Earlier this week I had lunch with Becky Selengut, author of Good Fish and humor columnist for Edible Seattle. May I just brag unabashedly about my good fortune for a moment? Becky’s column is hilarious. Here’s a bit from a recent installment:
If you have kids and you send your precious progeny to school with healthy sack lunches, I’m the kid you hate because I’m showing your darling sweetheart the beauty of layering crushed-up Fritos just so on a peanut butter sandwich followed by the ritualistic, highly sequenced eating of an Oreo cookie. By the time I’m done with your kid, there will be no more hummus and sprouts, no more apple wedges, nary a carrot stick. There will be hot tears and whining demands and uneaten hummus.
Clearly Becky doesn’t need my help, and yet she let me take a look at an upcoming column (which is even funnier than this one) and allowed me to help tighten up a couple of jokes. In my professional life, nothing could possibly make me feel more fulfilled than someone asking me for help writing jokes. Seriously, if people were coming to me for advice on sex moves, which they are not, that would be fine, but comedy advice? This class clown is crying tears of liquid awesome.
While I was reading Becky’s column, she read my latest Japanese posts, which hardly seems like a fair trade. Becky encouraged me to start writing about this stuff, and she did a lot to whip my first post into shape. While she was reading, she paused to ask me a question about the Japanese writing systems: How do they fit together? Would you write an email only in hiragana, or only in kanji, or what? What about individual words: you wouldn’t use multiple writing systems within a single word, would you?
I’m sorry to report that even a short chunk of written Japanese is almost certainly going to feature all three writing systems closely intertwined. Furthermore, hiragana and kanji are often mixed together in the same word. Oh, and romaji, especially arabic numerals, sometimes get thrown in there as well.
Let’s take a simple sentence and see how this works. “I eat ramen in Tokyo,” is what we’re trying to say. In romaji, that would be written as “Tōkyō de ramen tabemasu.” Here’s what it looks like in written Japanese:
Oh, did I mention Japanese is written without spaces? Let’s try it again, with spaces.
東京 で ラーメン を 食べます。
“Tokyo,” on the left there, is written in kanji. Most place names are. I’m not going to get into what the kanji mean, because I’m going to get so deeply into kanji in a few weeks that you’re going to have to stare at sushi pictures on Foodspotting until you feel better.
The word “de” (で) is a particle. Stick it after a place, and it means the action is happening in that place. In other words, “Tokyo de” means “in Tokyo.”
“Ramen” (ラーメン) is written in katakana. The word, and the noodles, are on loan from Chinese.
“O” (を) is another particle. Don’t worry about it for now.
“Tabemasu” (食べます) is the present tense polite form of the verb “to eat.” The first syllable is written in kanji; the rest are written in hiragana.
I’d like to return to this example in the future, because (a) I intend to eat a lot of ramen in Tokyo, and (b) you can learn a whole lot about how Japanese is put together from this simple five-word sentence.