How I Found The Spirit of “DanShaRi” – My New, Favorite Japanese Word

dansharipicMy acupuncturist worked her magic on me but kept muttering over and over about how tense I was compared to my session just two weeks prior.  Finally, after the session I told her that we were about to move to a new apartment in Tokyo, and it was just plain stressful.  Adding to the stress was the fact that this would be our first move without babies.  When we moved into our house six years ago, we had small kids – ages 5 and 8.  We had an entire room in the house stuffed with their toys and books.  Being a writer and writing teacher myself, I get very attached to books.  In addition, my mother, a career kindergarten teacher, calls herself Grandma Book, and when she closed her classroom in the U.S. and moved south, she sent five packing cartons full of children’s books.

But fast forward six years with kids ages 11 and 14, and most of the books and toys had to go.  I spent a lot of time on the floor one weekend in early May just going through a lot of books and remembering them.  Crying. Feeling. Mourning a little, even. Some special books, the ones my kids really remembered and loved, they wanted to save and keep on their shelves, and I certainly allowed that.  In the end we had at least ten trash bags of toys to give away and five suitcases full of books to donate.  In my heart, I knew that other kids would be able to love the books and toys as much as my babies and I had loved them, but letting go of them was tough.

That’s when the acupuncturist, listening to my tale of woe, taught me a new Japanese word.  “Dan-sha-ri” she told me.  “That’s what you’re doing: Dan-Sha-Ri”.

She wrote out the Kanji for me, and it’s really three Kanji put together to make up the very connotative word.

Dan the first Kanji, means to refuse.  People are supposed to refuse to collect more THINGS in their life, or refuse to block the flow of their lives with stuff.  Sha means to throw away things – get rid of unnecessary items in the home.  And Ri means to separate – separate what’s actually valuable from your possessions – your stuff is not your life; you and your memories and the people you love are your life.

When put together, the word DanShaRi means to let go of possessions, but also to free yourself from them; to poetically purge what’s cluttering your life and let go of it gracefully.  The result is intended to be a lighter and free-er person.

Yes, I spent some serious time on the floor stressing and crying over my children’s bygone childhood, but I admit now, three weeks later, that I do feel lighter for the exercise of it.  My children are growing into such fine young adults, that I find I don’t need their baby stuff anymore.  I can carry the memory of their babyhood in my head and in a few photo albums without having to carry the actual, physical trappings of that babyhood – which also means that I can fully enjoy the present.

I am grateful to my acupuncturist at Theracua for treating the whole person a few weeks ago, and not just my joints and muscles.  She made the process of DanShaRi in my life a whole lot less stressful and more of a thankful experience.

Sometimes the connotative, on-the-fly nature of Japanese has just the right word for the situation.

blog matsuri pic

Subtitles and the Nuance of Language

languagesSome of my best conversations happen in Starbucks over a skim latte.  This week my friend and I were chatting about movies.  She’s Korean, this close friend of mine, but she came to Japan as an expat with her family when she was a teenager, and between that and college at Boston University, the result is that she is perfectly trilingual between Korean, Japanese and English.  She has a lot of Chinese ability too, but she plays it down as a fourth language.  My interest in words and language often mesh with her ability to see language from a different perspective than I do and this day was no different.

Recently my friend had seen “Les Miserables” in the theater.  I had never thought about it before, but being trilingual has a distinct effect on her movie-going experience.  She’s fluent in English so she saw the film in English, but the Japanese subtitles that were inevitably present captured more of her attention than she would have liked.  Then she was thinking of her Mother in Seoul, who would have also seen the film in English, but with Korean subtitles.  In the Korean language, there is no “Z” sound.  This had an interesting effect on one particular scene in the movie.  The innkeeper and his wife are looking to get as much money out of Valjean as they can when he comes to take Cosette from them, but the innkeeper can’t even remember the girl’s name and bumbles around saying Colette, Courgette, and other things, and finally the wife reminds him of “Cosette.”  My friend was wondering how the Korean translator would have expressed “Cojette” since there is no Z sound in Korean and it would have made no difference in writing between Cosette and Cojette when the innkeeper calls the girl “Cojette”.  She speculates that perhaps that particular joke is lost on Korean viewers since they can’t properly see or read the name Cosette as it is meant to be heard or read anyway.  What she is pointing out is that a lot of nuance and puns are lost in translation and that language plays a role in the formation and context in which we see a film.

My friend thinks that the problems are actually bigger when a foreign film is translated into English, particularly from Korean or Japanese.  Japanese has a lot of sensitive feminine speech, the nuance of which can’t be translated into English at all because it has to do more with the way the speaker feels when using those particular words.  If the character didn’t feel a certain way, she wouldn’t use those particular phrases.  Another example my friend gives is when a child is speaking to a grandparent on-screen.  There are certain ways of addressing grandparents that a Japanese child would use that have no direct translation into English.  One example is the word “you” – a child would never ask directly if “you wanted something” when speaking to a respected elder.  “You” can be a very harsh, direct word that a child would not use. But there is no other way to translate that into English – English doesn’t have a nuanced way of speaking relationally the way more formal languages such as Japanese do.  The translators do the best they can when writing the subtitles to capture the real meanings of the ideas and thoughts presented, but they have limited structures of language in which to work.  It’s not so much words exactly as it is deferential structures of speaking.

