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Nuance in Japanese

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Phoenix

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A little while ago, the lovely Goddess asked about culture coming through when studying language. One of the things that's very difficult to translate into English (and is thus blog-worthy) is all the nuance that gets packed into the language in a very compact way. I'll provide a couple of examples looking at names and pronouns.

Name appellations

Anyone who has heard even a little bit of Japanese conversation has heard the "san" (さん) suffix. It's a default appellation that most closely translates in English to "miss/ms./mrs." or "mister." It is put on the end of a name, so Tanaka-san, or John-san. It's used when addressing someone of similar social standing (i.e., not your upperclassman, boss or governor, and not a child). One of the great things is, it's also used in address when unsure of the addressee's social rank. When using it with someone one isn't familiar with, it carries the connotation of "I'm presently unaware of how you should be properly be addressed, so please forgive me if you are deserving of a more polite honorific." So much nuance in one short syllable!

Second-person pronouns

"san" is also used with generic second person pronouns, which are the same words as "older brother" (onii-san, お兄さん, and yes, there's different words based on relative age), "aunt" (oba-san, おばさん), and so forth. Used when the person's name isn't known, usage of specific pronouns is dependent on the perceived age of the individual. Being called "oba-san" for the first time is a source of much consternation for Japanese women, kind of like being called "ma'am" for the first time in English.

There's also some fun to be had, too. "sama" (様) is a respectful, elevated form of "san," used for bosses, your customers, and so forth. In older times it translated to "lord." Much to the amusement of  @Kenai, I recently explained that "ki-sama" means "precious lord," but in a way that's dripping with sarcasm. It's an archaism that when used today, specifically refers to someone in second person rudely. Like "bitch," perhaps.

On that note, Japanese is a language that's actually rather devoid of straight profanity like English has so colorfully. No, the Japanese are much more subtle than that--as I've hopefully given you a taste of in this post, they use suggestion, unspoken words and connotation in their language to tell you to fuck off. ^_^

 

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