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Over the last few weeks I’ve been peripherally involved in a discussion on the position of the Irish language in Irish society. Peripherally, because I’m not Irish and am therefore not qualified to discuss Irish, apparently. I didn’t buy the Sunday Times today, so I missed an editorial by Sarah Carey, one of those involved in the discussions. I didn’t even know her work had that kind of exposure, but the editorial is now online.

I find myself in total agreement with Sarah here. She makes an important point about the separation of business and culture, and like me questions the need to equate a country’s language with its culture. Don’t get me wrong – I don’t doubt the importance of culture, and the way language mirrors it, but language differences are a barrier to effective communication in a global business market. Quote:

The purpose of language is straightforward, allowing us to communicate with one another. Languages develop in isolation, but once people move around the language spreads.

When they are spoken by small groups of people, in evolutionary terms they have outlived their usefulness and get subsumed by others and die. A marginal language becomes a cultural appendix.

Theoretically, having as many people as possible speak the same language should be welcomed. Like the euro, it’s so handy. You’d think we’d be relieved of the burden of having to learn and translate other languages into one we can understand.

The problem is that in the 19th century, when colonialism was in full swing, people became more conscious of their nationality. When the colonists arrived, language was one of the first targets. Hating the invader’s language and clinging to your own became a weapon of resistance.

The link between invasion and the annihilation of language was forged and this negative connotation is what prevents us from letting go. The fact that people and language can move in both a peaceful and highly productive manner has been lost. Letting go of Irish doesn’t mean letting go of being Irish.

My study of Japanese has much more to do with the culture than business; the possibility of going there to live and work was secondary to that, and not something I had my heart set on – unlike a colleague of mine who I was studying Japanese with, and who is moving there at the end of September to work.

I don’t do much business travel, but I have visited Germany, Portugal, Denmark and France in the last two years. I work in a department with people from seven different European countries: I have joked to a few people that I wished there was a language called “European”. Why? An English-speaking business visitor to Europe can cross multiple borders in a matter of hours, and could not be expected to settle on a single European language to learn, even if he or she was prepared to learn one. The example given by Sarah, of the outrage caused by a European employer’a group deciding to use English, is instructive, but a taste of things to come as the world gets smaller.

Where does this leave Irish? I have had zero interest in learning it, from the minute I landed here. It offers me no tanglible benefits, since I am not a scholar of Irish culture who needs to “read in the original”. It might look charming to tourists to see it on road signs, but that quickly gets old.

Canada is another odd case, with French an official language, some Québécois would call it the only official language. What if I was go there, to and live and work? Watch this space…

Written by brian t

August 13, 2006 at 11:44 pm

Posted in culture, ireland, japan


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Wikipedia, being a user-authored and -moderated encyclopaedia, has much in common with the fictional Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: “it has many omissions and contains much that is apocryphal, or at least wildly inaccurate”. It seems to me that the most reliable and sensible articles are those in the mainstream, subjected to the most eyeballs, and hence the most corrections. The Sony article is such an article, and contains the following understatement:

Sony has historically been notable for creating its own in-house standards for new recording and storage technologies instead of adopting those of other manufacturers and standards bodies.

For as long as I’ve had any interest in shopping for technology, before I even had the money to indulge it, I’ve avoided Sony for just this reason. The first strike against them in my book was MiniDisc, which they tried to position as a replacement for the CD, at least partially, selling pre-recorded music on it. They repeated the pattern with Memory Stick, and recently with the UMD discs for the PlayStation Portable (PSP).

The content on these media is inevitably by Sony artists, which also sets alarm bells ringing; the thought of a single corporation owning the whole entertainment production process gives me the willies. After their takeover of Columbia Entertainment’s roster, they could sign up artists (musicians, film producers etc.), and have Marxist-grade control over the means of production, distribution, and consumption of their products. Think I’m exaggerating? OK, Sony don’t make guitars or drums, but they make mixing desks and recorders for studios, both for multitrack and mastering. They then release the content on their proprietary formats, which can only be used on equipment made or licensed by them.

They have tried all this in the Film and TV worlds too; after the failure of Betamax video – which wasn’t bad technically. Sony make video cameras of all types, including HiDef ones used for films such as this year’s Collateral. They tried to lock down Surround Sound formats with SDDS, but failed against Dolby and DTS. Now we have the aforementioned UMD (PSP only), and are fighting to push their Blu-Ray as the next-generation DVD format, to be played on Sony and Sony-licensed drives, ideally on Sony TVs.