My friend looks at the subtitles of a film with the curiosity of someone interested in language.  She admits that sometimes when a touching or thoughtful scene is on the screen, she looks down on purpose to see how it’s translated, no matter in which language she is seeing the film.  She also admits that sometimes she misses a moment of the action if she’s examining subtitles, particularly if it’s non-verbal on-screen.  She laughingly says it’s the price she pays for learning and interest.

I am now resolved to see more films with my friend, and of course, to have more lattes together.

How “Words With Friends” is Altering My Brain

I have two friends to blame for getting me into “Words with Friends” (WWF) – the online app I play on my phone.  Both of them thought that since I am a writer, I would be really good at it.  Well, it turns out I suck at it.  I’m better now, but at the start, I was really horrible at it. I could create a sentence of twenty, three-syllable words, punctuate it properly and sing out synonyms for all twenty words, but give me a bunch of letters to place on a board and I was hopeless.  Even though there’s a “shuffle” button at the bottom of the screen, I often still couldn’t “see” the right combination to make up a word.  And as the games progressed, I would have issues with word placement because sometimes I could see a word there in my tile-rack, but I couldn’t figure out how to set it on a crowded board.  Another reason I was losing all the time is that I can’t see how the words work in combination so that I could set the tiles down for the most available points.  “With the letters I can tell you have based on what you’re putting down, you’re missing words and opportunities for points,” one good friend noticed.

And then, after about a month of struggling and losing to various friends left and right, another friend pointed out that it really is a different part of my brain that I need to use.  This particular friend owns a highly successful natural and pro-biotic food company, Zukay Foods, and he jokes that fermenting food for a living improves your WWF skills.  Maybe he’s not that far off, actually.  He has an undergraduate degree in chemical engineering and a graduate degree in marketing – he’s all about strategy and logic (but don’t tell him I admit or even know that about him).  I’m a writer; I’m all about imagination and language.

So now I’m doing a little better at WWF, about six weeks after starting.  It’s not that anyone gave me any tips or that I use a dictionary or cheat-site or anything like that; it’s just that practicing a skill makes you better at it, and I seem to be doing a lot of WWF practicing these days.  Just realizing that it’s not my usual brain-function at work made me change the way I think about the game, which allowed me to open up to other methodology for playing.  It could easily take over my life if I let it.  I love it now!  It makes me laugh when I do something really rare, like get a 75-point word.  I once got a word for 110 points!  It’s utterly ridiculous how much of a kick – nearly a high – I get when I achieve on this game. It’s a game for heaven’s sake!

I am still wondering if the game might make me a better writer in a way because I’m seeing different possibilities for words and words in combination.  That remains to be seen.  But for now, I think I’ll go on playing, bending my brain in different ways and seeing what comes of it.  Let me know if you want to start a game – I’m up for it!

Japan in Hawaii

This is one of the most interesting photos from our recent sojourn in Hawaii over the holidays.  It is my two kids, ages 12 and 9, as they enter the submarine “USS Bowfin” which is parked next to the visitors’ center at Pearl Harbor, and available to tour along with the USS Arizona Memorial and the Battleship Missouri.  When Marc and I were first in Hawaii over thirteen years ago, the Arizona was the only thing to see, so we were glad to be back and see the additional ships.  Showing it to the kids was just magnificent.  When you don’t live in America, there is little reason to be patriotic as an American.  This visit connected the kids to a very important time in their country’s history and it was tangible and real for them.

That being said, every single sign at Pearl Harbor is in Japanese as well as in English.  That is by no means a phenomenon limited to the touristy areas.  All over Honolulu signs, menus, products – all Japanese.  This one struck me particularly because I do not know a lot of Kanji symbols – but I do know the one for “enter” and that’s it right there.  Because we live in Japan, we didn’t notice for a little while that what we were seeing was not usual for a small, American city, but it is.  There’s not another American city, I would bet, with more signs in Japanese than Honolulu.  Even some menus were printed in Japanese as well as in English.  The guidebook to our hotel was in both languages.  One waiter told us that no one could get a job in Honolulu in the restaurant or tourist industries without knowing – or being willing to learn – some basic Japanese.

Just a quick aside: there is an Ugg store right on the main strip in Waikiki.  Why, might you ask, do Hawaiians need Australian sheepskin boots?  It’s not the Hawaiians who need Uggs; it’s the Japanese.  To a man, every single patron in the shop was Japanese.  AND, there was a line out the door to enter the shop (I assume so there was not a fire-code violation) comprised of all Japanese shoppers.  Ugg boots are not for wear in Hawaii where the temperature hovers between 77-82 degrees Fahrenheit year-round.  Ugg boots are for Japanese tourists to buy less expensively than in Tokyo and wear when at home.  This speaks to the buying power of the Japanese tourists and the volume of them vacationing in Hawaii.

