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Japanese is just weird, nahmean?
October 4, 2012 8:23 AM   Subscribe

Are Some Languages “Faster” Than Others? from Slate's Lexicon Valley podcast series. Transcript included!
posted by Panjandrum (26 comments total) 19 users marked this as a favorite

 
Now, I should say that this ended up being true for all the languages that they studied with the exception of Japanese, which was a bit of an outlier and it's not really clear why.

I wish they had explained more about this, in terms of in what way it is an outlier. Also, I'm curious if Korean would have similar qualities--from what I've heard, it has some significant similarities to Japanese, although I recognize it's not widely believed that they are in the same language family.
posted by dubitable at 8:36 AM on October 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


I may be missing something here but they keep insisting that all languages are spoken at the same rate but then they say this:

What they found was that the languages with the longer blocks of text, like Spanish, were spoken faster and the languages with the shorter blocks of text, like English and Chinese, were spoken slower - so that the rate of communicating information was approximately the same.


So, they are admitting that some languages (like Spanish) are spoken faster, right?
posted by vacapinta at 8:39 AM on October 4, 2012


I parsed that as more syllables to say the same thing, so they end up taking the same amount of time.

So I guess the question is what "spoken faster" means. It takes the same time to say the same thing in English and in Spanish. You just move your lips more with Spanish.
posted by JPD at 8:43 AM on October 4, 2012


I have one word to say on this matter: Puerto Rican Spanish.

That's three words, you say? Obviously, you've never listened to Puerto Rican Spanish then.
posted by drlith at 8:53 AM on October 4, 2012 [11 favorites]


They took a block of text, about five sentences or so, and translated it into seven different languages: English, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Mandarin Chinese and Spanish. Seven paragraphs in seven different languages all meaning the same thing.

The study consisted of (2) Germanic languages, (3) Romance languages, Japanese and Chinese. Then they found one of those four groups didn't obey the rules. So perhaps its not really a good rule?
posted by vacapinta at 8:59 AM on October 4, 2012 [2 favorites]


I've been trying to get into the habit of listening to Internet radio for a little while each night. I tend to listen to the Ukrainian national broadcast, because it's not wall-to-wall European dance music and there's a bit of spoken-word content.

Spoken Ukrainian for me occupies a twilight zone just short of actual fluency. Mundane subject matter at conversational speeds is fine. World news is fine too, because I normally already know what the announcer is talking about. But then they get to business and national news, or an interview with some musicians about the availability of government funding for folk arts, and I have the sudden sensation of the conversation outpacing my ability to listen. It genuinely sounds faster, although objectively I realize that it's probably delivered at a slower rate than, say, radio commercials.

The problem is that my Ukrainian is 15 years out of date. It predates widespread Internet access, cell phone use, and e-business. Two strong forces are acting on Ukrainian: an influx of borrowed foreign terms, and an opposing force promoting "language purity" by making up native-sounding neologisms and calques. This latter force also acts to eliminate words that Ukrainian has in common with Russian (my better language) and replace them with synonyms that are specific to Ukrainian.

It's an interesting and pretty complicated language dynamic, but it sure makes it difficult to keep up with conversation on narrow topics. I can usually make sense of any given word. In the stream of conversation, however, I fixate on individual words and lose the sense of what the speaker is trying to communicate more generally. My ability to pick things up from context breaks down. And this is why it feels faster in my case: it literally exceeds my speed of comprehension.

It's been shown repeatedly that the actual rate of production is pretty consistent across languages and communities. When we have a lot to say, we speak fast. And it's a kind of magic that our brains can take in this rapidly varying stream of mouth noise and extract meaning out of it on the fly. In fact, when listening for meaning we hardly even notice what's actually being said: it's been often demonstrated that we're amazingly bad at repeating what's said to us verbatim, but we're amazingly good at getting the gist of it. Evidence strongly suggests that in our heads we have detailed models of where the conversation is going: we hear what we expect to hear. At pretty much all levels of the language, from phonology to syntax, we do our best to force our perceptions to conform to our expectations. This is why nonsequiturs are often so jarring.

