 - emergency (not normal situation)
非難 - criticism  (not normal reaction)
非行 - delinquency  (not normal behavior; in a young person)
非常識 lack of common sense (perceived from a cultural POV)
非業 - unnatural death/untimely death (as opposed to dying from “natural 

Things start to get interesting as this point of view shifts away from a Westerner’s way of thinking:

非公開 - private (closed to the public; the “normal” is open to everyone)
非暴力  - non-violence (draw your own conclusions)

And then finally into the realm of objectionable implications:

非婚   - unmarried
非処女 - experienced woman (non-virgin woman)

describes negative feelings or virtues (vices); the lack of some (sometimes external) quality/circumstance required for “goodness” to occur (including economic success)
                  Feelings     Virtues    Lack of External Quality
                                 不安                   不公平               不況
                                 不幸               不順              不足
                               不気味        不正       不景気  
                                 不便        不信              不可能 

In many cases, there is a categorical overlap in the meaning of these words.
There are also a few words that are seeming exceptions that are not easily categorized.

For example: 不動産 (real estate)、不思議 (“it’s a mystery”). 

But we can try to parse words like this. The 思議 means “conjecture” which as 不思議 translates into: “lack of the external quality of being able to make a guess about (what *it* is)” ---> "mysterious".

describes metaphysical existence/non-existence, but is not always used for philosophical statements.

無理 impossible (without logic) 
無形  abstract/intangible (no shape)
無料 no charge/free of charge
無効 invalid  (without efficacy)
  countless (without number)
無口    reticence (without a mouth/speech)
無情 -  heartlessness ( may seem like the more appropriate kanji, but think
             over the meaning of the word “heartless”. If we truly want to condemn 
             someone for being heartless, what is the stronger condemnation: “Your 
           lack of empathy limits goodness!” Or “You have no heart! It doesn’t exist!”
This kanji also has a few borderline cases that likely will not seem to make immediate sense to a Westerner:

無地plain (unfigured/without shape-style)
無事 safety/peace (no things, i.e., nothing arose, i.e., without incident: therefore things are peaceful. You might better understand this word by understanding 無難: safety ((proceeded) without difficulties), or imagining Buddhist idealism.

Let's compare two words that use these kanji and in the dictionary mean the same thing. Earlier you read the word 無理, or impossible. Let's compare that to 不可能, which also means impossible.

無理 (muri) means "not exist + logic" ---> impossible/unreasonable to X
不可能 (fukanou) means "without + (the) ability (to)"

What kinds of sentences might these two words be used in? Muri is used to say that "it is unreasonable to expect X", something is so unreasonable that it is effectively impossible. Fukanou means "not have the ability to" and thus it is impossible. So that can be used to describe situations of human ability, perhaps one's own ability, compared to others. In other cases of metaphysical impossibility a term like あり得ない can be used. These are not the only possibilities, however.

meaning “tip” or “the close of”, describes something that exists/existed coming to an end; the “end” of a pattern/cycle/system, etc…

末日    last day (of the month)
月末    end of the month
世紀末  end of century
末っ子  last child (that a mother gave birth to; the youngest child of a family)
粗末     crude/shabby/rough (rough-ended/rough-edged)
端末機  terminal (electronic unit, like a credit card “swiper” at a restaurant:    
                 “end of sale unit” )
語末   suffix (end of word) (the linguistic term is actually 接尾語)

There are a few other words for that do not obviously have to do with tip/end. This kanji, and when used as a radical (as a "part" of a larger character), can mean “powder”, but that is a kind of *end*: the end state of processing, down into the smallest possible (visible) unit (from old technology pre-microscope POV):

粉末       (fine) powder
抹茶・末茶  green tea (powder)
抹香・末香 incense

describes a volitional process of rejection or denial. The bushu (radical) of this kanji include and , meaning “to speak a denial” (although the spoken reading is not , but rather ). While recognizes factual existence/non-existence, relates someone’s recognition of those facts/rejection of something as unfounded. 

