The Hardest Writing System! – an animated rant about learning Japanese

The Hardest Writing System! – an animated rant about learning Japanese

December 10, 2019 100 By Stanley Isaacs


Writing Japanese is hard. I know you’re thinking.
Duh, Josh, it’s Japan! When they go in, they go ALL IN! But it’s worse than you think.
It’s ridiculously, ridiculously hard! Growing up, I was a language nut. Look at
me, making this video, guess I still am. Through the years, I spent time learning this script
and these scripts and these ones… some time learning this… and even more with… alright,
you get it. And then I went for Japanese. See, in the
US there’s this flu that goes around. It’s called Japanophilia. Catch it and you’re off
reading manga, watching anime and eating the kind of sushi with the fish that’s on the
top like *slurp*. I was committed though. I headed for the library and straight to the
Japanese books. This was back when the new library was being built, so they were holding
books hostage in this dingy place with no a/c. The books are all shuffled around down
on these low shelves. You know the ones that are below your knee level all on the ground?
So I do my ninja bend and I scan the resources. Fluffy book about Japanese Is For Everybody?
Pass. Easy Japanese In 5 Seconds a Day? Pass. Cartoon-cat-yay-by-the-way-you’ll-learn-some-Japanese-I-promise?
Double pass! But then, there it was: the biggest, the heaviest, the densest textbook in the
entire section. Modern Japanese Book I: Grammar Lessons. It called my name. It said, “Ikimashou!” So I rush home, I bust open the book and it
hits me with… syllables. My first thoughts are, well, the optimist in me comes out and
says, “Oh, these look so fun and Japanesey!” But guess what the pessimist in me said? “That’s
like 76 more symbols than I want to memorize!” Yeah, the pessimist inside me is an oni who’s
a fast counter. The optimist won out. And for good reason.
It was actually less of a hassle than it looked like at first. Just 46 characters in total,
on account of some of the syllables turned out to be duplicates with two little voicing
slashies added to their heads. Even better, I was told this is technically all I needed
to know to write every Japanese sound. That’s all the syllables the language has, thanks
to Japanese being all neat and orderly in the way it lays out syllables. And that’s great! Until I found out that
the friendly syllables are lies. Like when the t+i syllable is actually chi and then
the t+u syllable is tsu. Or when this, this and this actually sound like that and that
and that. The more I read, the more Japanese was saying, “But wait! there’s more!”
More compound syllables, more double consonants, more historical syllables they were hiding
from me and just forgot to mention. Asterisk mark all over the place. But hey, historical spelling and complicated
workarounds. I come from English, baby, and that’s how we write! Plus I just did a whole
rant about Tibetan, so I can handle some clunky syllables. Besides, compared to how Japanese
syllables used to be written, it’s all super regular. So that’s a relief. Without giving me time to breathe, they tell
me that for each one of these syllables, I’m actually going to have to learn two characters.
Yes, Japanese has two syllabaries! The one I spent hours sweating over was HIRAGANA.
These are the same syllables written in KATAKANA. So… are hiragana and katakana for writing
different sounds? Nope. The syllabaries don’t do anything different. Then when do I use
this one or that one? Oh, just keep in mind that they’re used for different syllables
in different contexts. Japanese is very context sensitive after all. Smile! But none of that’s what made Japanese
tough. It’s when they introduce yet another mixed-in script that things start getting
serious. I mean, seriously serious. Roll the clocks back to the day Japan learned
to write. They learned it from China. And learning to write from China meant memorizing
thousands of characters just to read the basics. Yeah, well, unlike other places that learned
their penmanship skills from that formidable cultural powerhouse that was the Middle Kingdom,
Japan held onto its long master list of Chinese characters. Oh, they held onto it real tight!
They’re called KANJI, and they’re the backbone of Japanese. Even those syllabaries
I was learning came from simplified versions of some of these characters. At first they passed this kanji stuff off
as a third native system. You know, you got your hiragana, your katakana, your kanji!
And instead of different characters for different syllables, these are just different characters
for different words. You know, like you learn to say new vocabulary when you’re learning
other languages, with kanji you get to learn to draw your new vocabulary, too! So exciting. That’s when I learned about a dictionary with
more than 50,000 characters to play with! That’s a lot of characters… I think it was
maybe more of a mind game to make me okay with what came next. “Don’t worry!”, I was
told. You could do alright with basic Japanese if you just learned a couple thousand characters.
*Cough* Oh, oh, just a couple thousand?!? I guess I was supposed to say, “Oh, 50,000’s
a lot! In that case, 2000 should be a walk in the zen garden!” Are you not supposed to
walk in those? A comb through the zen garden maybe?? They even downgraded me again, telling
me I could pat myself on the back for just mastering the “basics” if I made it through
the first 1006 characters. A thousand and six. Yeah, this was slow. It
was time consuming. Uh, they started me with the simple real-world examples like trees,
suns and moons. And they looked off but if you squint your eyes you could see it. But
it was more trickery. After a couple hundred, it started to be really clear that most kanji
aren’t drawings of the words I was learning at all. No way! It took me a while, but I
figured out what was going on. They’re like playing charades with somebody
who has a very specific word in mind but refuses to give you any good hints, and the clues
you do get are like way out of date. Like, “One word. Something to do with trees. Ok.
Sounds like… oar!” Got it? Nobody? Nobody? Oh, I’m sorry, the answer was “table”.
See, the thing you missed was that “oar” sounds like “board”, which is an old word
for table. Obviously… Most kanji are this kind of strange combination
of a sounds-like piece with a something-to-do-with piece. Except that the sounds-like might not
sound like the thing it’s supposed to sound like, and the something-to-do-with can have
absolutely nothing logically to do with what the character means. It’s no good waving these complexities aside
by saying that, well, it’s a lot to learn, but at least you’re fundamentally just learning
a character for each basic word. For one, a single character might mean a bunch of different
things when it combos with other characters. It can even mean a bunch of different things
on its own. Even worse for beginners though, there’s more than one way to pronounce almost
every single one of these characters. Japanese is very context sensitive, after all. Wink,
smile. And that’s the problem with kanji: they aren’t
just kanji. They’re a bunch of problems all mixed together. It’s the most bizarrely
complicated writing system within a system ever devised by humankind! And next time I’ll
show you exactly what it was about kanji that really pushed me over the edge. I like having you here spending some time
with me thinking about the world’s toughest writing system. Stick around and subscribe
for language.