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July 10, 2006 1:17 PM   Subscribe

For those who enjoy (or despise) the netubiquitous (Hey! A new word! Feel free to meme it for me. Thanks.) "Engrish" sites, here, via ctheory, is a more theoretical explanation of the phenomenon than you're likely to get by Googling "Engrish." (Two million hits and rising!)
posted by kozad (15 comments total) 4 users marked this as a favorite

"These words are to be understood as silent (to be seen rather than heard), expressing a style rather than a clear semantic message. At the same time, their semantic meaning is not totally unimportant."

This is probably similar to western people having random chinese symbols as tattoos. (I say "probably", because personally I have never had the urge to have an inked pattern injected in my skin, let alone in the shape of a word I can't read, so I'm not entirely sure.)
posted by easternblot at 1:50 PM on July 10, 2006

The vagueness of these languages -- as well as the lack of prepositions, inflections, connecting words, articles and personal pronouns in Japanese and Korean, and the indistinctness of concepts, verbs, adjectives, etc. in Chinese -- make a literal translation from an Asian language to English imprecise and confused.

A lack of personal pronouns in Japanese? Since when? All of the following words translate as "I" in English: watashi, watakushi, atashi, boku, ore, sessha, washi, atai

All of the following translate as "you": omae, onore, kisama, anata, anta, kimi, onushi, temee

And they all mean different things. They are not even remotely interchangeable.

Who says Japanese is "vague"? What I think the author is referring to is the fact that Japanese allows far more omission of parts of sentences than western languages do. That's only streamlining, however; the reason those words can be omitted is that the listener will be able to fill them in from context. But Japanese isn't vague, it's just different.

This sounds like the claim I've heard that the Japanese can't think about the future because their language has no future tense for verbs. That's total baloney, too.

The fact that this author has a hard time understanding the nuances of Japanese doesn't mean the Japanese language is vague, it just means this author isn't up on the fine points.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 2:09 PM on July 10, 2006

A lack of personal pronouns in Japanese?

Congratulations, you have an excellent dictioary, but pronouns are generally NOT used in (skilled) conversion, especially 2nd and 3rd person.

Eg. when talking to business partners such terms as Sony-san are substituted for 'you'.

But Japanese isn't vague, it's just different.

Haved lived in Japan for 8 years, I disagree.

Anyhoo, I can't read the fpp here at work but my take on why Engrish is funny to native speakers is that it tickles our language centers. Eg. "All your base are belong to us" exercises novel wire nets in our heads, and that is (to some extent) pleasurable, in the sense it puzzles us momentarily.
posted by Heywood Mogroot at 3:10 PM on July 10, 2006 [3 favorites]

'Sony-san' are substituted for 'you' [when talking to peeps from Sony, of course].
posted by Heywood Mogroot at 3:11 PM on July 10, 2006

I would have gone with "webiquitous" myself.
posted by sharpener at 5:15 PM on July 10, 2006

I have read English additions on signs lends credibility to the company, like a BB sign. About a new EA English language, I disagree: all Japanese want their spoken grammar to be right, and corrected: but probably wouldn't worry if the grammar on the sign was wrong, as their audience in Japan is Japanese!
posted by uni verse at 5:48 PM on July 10, 2006

but pronouns are generally NOT used in (skilled) conversion, especially 2nd and 3rd person.

Yes and doesn't this lead to much hilarity sometimes...

Personal pronouns tend to be used in set situations. Children use them often, and in certain formal situations they are expected.

"Vague" is probably too strong a word to use. It's more a case that the person you are talking to expects you to know what they are talking about in context. And for a non-native speaker of Japanese it certainly feels like people are just throwing a bunch of non-sequitors at you sometimes.

Lots of Engrish does indeed appear to be as a result of design elements. But it's not just a visual thing I think. Sometimes the sound of a word is enough reason for it to be used.

[personal anecdote]
I was working for a Japanese company and the boss asked me to come up with a slogan to use on company merchandise. He wanted something with "punch". Wasn't really concerned about the meaning as such. Now me - having a bit of an evil streak - come up with a list containing a few joke slogans as well. Of course he chose one of those - and even after I explained that the use of a certain profane word - even though it did have punch - may not be appropriate to use as the company slogan. But he (not speaking English) felt it had the strongest sound so it ended up being the one used. (And oh boy did it end up having impact as most of the customers came from English speaking countries....)
posted by gomichild at 6:48 PM on July 10, 2006

I wouldn't say that Japanese is vague inherently.
Just in everyday usage.
posted by nightchrome at 6:57 PM on July 10, 2006 [1 favorite]

Steven C. Den Beste, please stick to right-wing politics. Your posts about Japan are ill-informed.
posted by dydecker at 7:09 PM on July 10, 2006

I always wonder why decent sized companies producing instruction manuals and the like don't just hire one native English speaker to read them over. Guy doesn't even have to be a real translator or know the native language, they would just pay him a bit to change "Do not to connect the red wire and black" into proper English.
posted by TheOnlyCoolTim at 7:45 PM on July 10, 2006

It's usually not quite that simple, or cheap.
posted by nightchrome at 8:02 PM on July 10, 2006

I would say that you do need to know the native language. Often the English is sophisticated enough to completely bamboozle the native speaker of English, without providing meaning.
posted by gomichild at 8:09 PM on July 10, 2006

Despite all the po-mo rattlings-on about "orientalism" and "occidentalism", I'm getting the distinct feeling that there's lot of potential orientalism lurking in the FPP article:

EA English is a reflective emotional language composed of "intellectualized word-emotions."