Indeed, is the kanji for いいえ or “No.”.

否決      rejection/negation (of a proposition/decision)
否定     - denial/to deny
賛否      for and against (a plan), yes and no (mixed reviews)
成否      success or failure, outcome (of a course result, of a personal goal)
否め無い incontrovertible (the denial has a clear basis in reality that is plain for 
                  all to see)

There aren’t actually all that many common words that use this character.

  is not a direct negation. It means “anti-“ or “to be against” or “exists in 
      opposition to”.
反対 (the) opposition/opposing. As a verb: to object to doing X, to be against
違反  to transgress (to break the law)
反発  backlash (as a result of a decision/rules) (family won’t give approval to  
             your choice of boyfriend, kids going through a “rebellious phase” etc.   
             Also, in science, for example: positive/negative magnetic poles)
反響 reverberation/echo (opposing sounds)
反撃 counter-attack
反省 reflection/introspection ((juxta)opposing focus)
反米 anti-American

Like the others, occasionally is used in a word where it doesn’t superficially seem to make any sense:

反復 re-iteration, repetition  (once again return)

Can you grasp how the concepts of  “a return” and “opposition” overlap? The word 返し (that uses as a radical) means “reversal” (to turn opposed), it is used to talk about returning favors.  The verb 返る (to return) can also be written as 反る, giving a secondary meaning of “return” in radical form. These meanings are considered to be inseparable in Japanese, but to native English speakers they are not.

Can you fully understand how this overlaps with the concept “opposition”? If you can, skip to the next paragraph. If you can't, think of two “opposing dots” on a piece of paper. Mathematically there is a relationship to the middle between them. The concept of opposition cannot exist without the concept of a middle ground between opposed sides. Think of two opposing parties of an argument/issue. When they were born, there was no conflict/opposition between them. To “do” the opposition (返る) is to resolve it back to an original state: i.e., the middle or neutral groundi.e., to go back (to where you were “before”). This meaning is also clear in the word 反撃 (counter-attack), where both the concepts of “oppose” and “return” are included in the meaning. This meaning is again clear in the verb 返る for returning a favor; someone did something for you and when you return the favor, the “debt” goes to zero (i.e., back to neutral/the middle).

反物  fabric (opposed fabric; there is an implied measurement going on here, because you have to cut that fabric somewhere)


Non-native speakers of Japanese who are seriously studying it often fall into the trap of allowing their Japanese test preparation to frame and guide all their study efforts. But neither the hierarchy of Kanji for the JLPT or for the Japanese "Grade" levels are entirely suitable for learning the methodology to parse and use the language in an intuitive way. You are not a native speaker. You are learning a second language. Your frame of reference is different than the frame of reference of natives, and the frame of reference of those who create the exams you wish to pass. You may need to "pass tests" in order to have something to show for yourself, but please consider this as a (for now) necessary evil in a semi-broken insular system that has not been created to help you in any way.

In order to properly grasp Japanese in the full sense as an non-native speaker, you have to breach the frame of reference that you lack. Whatever your particular weaknesses in the language (Kanji is hard/I can read all the kanji but I cannot ask where a toilet is) understanding where concepts overlap with each other from the Japanese point of view is key, as is juxtaposing these concepts in comparison to English, or your own native language's way of conceptualizing. See where they overlap in Japanese, and where they do not overlap with your own native language. If you can consistently ask yourself the question, "What is this like, that I already know?" and start to categorize and systematize, and not simply accept the hierarchy information dissemination as presented to you by Japanese professors or self-anointed senpai foreigners, you will be on the right track. You are in the driver's seat of your own learning, and no one can do that learning for you.  Know your weaknesses, focus on them, and always, always be finding patterns in the hodgepodge of seeming randomness that appears.

Good luck.

No comments:

Post a Comment