All this means that I have informally boycotted Sony products for at least a decade now. Informal, because I just kept it to myself or to anyone who asked, and may have bought a standard CD or two released on Sony Records, such as a couple by Pearl Jam. As of this week it’s formal and public, because they have stepped way over the line in their attempts at world domination. It was discovered that DRM-protected CDs, when played on PCs, have been installing clandestine services on your computers. These have been termed as “rootkits”, but I’m not convinced that’s quite the correct term; if it really is a “rootkit”, then Sony will be able to access it remotely and get “root” (i.e complete) control over your PC.

This has hit the mainstream media in the last few days, including the BBC, yet yesterday IT news site The Register was moved to comment:

“It is alarming how little outrage there is from ordinary PC users. While Register readers are well versed in the restrictions of DRM and the dangers of malware, there’s little sign the public shares this knowledge.

Well: if I don’t sound terribly outraged, it’s because I am only vaguely surprised. The RIAA in the USA has been talking up aggressive tactics of this nature for some time now, and it was inevitable, if unethical and possibly illegal. It will be interesting to see what happens next, but Sony are completely off my shopping list for good now.

What depresses me about all this is: every time I wonder if I’m being too cynical about people and corporations, and their motives, along comes something like this to show me that I’m not overreacting. Last month it was the poor response to the earthquake in Pakistan, before that the hurricane disaster mismanagement in the US. Mix in the constant “race to the bottom” in the business world, the drive for short-term profits at the expense of all other considerations, and I have to wonder if we’ll even need a handbasket to get to Hell. We don’t need to go looking for it, it’s expanding to cover this world, encroaching daily.

Written by brian t

November 4, 2005 at 1:12 pm

Posted in japan, movies, music, technology


My Japanese classes are getting serious: the more I learn about the language, the more of an effort I need to make to keep track of all the language’s homophones – words, or part thereof, that sound the same. Kanji are the core of meaning here, where written Japanese should be unambiguous, yet there are also multiple meanings for some of those, too.

A simple example: Japan.


It’s read as nihon, and its Kanji mean “sun” and “origin” – hence the description “the land of the rising sun”. However, a spoken nihon has a second meaning: two books or long things!


The first Kanji means “two”, but the second one is the same as that for “origin” – it’s a character with multiple discrete meanings. I’ll try to keep track of it mentally by remembering that a book is the “origin” of knowledge, and that books are long things.

A native speaker might not be tripped up by such a situation, since having a better grasp of the complete language means he or she has less difficulty putting the conversation in a wider context – you wouldn’t buy Japan, or go home to a pair of books, not unless you were seriously otaku. (otaku is derived from one way of describing one’s home, and came to mean someone who stayed at home a lot, reading magazines or playing on computers. Its meaning later expanded to mean geeks in general, even those who got out of the house to arcades or other geeky activities.)

Written by brian t

June 14, 2005 at 1:08 pm

Posted in japan, language

densha dassen

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This was the headline from Asahi Shinbun this morning:

  dassen   go-juu hito shibou
JR 脱線 50 死亡

dassen is a new Japanese word I learned today, in advance of my class tonight, meaning train derailment; I already knew the words for electric train, densha, and for the kanji for people, hito. JR is short for Japanese Railways – they use the English acronym.

shibou means “perished” in this context; the first of the two symbols, 死, is distinctive, meaning death. Even the sound “shi” is considered unlucky, yet it is one of the (Chinese-origin) ways of saying the number 4; hence the superstition against the number in Japan – you won’t find sets of 4 of anything in shops or homes.

Back in 1997 I missed the Southall train crash by a stroke of luck. I was working in Reading, it was a Friday, and I had requested a half-day off, but my departure was delayed for some reason – probably the same reason I’m late leaving work most days, the work itself. News of the crash came as I was heading out the door, and Reading station was already in an uproar when I got there. There was an alternative slow train route to London that let me get home OK, before the real rush hour, but it was rather quiet on that train that afternoon.

To be fair: even if I had been on the train, I probably would have been OK, since I prefer to sit in the quiet area of those trains. On trains into Paddington that is the rear of the train, the part that didn’t even come off the tracks in 1997. Still, the UK’s rail network has not had such a great safety record in the last decade, has it? I’ve only taken one trip by train here in Ireland, apart from the suburban DART service, and neither service that can be called “high speed” even by Edwardian standards.

So, Japan’s worst train wreck in 40 years is an opportunity for me to learn a new word. Their rail safety record is still the best in the world, with their Shinkansen high-speed network having an unblemished record.

Written by brian t

April 25, 2005 at 10:13 am

Posted in japan, language


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I’m gearing up for the start of the next semester of Japanese classes with a little revision. It’s taken me till now to figure out that Microsoft Word can do furigana, only it calls it by the colloquial name ruby, and then doesn’t even use that in the menus. I suppose furigana, being a Japanese word, isn’t suitable for all of the Asian languages that Word supports, so it just refers to “Asian Phonetic Layout” instead.