I'm not surprised that speakers of every language find speakers of every other language incomprehensibly fast, but that's a backwards way of looking at it. The real magical fact is that speakers of every language understand other speakers of their own language so amazingly, preternaturally well.
posted by Nomyte at 9:01 AM on October 4, 2012 [7 favorites]


The information density thing is interesting. I remember coming across a guide for programmers that advised how much space to leave around text (e.g., radio button labels) to ensure that it would accommodate translation into other languages. I don't remember the exact numbers, but it was something like twice as much space for a single word, but by the time you got to paragraphs it was one to one.
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 9:03 AM on October 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


I have encountered certain sub-tongues of US Hillbilly/Redneck/Hoosier that are every bit as speedy and dense as Spanish. I'm pretty sure it's due to the elimination of plosive consonants and all punctuation.
posted by Thorzdad at 9:38 AM on October 4, 2012


That was an interesting read. One thing that they appear to miss, though, is that the way the same language is spoken in different regions and even social classes also matters. If you ask an upper-class Englishman, a Scotsman, a Texan and a Jamaican to read the same text, you will hear very different numbers of syllabes. This is even more marked in other languages:

For instance, the Spanish counterpart of "Received Pronounciation" English, the Castilian Spanish spoken in North-Central Spain, is indeed very syllabic, with that very even, marked "machine-gun rattle". However, as you move South, in Spain itself, to say nothing of the Caribbean, consonants mysteriously disappear, replaced by an almost uninterrupted flow of vowels. Further South, towards Chile and Argentina, the lost consonants reappear, but the language takes a markedly different, more uneven rythm.

And yes, Japanese is weird. It is very, very syllabic, but at the same time shuns long words. The result is a startling number of homophones, making it, apparently, a great language for puns.
posted by Skeptic at 9:39 AM on October 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


And, as I like to joke, I speak slowly five different languages.
posted by Skeptic at 9:40 AM on October 4, 2012


Obama speaks the slowest of all.
posted by AwkwardPause at 9:47 AM on October 4, 2012


I don't remember the exact numbers, but it was something like twice as much space for a single word, but by the time you got to paragraphs it was one to one.

That makes sense. Some words in Ruritanian will be longer than the corresponding words in English, but others will be shorter, and most paragraphs will have a good mix of both.
posted by madcaptenor at 10:30 AM on October 4, 2012


Somewhat relevant and a good repository of excellent answers on this topic is a question I asked on the green a while back about the relative speeds that languages can convey similar information.
posted by merocet at 10:35 AM on October 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


Hrm. Merocet's link reminded me of how efficient ASL is at describing spatial events (e.g., a car crash.) That's not surprising, perhaps, but I wonder if there are particular kinds of things that some languages convey better than others.
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 11:31 AM on October 4, 2012


Merocet's link reminded me of how efficient ASL is at describing spatial events (e.g., a car crash.)

I'm curious, but I'm not sure how to pose the question. When I use English to describe a complex situation, I may resort to gesturing with my hands as a complement. Does ASL have a richer vocabulary for describing spatial relationships between objects, as one would have more words in a dictionary? Or is it a more advanced version of me using my hands to talk? I guess an analogy would be using a spoken language to describe the quality of a sound (think radio callers making car noises on Car Talk). Gggghhhh kpppfftt! isn't exactly a word of English, but I would guess English-speakers can do a "better" job of describing a sound like that than ASL speakers.
posted by Nomyte at 12:14 PM on October 4, 2012


And yes, Japanese is weird. It is very, very syllabic, but at the same time shuns long words. The result is a startling number of homophones, making it, apparently, a great language for puns.

Close. I would say that Japanese is moric rather than syllabic, although the linguistic research indicates that the short answer is "it depends". Probably the best example of the moric features would be poetry such as haiku, which consist of 17 morae, not syllables. The game of shiritori would be another notable example.

I do not find that there is any shunning of "long" words. Place names would be the most notable example of this, such an old friend's neighborhood of Nigawatsukimigaoka. A short trip on pretty much any rail line will reveal names of truly unruly length.

More generally, I was not persuaded by the idea that "It takes 10 syllables in Language X and 20 syllables in Language Y, so speakers of Language Y talk twice as fast." That's absurd. I cannot speak to the text used in this piece, but it is not necessarily an issue of information density. For example, an English sign in American will say, "MEN AT WORK" but the Japanese sign will say something like, "We are working right now. It is in various ways a disturbance to you but we are working with 'safety first' in mind so please cooperate with us for a while." On the other hand, compound words allow the communication of complex ideas very succinctly such as 一期一会 (ichigoichie), which would be "this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity".

