Wednesday, October 1, 2014

The Perils of Counting Sheep - the Enjoyment of Japanese

Spoken Japanese is a beautiful sounding polysyllabic language. The sound construction itself is much simpler than English (hence the difficulties many Japanese have in pronouncing English words) but it still comes across as rich and fluid. In structure it is actually significantly more rigid than English and as a result, once you have learnt the rules, there are limited variations and hence it simply becomes a game of learning vocabulary.

But some of those rules….

One that is easy to be caught out on is the counting system. There are thirty six separate systems in daily use and probably significantly more that have fallen out of favour over the years. The systems themselves are actually modifiers on the number itself and describe certain aspects of the item being counted. For example, one plate would be ichimai, indicating it is a flat object, whereas one bottle would be ippon, indicating it is tall and round.

Typhoons have there own modifiers as do cars, stamps, children, time and many more. Ippun, nifun, sanbun are the equivalent of one, two, three minutes. Whereas in English you simply count and add the word "minutes", in Japanese you have to remember the correct modifier. Luckily it rotates in groups of three but 12:47 becomes a difficult time to say aloud if you're not used to it.

And then we come to animals. A small animal would be counted with the modifier -piki (again rotated in groups of three). So one, two, three rabbits would be ipp-iki, ni-hiki, san-biki. However large animals are counted using -to; itto etc. This then causes an added confusion; just what exactly is the difference between a small and a large animal? And if you ask a Japanese friend they will more than likely laugh. Because, in reality, most of them won't know either.

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