Irish-American suffrage activist
Margaret Hinchey, Library of Congress print
Good friend of the blog Josette LeBlanc over at Throwing Back Tokens has a blog post up on linguistic rebellion. In it she writes, “Rebellion occurs because something deep inside requires us to look at the situation from a different perspective. This feeling demands that we find our own way, and maybe even try to convince others that we’re on to something.” In Japan, we have all kinds of linguistic rebells. Japanese isn’t a gendered language in the typical manner. For the most part, nouns do not have a masculine or feminine form. But there are some words which are predominately used by males and some used by females. For example we have two forms of the verb “to eat.” Most of the time we say “taberu”. But boys, especially when talking to their friends will sometimes say “kuu.” There’s something a little rough, a little animalistic about the word kuu. It’s as if you’re tearing meat off a bone. It’s not a word women use. And if a girl uses it, they’re likely to be scolded.
But you can’t have rules around language use without a certain amount of psychological chaffing. It’s a truism that every word has it’s own unique flavour. Near synonyms are merely near, not the same. And if a girl finds herself in a situation where what she did last nights was not ‘taberu’ (eat) but was in fact ‘kuu’, she probably will feel pressure to remain within the linguistic norms and pass over the right word for the word-others-consider-right.
When I came to Japan, I couldn’t speak any Japanese. I lived way out in the countryside and there wasn’t much chance that I was going to find an ex-pat community to hook up with. So if I wanted to find my way into the community, my only real chance was to learn the language. When learning Japanese, all of the books start off with “polite language.” It’s not exactly what you would hear people on the street using with each other. But it’s not so polite that it makes you sound like a complete jerk either. It’s not as if you are saying things like, “If I might be so bold as to suggest you open the window,” when you are feeling a bit hot and stuffy. It’s more like, “Would you mind opening the window?” Nothing wrong with that, although at times a simple, “Dude, open the window?” would be more fitting.
Similarly, when speaking in Japanese, there’s a dizzying array of first person personal pronouns to choose from. Each one conveys a different sense of projected/perceived self. There’s “watashi” which is formal when used by a man, but standard when used by a woman. Then there’s “boku,” standard for a young man or boy, but when used by a girl or young woman, expresses a sense of independence or a certain kind of toughness. You can also leave out the 1st person pronoun entirely, which is probably the most common construction of all. And then there’s “washi,” which is usually used only by older people. It’s not exactly formal, and it’s not exactly informal either. But it gives the sense of someone who has enough experience to start off each and every sentence with the word, “I.”
The more competent I became at Japanese, the more I enjoyed playing with personal pronouns and levels of politeness to see what kind of effect they would have on a listener. When talking to a group of people younger than me, I would pull out a “washi.” When they laughed and whispered, “washi” to each other, and then settled down to listen with serious expressions on their faces, I felt like I had hit some kind of linguistic jackpot. When I was drinking with friends and wanted someone to pass me the bottle of sake, I would use some seriously overly polite language, verbally grovelling for a cup of wine. Changing the surface of the language didn’t necessarily change anything fundamental about what I wanted to say. The picture I was drawing was still of a late night ramen run, or an image of going to the farmers’ market in Chicago, but I was doing a chalk drawing or a water-colour or using oils.
With my Japanese, I have made a conscious choice to play with the language so that the ‘I’ created through conversation, is an ‘I’ that somehow means ‘we,’ an identity that is created to play off of and play with other people’s expectations. Is this an act of rebellion? I’m not sure. Certainly it is a strange way to express oneself in Japanese. And perhaps it might make some of the people I talk with a bit uncomfortable. If discomfort is a hallmark of rebellion, than it is rebellious. But If I am going to be honest, I have to say that rebellion is mostly hollow if there is no penalty to pay. And for the most part, as a foreigner in Japan, my language play is almost entirely without consequence. Very different from the girls who claim the word ‘boku’ even if the people around them might frown at the impertinence. And different again from the middle age man who never slips into the lazy language of privilege when asking a favour of people younger than himself, even at the risk of losing face with his peers. These people who refuse to represent themselves as anything other than what they know themselves to be, are not the window breakers and rock throwers of linguistic rebellion. They are so much more than that. They are the understated revolutionaries who lead by example, reminding all of us that often the most radical thing we can do, is simply demand to be ourselves.