This is easy for anyone who has studied another language to decent proficiency. When you first start, you think "why doesn't everyone talk so fast?" Then they start speaking slower and slower until they speak at a "normal" pace. Imagine that.
posted by Tanizaki at 12:18 PM on October 4, 2012 [2 favorites]


Does ASL have a richer vocabulary for describing spatial relationships between objects, as one would have more words in a dictionary?

It's more that ASL has "spacial grammar," in which objects are shown in relation to each other. You're quite right in that it can be used to some degree by spoken language speakers (that sounds odd) but ASL has it formalized so you can immediately distinguish, say, a person and a vehicle (the hand gestures are distinct.)
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 12:24 PM on October 4, 2012


I have a sub-fluent ability in Japanese and Spanish. The discussion left out contextual information, which, it seems to me, is rich in both spoken and written Japanese. This information would be critical to framing any conversation. The neutral "news reader's" version omits this framing, and is not usually used conversationally. Framing is indicated by the level of politeness used by each person in the conversation, indicating his percieved status among those engaged. Tweaking the politeness form can be used to indicate irony or some other notion, sort of like we would use tone to make a bland utterance sound snarky. None of this has to do with the density of the utterance itself, I guess, but it often creates a context necessary to understanding an exchange.

I'm used to hearing the basic Japanese utterance describe as a mora, not a syllable. This may be useful to linguists, but to me it's just a convention that lets me not have to deal with English spelling. I liked the machine-gun/morse code analogy. Mora are all given the same time, and verbal stress is often added by a tone shift. Japanese doesn't sound metronomic because of the way double consnanants and double vowels are handled. Our untrained ears just don't hear the double Ks and Ts and Ms, ect.

I'm not bothered by rapid speech as much as I am by losing track of certain words. But Japanese speech is rich enough in context that not knowing a certain word often doesn't remove the essence of the sentences--complex clauses are often linked by an overarching verb, usually at the end of the sentence. This is possible in English, but tedious unless you write like Pynchon. Also, sentences and paragraphing in Japanese is very different from English. Like English, a single sound in Japanese can be a complete and grammatical thought. Conversational Japanese tends toward shorter sentences, but written Japanese tends toward longer sentences. A well-constructed sentence in Japanese may translate into a longish paragraph in English.

I wonder why Bob and Mike didn't pick up on how the brain edits sound: we often just don't hear certain sounds that don't occur in our native language. In Japanese, certain vowels don't occur before certain consanents, so the speakers of some Japanese dialects just don't hear them. A famous example is the Merican rice company. They meant American Rice, but they don't hear the first syllable. Other examples refer to certain dialects: shishi and sushi (and a few dozen variations) sound the same to some speakers.

The other variable is tone. Japanese has two tones, while some Asian languages have as many as seven tones. A good friend of mine who learned Mandarin and Cantonese said it was easier to deal with (during his lower division studies) if he just sang a phrase, rather than trying to parse it into discrete words. The tone shift in Japanese less obvious, and seems to me to be more like a dialect shift than a linguistic feature. In most cases the utterance will be understandable. (Some older Japanese will not admit that Caucasians can learn their language, and refuse to understand a fluent American speaker.)

I agree that Japanese is a wierd language. But that's mostly because of the way they took Chinese characters and adapted them to their language. Kanji have root meanings, which are inflected in verbs and adjectives, and they can be combined with other kanji (similar to the way we combine latin components to create scientific terms). This visual compactness lets reading a typical Japanese paragraph tend to be much quicker than reading an English paragraph of a similar length. Also, writing kanji is cool. I don't think any foriegn students would bother to learn Japanese if they did away with kanji.
posted by mule98J at 12:31 PM on October 4, 2012


Fun trivia: although mora looks and sounds like a Japanese word, it is not a Japanese word. It's a Latin word for "a delay." The plural is morae.
posted by Nomyte at 1:52 PM on October 4, 2012 [2 favorites]


I was disappointed to learn that Chinese sign language was developed by an American missionary (without reference to ASL, interestingly) rather than being an organic outgrowth of the Chinese language, or even an invention by a Chinese person who'd merely heard about it, as Sequoia's script was for Cherokee.

