Thursday, July 18, 2013

English versus Japanese

Let's compare languages.
Which one is better? Japanese or English?

Maybe that is an inappropriate question.
It is like asking: who is better, men or women?

But in spite of being politically incorrect, inevitably I think we all get to ask this question.
There are differences, for sure. If the differences make one language better than the other may be another question.

In Japanese you can omit everything, as long it can understood from the context.
And I mean everything. You can omit the subject, you can omit the object, you can omit the verb. Anything in the sentence can be omitted.
That is why you can frequently find Japanese sentences without subject, object or verb.
For example to say "I like you", you may say simply:
好き (suki).

No subject, no object. Because when you are talking to someone, usually it is clear who likes who.
That is why usually most Japanese people almost never use the pronoun "watashi" or any of its equivalents, because in a conversation usually it is clear who is talking about who.
It means there is no redundancy in Japanese.
You say things only once at the beginning and in all the subsequent sentences, as long as you are still on the same topic, you may simply omit them.
It means that Japanese texts are usually very short and compact.

What about English? In English it is prohibited to omit the subject or object.
You cannot say "I like" or "like you", even though sometimes in spoken language people may say so. But it is not grammatically correct.
According to the English grammar, you cannot omit the subject or object, except for some very specific cases.
It means that there may be a lot of redundancy in English.
For example in spoken language people may repeatedly say the pronoun "I" again and again.
Sentences in English have a tendency to be longer than their equivalents in Japanese.

Then which one is better?
From the explanation above you may think that Japanese is better.

But there is a catch.

Because Japanese allows the omission of any term in the sentence, it often means that Japanese sentences are incomplete and difficult to understand out of context.
You need the context to understand a Japanese sentence.
Because frequently, vital and important terms may have been mentioned in previous sentences.

That is why most automatic translators fail to correctly translate Japanese.
Automatic translators will translate one sentence at a time, ignoring the context.
Because most Japanese sentences are often incomplete, you need the context to fill the gaps.

It is hard even for human translators to translate from Japanese to other languages.
You actually have to understand the entire text to translate it correctly.
You cannot blindly translate one sentence at a time and expect it to make sense.

English on the other hand does not allow incomplete sentences. As as general rule, every sentence needs to have subject,verb and object.
It means that English is quite redundant. The same thing may be repeated again and again in the text.Texts in English can be quite long, even when they try to explain simple things.
But it also means that English is easier to understand.
Each sentence in English can be translated out of context and it still produces complete, understandable sentences. English is not so dependent on the context.
Even when you don't know 50% of the words in an English text, you may still get to know the meaning of the text.

So then,is English better?
It is perfectly possible to write an easy-to-understand text in Japanese, just as it is perfectly possible to write a convoluted text in English.
It all depends on the writer.
But comparing both grammars, which one is better?
Well, at least in this aspect I think English has the advantage.

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