It is this disconnectedness that makes EA English fascinating for EA-readers. Often the words are there as if they had sprung out of the deepest layers of somebody's linguistic consciousness, layers in which words are not primarily items used in real life but rather intimate companions of our ruminating childlike fantasy.

These sorts of passages look suspiciously like poorly digested zen or something, with the emphasis on a deeper consciousness and reflective emotions. And there's the assertion that EA English (Engrish) is a "a kind of 'everywhere-beyond'" which sounds way too pseudometaphysical to be vaguely decent linguistics.

The entire article is plagued by references to English as "immediate" rather than "objective", as "emotional", and altogether too much Walter Benjamin. The poor guy was troubled enough. Postmodern cultural studies should give him a rest.
posted by matematichica at 8:16 PM on July 10, 2006

I don't think that East Asian misuses of English, and Western misuses of East Asian languages, spring from some mysterious subconscious issues in the brain or whatever. It's basically explainable by a group of pretty clear factors. One of the big ones is different language structures. East Asian languages tend to be topic-based rather than subject-based*, for example. (In Chinese and Japanese languages, the subject is usually unspoken, while the topic is: "As for English, very poor" meaning "As for English, I speak it very poorly". My favorite example is from my students in Taiwan: "A VCR can watch movies." In English, we would say "With a VCR, you can watch movies" even though the "you" is almost completely unnecessary. Another example is how in English we'd say "It's very light in here", while in Mandarin they'd say "Here is very light".) This alone can create huge misunderstandings.

And people refuse to learn that not only is the vocabulary and grammar different, the way of wrapping words around a thought to express it is different. A lot of native English speakers continually use 是 with words like "red" or "big", even though in Chinese languages, those words do not require or allow copulas. And more complicated things -- like making a complex sentence -- are very, very different. Relative clauses, for example, work almost completely differently in Mandarin and cause Mandarin native speakers no end of trouble when they try to go beyond simple sentences in English.

Orientalism and Occidentalism definitely enter into it, though. Westerners and East Asians tend to see each other as unavoidably Other, Exotic and Different. I continually see things where Westerners have called something "the Biggest X in the World" or "The First X Ever" when they actually mean "the Biggest X in the Western World" or "The First X in European history", for example. And it seems like people are very willing to forgive misunderstandings of China and Japan where they'd be unwilling to forgive confusion between, say, Russia and France. Just tonight, I was showing one of my co-workers the "Matrix Ping-Pong" video on YouTube and he maintained for a couple minutes that it was Chinese, even though I knew and told him they were Japanese. And far too many people have told me "Japanese, Chinese, what's the difference? Who cares? They're basically the same culture anyway." When I've told people that their Chinese tattoo or Japanese T-Shirt mean something totally offensive or incomprehensible, they've quite often responded something along the lines of "Who cares? I don't know any Chinese people anyway."

And, I must add, Chinese and Taiwanese people are at least as bad. Getting a Korean confused with a Japanese person is reprehensible, but "Americans" (== white people) all have blonde hair and carry guns. Both sides seem determined not to understand each other. There's far too much permissiveness on this, in my opinion.

Cachet is a huge part of the issue. If China/Japan == Different, then for many people that means they are Cool. Having a [Chinese/Japanese] character inscribed on your arm makes you cool, even if no one you know can actually read it. It makes you exotic -- just pray that no one ever does read it and tell you that your "Silent Warrior" tattoo actually means "Do you like to tango? I feel peanut butter" or whatever. The reverse also applies: "My new purse has English on it!" "Yes, but it's the most boring part of the Sarbanes-Oxley act mixed with what appears to be a treatise on agronomy." "So what? It's still cool! And none of my friends speak English." The "weird English slogan" in East Asian countries is pretty much exactly the same thing as the incorrect Chinese character tattoo phenomenon, although I think East Asians tend to have very little sense of irony, and thus kitsch doesn't enter into the equation nearly as much.

Face can also be a big problem. Many companies in Taiwan do in fact have native English speakers doing proofreading, but quite often, the text comes from the boss him/herself. That means that any corrections show that the boss' English isn't so hot, and they lose face. I've seen a lot of honest, constructive advice ignored by bosses because of simple pride. Some bosses even make further corrections to native speakers' English, ruining a perfect text in order to show who's top dog. This attitude is almost as bad as the anti-intellectualism in the US, and has almost the same effect.

I think that things are getting a lot better -- Taiwanese people's English is definitely improving, and more and more US students are taking Chinese or Japanese classes -- but partially because we're having so much more contact, linguistic foibles are getting shoved into our faces on a much more frequent basis.

Everyone carries blinders, and in the huge-tiny world we have today, getting rid of those blinders is a massive project, but an important one.
posted by jiawen at 12:50 AM on July 11, 2006 [2 favorites]

the lack of prepositions, inflections, connecting words, articles and personal pronouns in Japanese and Korean

I can't speak for Japanese, but this is (for the most part -- pronouns are usually unnecessary, for example, and so, except for 'I', not used as often as they are in English) simply not true for Korean.

Despite that relatively glaring error early on in a piece that purports to be at least in part about language, and what looks to be some valid criticisms in this thread, I am definitely going to read the linked article closely, later. Hopefully it will be worth it.

Thanks for the link, regardless -- Anglish (see, I can make up new labels, too!) is something I live with on a daily basis, and am very interested in indeed.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 1:19 AM on July 11, 2006

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