I looked at it because I was hoping to see whether, in light of the issues raised by this thread, anyone had tried to make a sign language in which signs conveyed specific written words, which seems impossibly laborious for scripts that map phonemes the way ours does, but not quite out of reach for Chinese, but the Wikipedia page offers only this tantalizing crumb:
Both learning a sign language and mastering Chinese characters involve a relatively complex task of visual recognition and memory.[2] One study showed that when Chinese deaf signers and Chinese hearing children were presented with pseudo-Chinese characters (presented by movement patterns in space), deaf subjects were better than Chinese hearing children at remembering, analyzing and decoding the Chinese characters [3]
posted by jamjam at 2:15 PM on October 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


jamjam, you might be interested in Signing Exact English, which modifies ASL to be more "englishy."
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 2:52 PM on October 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


I do not find that there is any shunning of "long" words. Place names would be the most notable example of this, such an old friend's neighborhood of Nigawatsukimigaoka. A short trip on pretty much any rail line will reveal names of truly unruly length.

That is pretty much an exception in Japanese. My professor wrote a book (basically the book) on Japanese toponyms. Short version: place names are mostly derived from an traditional Chinese system of land allocation, plus pre-modern references to topographic features, plus a bunch of ancient literary allusions. So you often get lengthy, concatenated groupings of characters that seem more Chinese.

More generally, I was not persuaded by the idea that "It takes 10 syllables in Language X and 20 syllables in Language Y, so speakers of Language Y talk twice as fast." That's absurd.

That's not really the argument here. Linguists index languages by redundancy, a highly redundant language contains more information to convey the same message, and many of the components are redundant, which improves the accuracy of the conveyed information. I personally find Japanese very difficult since it is not highly redundant. I am always puzzling over spoken homonyms with very little redundancy to confirm the meaning. This is a terrible problem for me because I have tinnitus, which masks the high pitched sounds and reduces my perception of redundancy. Example: I was eating dinner when the host asked if I liked the food, "kuchi ni au ka?" (lit. does it meet your mouth). I thought she said "kuji ni au ka?" shall we meet at 9? I glanced at my watch in puzzlement, much to the amusement of my host.

I cannot speak to the text used in this piece, but it is not necessarily an issue of information density. For example, an English sign in American will say, "MEN AT WORK" but the Japanese sign will say something like, "We are working right now. It is in various ways a disturbance to you but we are working with 'safety first' in mind so please cooperate with us for a while."

This also is not a good example. That is an issue of sonkeigo, humble language forms. It's merely a cultural custom, more akin to the difference between an abrupt "sorry" and "we apologize for the inconvenience."

On the other hand, compound words allow the communication of complex ideas very succinctly such as 一期一会 (ichigoichie), which would be "this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity".

Yojujukugo is a format adapted from Chinese. Many of them are literary allusions to complex subjects, like if someone says 呉越同舟 they aren't going to think about who Go and Etsu were and what they were doing in the boat. Some yojijukigo are more ordinary idiomatic Japanese, but wouldn't normally be classed as yojijukugo except that they have 4 characters.

This is easy for anyone who has studied another language to decent proficiency. When you first start, you think "why doesn't everyone talk so fast?" Then they start speaking slower and slower until they speak at a "normal" pace. Imagine that.

I assume that was a typo and you meant "why does everyone talk so fast?" This is the classic issue of language learning. At first, you are translating words in your head. You can never think fast enough to keep up with a native speaker, if you're mentally translating. But at some point you "start thinking in Japanese" and you can keep up. Once I made the shift, it took me a long time to become confident enough in my ability to realize that yeah, some people just talk really fast.
posted by charlie don't surf at 3:25 PM on October 4, 2012


That is pretty much an exception in Japanese.

I do not think that it is. Japanese, like German, has the wonderful ability to take several words and combine them into a truly enormous one. Something like Monbukagakusho (文部科学省) instantly comes to mind. I would consider that one word, although at some point it gets to the old discussion of what constitutes a "word" in Japanese.

At least, it is no more an exception than a word as long as "language" is an exception in English. Does anyone think that English words are particularly short? The average English word is just over five letters and just less than two syllables, which is counterintuitive but makes sense upon considering it in terms of use frequency.* I do not know such numbers for Japanese, but I imagine they are rather similar.

This also is not a good example. That is an issue of sonkeigo, humble language forms. It's merely a cultural custom, more akin to the difference between an abrupt "sorry" and "we apologize for the inconvenience."

