Dialect Survey Progress Report 3 (final)

Posted: August 9, 2009 in facts, life
Tags: ,

The short version of this post is:

dialect survey = good

nationalistic language policy of fail = bad

also: kowai, kowai!

On to the longer one –>

I participated in four survey interviews, two in Naruko and two in Onikoube, but out of those four two were actually the same sets of questions (one in Naruko, one in Onikoube).

The most interesting interview, for me anyway, was the one in Onikoube about various words typical for the Miyagi prefecture dialect, such as menkoi (common language* variant = kawaii), shush (the pronunciation is actually closer to oshosui, CL= hazukashii), mozokoi (CL = kawaisou) and such.

The most surprising thing I learned, which I didn’t know before, which was absolutely stupid, because I should have, was that in the Miyagi prefecture dialect kowai means not “scary” or “I’m afraid” as in the common language , but rather “tired”. Thus a when  you see a  couple of nice old ladies exclaiming:

“Kowai, kowai yo!”

it doesn’t mean they’re afraid of something, but rather that they’re tired. The possibilities of miscommunication are innumerable.


Another thing that was very far from inconspicuous was the dialect speakers’ unwillingness to speak dialect at all. Out of the four dialect speakers I interviewed, two were very ashamed that they were speaking dialect instead of the common language (what is typical and also quite said, and I think not coincidental, is the fact that both were female).

One of the nice old ladies, and octogenarian, said she was afraid of using dialect in front of outsiders, especially tourists (Onikoube and Naruko are famous for hot springs), for fear of being misunderstood and/or ridiculed***. She said she only could speak dialect with her fellow octogenarians, which was absolutely sad, because, hullo, octogenarians. There can’t be that many of them. Also, apparently her son (now in his sixties) would often tell her to shut up when she started to speak dialect at home.

I find this absolutely chilling. This might be something I should have known for ages, but I was uninterested in dialect research before, so it’s not like I had many opportunities to read about it. Also, it’s one thing to know theoretically about the nationalistic language policies in Japan between the Meiji Restoration and WWII, and another thing to witness their results directly.

Another woman, in her sixties, would answer most questions with “I don’t speak like that” and “It would be impolite to speak like that”, or “Somebody would get angry at me if I spoke like that”; “like that” meaning of course in dialect. Whenever she would actually speak dialect, and the interviewer would repeat her words to make sure they heard everything correctly, she would correct his pronunciation to the common language one****. It was extremely sad, I thought, especially after she gave us a lecture about how nowadays many people were not ashamed to speak the (impolite and provincial, it was heavily implied) dialect even in public, and how people, especially women, were using less and less honorifics*****. She was indignant when she told us about her daughter who works in a place where most people are from the same area, so they speak dialect even during work hours when talking about work, even in quite formal situations, and so on, which caused her daughter to start using dialect at work, too.

(I was like “go girl!”)

(She was convinced something should be done about it. Having complimented us, the interviewers,  on the quality of our common language******, she hinted perhaps we should do something about this daunting collapse of standard Japanese usage, instead of, it was heavily implied, wasting time on dialect surveys)

It seemed all very sad to me, maybe because words are quite important to me personally, and the mere thought of being unable to express myself freely, and being stigmatized because of my language usage is almost unbearable.

And let’s not even mention the self-hatred, because, seriously.

I checked the university’s website for some additional comments, but the Center for the Study of Dialectology‘s survey site seems not to have been updated for two years or so.

*I using the term “common language” instead of “standard Japanese” **I follow the current Japanese usage, according to which the term “standard Japanese” alienates dialect speakers and thus should be avoided. I agree with that assessment.

** Standard Japanese/ Japanese common language is in fact an artificial common speech, created by the centralized government as means of easing communication in the newly united Japan after the Meiji Restoration. In was based on the speech of educated Tokyo upper class  male speakers from that period.

*** Compare with the attitude of Polish tourists when they go to Zakopane or thereabouts. If they are not spoken to in dialect by the locals, they feel somehow cheated out of their tourist experience, even if (like me), they don’t really understand much (I never understood why my mum actually understands that dialect while I can’t. What’s wrong with meeeee???).

**** They pronunciation of Tohoku dialect greatly differs from that of common language, so it’s easy to misunderstand a lot, even if you know the words. As a general rule, in most syllables with “k” (ka, ki, ku, ke, ko) the “k” is turned into “g” and/or nasalised. A sentence like:

Bunshou-o kaku

would most likely sound like:

Bunshou-o kagu.

(not to mention that “o” would most likely be omitted).

Also, in many cases the differences in pronunciation between “u” and “i” are difficult to discern.

***** This is true to some extent, but I’d think that honorific usage changes because the mainstream honorific research is less and less dependant on creepy nationalistic ideology.

****** Strangely enough, she wasn’t looking at me, then. I COULDN’T TELL WHY.


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