Here’s an example of how it looks, using the word for deep-fried food, agemono:


Not a new concept to me, but it’s just become far more accessible thanks to this feature, which illustrates the difficulty in breaking the spoken language up by itself; the first kanji means to deep-fry, but the spoken version is just a – not exactly meaningful. After the ge, we have mono, which isn’t as bad, but it doesn’t mean food when spoken directly, it’s more like “thing” or “person”. It means that you memorize the whole word, so you can understand the spoken language, but the individual kanji so you can read the written language.

Just to underline the lesson, we have the “reading” situation I described before.

In the example I gave, seppuku vs hara-kiri, I’ve just learned one important guideline that helps it make a little more sense. It appears that you use the kun-yomi (japanese) reading when a concept is expressed as a single kanji, and the on-yomi (chinese) reading when the concept takes two kanji. I just picked a particularly bad example that can be expressed either way. Another strange example is the Japanese title of the film Spirited Away, Sen to Chihiro no kamikakushi:

せん   ちひろ   かみ かく  

Note how the first character is pronounced sen; a single kanji meaning “thousand”, it’s using the on-yomi reading. The same character then forms the first half of Chihiro’s name – a kun-yomi reading of a 2-kanji compound phrase, meaning “great depths” (literally, “a thousand fathoms deep”). The whole title translates as “Sen and Chihiro’s Mysterious Disappearance”, but the point of this only becomes clear after seeing the movie and knowing at least some Japanese; Chihiro falls foul of evil witch Yubaba, who steals half her name, and (as Sen) has to work out a plan to get it back. The title, while appearing to refer to two people with different-sounding names, is a pun on how Chihiro, by having half her name stolen, has to draw on her great depths of character, regain the other half of her name, and become a more “whole” person in the process.

We have barely touched kanji in the classes: it’s all been hit-and-miss self-study. I’m going to have to start out the way schoolchildren do with the gakushuu (study) kanji, the first 80 of which are learned by the seven-year-olds in Grade 1, or by gaijin like me who don’t know any better. If I get through that lot, there are still many more to worry about, an official total of 1945 known as the 常用漢字表 (jouyou kanji hyou, commonly-used kanji list). (1945? I’m sure there’s an ironic historical subtext in there somewhere.) A year since I started learning Japanese, I’m not quite at square one… maybe square two.

Written by brian t

January 8, 2005 at 9:00 pm

Posted in japan, language

lost in translation, again

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Typical: a day after taking the order, the camera supplier emails me to say that the lens is out of stock, 2-3 weeks before they get more in. I can live with that, as long as they get the body to me next week, so I can use my current lenses.

If they can’t do that, or if they want to charge me extra for splitting the order, they can forget it – their “shipping charges” are already higher than the real cost will be, even for two deliveries. A quiet evening with nothing to do for a couple of hours, so I took another look at Lost In Translation.

I can’t help thinking that Japan is just a character in the movie, and not a very good one at that: the typical Western fascination with the differences, such as karaoke and attitudes towards sex. Look past that, and the story is a universal one, where the language barriers are the ones you carry around inside you, and it’s often easier to talk to a complete stranger than anyone else. The “climatic” scene, if you can call it that, has Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson lying on a bed, fully clothed, just talking. Their only physical contact between them is when she rests her injured foot against him, looking for … relief?

Such subtleties are what makes this a remarkable film, and listening through headphones immerses you in the claustrophobic environment of a hotel, where the silence is not silent. The noise from the air ducts, and the streets, many floors below, is pervasive and will not let you sleep through the jet lag. As before, it’s not hard to see the relevance to my own life and work, where I am surrounded by the buzz of computer fans, and things that just don’t work as they ought to. In this virtual, air-conditioned, mediated world, you hope that the people, at least, are real.

Written by brian t

January 6, 2005 at 10:00 pm

Posted in japan, life, movies


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The Japanese work I put in on Sunday seems to have paid off, and I’m a lot happier with the verbs; boring as it sounds, it’s a critical part of the language training which has taken up most of the semester. It’s also showing up some limitation in our teacher’s methods, I have to say. For example, she’s treating verbs as a something to be memorized on their own, not taking advantage of common roots behind the words. This is the kind of thing that jumped out at me:

  • 広い (hiroi) = wide, spacious (adjective)
  • 広げる (hirogeru) = to widen, enlarge (verb)
  • 広げる (hirosa) = extent, area (noun)
  • 広場 (hiroba) = plaza (noun)
  • 広く用いる (hirokumochiiru) = widely used (expression)

Makes sense, and something similar happens in English (wide, widen, width, widely), but Sensei was actually annoyed that I noticed it happening here too, and said “don’t do that”. Sorry, too late…

Written by brian t

November 16, 2004 at 11:04 pm

Posted in japan