I am sure you meant to describe sonkeigo as honorific language forms. (humble would be kenjougo).

It's actually an apt example and makes a point that I think the linked article misses. The sign I linked could have easily said merely 工事中 (and many do). How long does it take to ask for something in English? "Pardon me, would you mind passing me the Grey Poupon?" or "Give it!" both accomplish the task. Thus, comments to the extent of "Language X takes five minutes to say 'hello'" or some such are up there with "Eskimos have a megaboss number of words for 'snow'". The short answer for "how long does it take Language X to say something?" is "it depends".

Sorry about the tinnitus, although I do not understand how it is effected by homonym content. People go on about the high homophone content of Japanese and Mandarin, but context almost invariably makes it clear such as "dear" and "deer". While there are surely great puns to be made, Japanese speakers don't puzzle over whether someone means "school gate" or "anus".

*(the average word length in this comment is 4.6 letters)
posted by Tanizaki at 7:18 AM on October 5, 2012


It's hard to measure language efficiency like this because translations are always a little inefficient. The more efficient and natural you make a translation, the more liberty you're taking with the meaning.

For instance, if I say "I am going to the store", if I translate this into German, I am going to implicitly specify if I am going by foot or by transit. Or I can translate it as "I am going shopping", which on the other hand makes an assumption.

Now if I were to see the German and translate it into English, I won't get "I am going to the store". I'll get something like "I am walking to the store". I'll get a little more information, but it takes me a little longer to say it.

You can see how this has an effect on comparing information density between languages. Statements are the most efficient and most clear in the language you think them. As the article says, that efficient speed tends to be the same for all languages. But I have something else I am wondering about: which languages add information, like German? Which discard information to become efficient?

I only speak English and German, so I can only reflect on those, but I do notice a difference in information density. The only thing is, it depends on how much detail you want to convey. If it's low detail, then English has a clear advantage. Whereas German can add specifics very easily and efficiently. In other words, the whole "speed of language" evaluation depends on the style of the text you start with.
posted by cotterpin at 8:21 AM on October 5, 2012


I do not think that it is. Japanese, like German, has the wonderful ability to take several words and combine them into a truly enormous one. Something like Monbukagakusho (文部科学省) instantly comes to mind.

Again, that strikes me as more Sino-Japanese. I'm sure you see this sort of thing all the time, it is sometimes a throwback to Sino-Japanese literary forms, like formal announcements or newspaper headlines that drop particles and sentence-ending desu and suru. These form big blocks of kanji with no okurigana and no obvious breaks between semantic units until you parse it. I have often pondered how native speakers parse these strings, but knowing that won't help me much.

Sorry about the tinnitus, although I do not understand how it is effected by homonym content.

High frequency tinnitus masks high frequency sounds, making it hard to distinguish mora like chi and ji. It makes a lot of words sound like homophones when they are not, like my example kuchi and kuji. This reduces redundancy even more, confounding comprehension. It essentially adds noise to the channel that sometimes overwhelms the information, and even worse, it usually affects the simplest, most common words with the least context.
posted by charlie don't surf at 10:28 AM on October 5, 2012


Again, that strikes me as more Sino-Japanese. I'm sure you see this sort of thing all the time, it is sometimes a throwback to Sino-Japanese literary forms, like formal announcements or newspaper headlines that drop particles and sentence-ending desu and suru. These form big blocks of kanji with no okurigana and no obvious breaks between semantic units until you parse it. I have often pondered how native speakers parse these strings, but knowing that won't help me much.

Now this is just getting "true Scotsman"ish. The majority of Japanese vocabulary is Sino-derived, so dismissing an example of "Sino-Japanese" doesn't do much. In other words, "Sino-Japanese" is the rule, not the exception.

Besides, something like the Monbukagakushou is a normal, everyday word that Japanese people actually say. For this particular one, they might still use the old name of Monbushou, but it is certainly not a "throwback literary form" to say it.

I don't find them particularly hard to parse in reading anymore than in spoken speech. But, if you think 文部科学省 is a "big block of kanji", I think your idea of "big black of kanji" is smaller than most other readers of Japanese. Is something like 全席禁煙 really hard to understand without writing it as 全席は禁煙です?
posted by Tanizaki at 8:32 AM on October 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


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