So there are the kids, entering a wholly-American experience of a war sub, with Japanese signage.  I think it actually made them comfortable as the meshing of their bi-cultural lives.  Certainly it was interesting for all of us to encounter a place loaded with Japanese people and Japanese signage, where WE are the natives.

Japanese Lessons – Common Usage

I’m very lucky to have friends who can instruct me on common usage of Japanese.  This week’s entry is particularly relevant to those of us who are turning or have recently turned 40, so enjoy!

Everyone knows that in English, especially in the U.S., we say that forty is the new thirty.  Well, in Japan as well, it’s in vogue to be forty years old.  In fact there’s a whole context to turning forty.  People who are in and around forty years old are, “ARA4″

Ara4 is the Japanese way of shortening “around forty.”  It’s a pretty typical mixture of Japanese and English expression to create a short term that’s rife with meaning.  People who are ara4 are at or near the pinnacle of their careers.  They are able to take advantage of the height of fashion.  They have money and are not afraid to use it.  They not only have the money to be comfortable, but they have the background, experience and intelligence to use it well.

What gives me a giggle is that it’s a progressive usage.  A few years ago, the term that was popular in Japan was “ara-sa” which is short for “around thirty.”  Don’t forget, the Japanese have trouble with the “th” digraph in English, so “thirty” in English is pronounced “sah-tee.”  Hence, ara-sa.  It was cool to be thirty or thereabouts.

Don’t forget that in Japanese society, everything new is great.  New cars, new fashion, new everything.  So it stands to reason that society values youth.  Slowly, that’s changing.  I understand that it’s a bit of a contradiction in Japanese society.  Age is revered and respected, but youth is valued and relevant.  The young are taught to respect and learn from their elders but to move forward with progress – at least in most respects.  It’s another one of those quirks of society.

Now, however, perhaps things are changing a little bit.  It’s not only youth that is valued so highly – the forty-year-old set is not yet over-the-hill apparently.

For me, on the cusp of my fortieth birthday, I love this idea.  I plan to be in vogue and ara-4 for a few years.


Colloquialisms for Modern Times

image courtesy of

Everyone knows that the younger generation talks differently from the one before, however, it just seems more extreme here in Japan right now. It’s almost like the sixties were in America – never trust anyone over thirty.  In Japan, the people under thirty seem to want nothing to do with the people who are over forty.  The youngsters have even invented a term to describe how out-of-touch they think the old-sters can be.

In Japanese, the term is Kuuki Yomenai.

Literally translated (thank you, Saori) it means “cannot read the air” – kuuki meaning air, yomenai meaning cannot read.  Basically, they mean clueless.

Here’s where it gets interesting, though: in Japanese, many things are shortened, word-wise.  A department store is a depato; a supermarket is a suupa; and a personal computer is a passocon.  There tends to be an infusion of English, as you can see.  In this case, though, it’s more than an infusion.  The Japanese kids actually say that someone is KY.  In Japanese, it would be Oto-san ni KY dessu – translated as, “my mother is KY – clueless.” The letters K and Y, though they do not exist in any sense in the Japanese alphabet, have come into use when referring to someone who isn’t with-it.  The sentence is only half in actual Japanese!

So let’s not get started on the connotation of KY to an American.  I know we’ve all see the late-night commercials about using KY to deepen her sexual pleasure, but these implications are lost on the Japanese – nonexistent.

Language is one of the biggest barriers separating the older generation from the younger, and the chasm is only going to deepen.  Going forward in Japan, it’s going to be interesting to see how decisions are made with regards to language and its growth – language is a living thing and the lexicon constantly grows.  If Japanese want to stay in the global game here, then the people have to work together, not allow polarizations between generations.  The future depends on it.

As for me, I hope to remain in-the-know as long as possible; I don’t want to become KY myself!

Sneak-peek Sunday!

We’re still working toward October publication with Discover 21 Publications! Here’s a look at one of the signs that will go into my book, which is now tentatively titled, Lost With Translation:

This photo is from the parking garage next-door to the new Otani Hotel.  Perhaps they’re expecting foreigners.  I mean, really! How big of a space does someone’s “privates” need???

Critical Thinking, Freedom, Your Right And Responsibility to Creativity: At What Cost? Part TWO!

Yesterday on Trisha Wooldridge’s blog, she and I began a debate on personal freedom and safety and ways to balance the two in a free society.  We talked a bit about the issues facing the U.S. and Japan (the countries where we live) and began to discuss potential resolutions to the issues involving education and personal responsibility.  Today we continue the debate and discuss more educational issues along with the realities and unrealities of financing real solutions. We also talk seriously about the way people respond to such issues.  Enjoy!

Trisha: I think, the overall problem with education, is that it isn’t supported by the U.S. culture.

Aimee: Whew, and that’s going to be an issue going forward in the world economy!

Trisha: I know – and the extent to which we support “personal liberty” in education is also an extreme.  Everyone is a winner, everyone just does things “differently,” and everyone’s opinion – whether it’s researched or not, regardless of resources – is important and cherished.

Trisha: Personal liberty is feeding into an extremely egotistical culture that is missing the responsibility cost.

Aimee: Everyone is a winner, everyone gets their ego stroked and there is little merit in winning anymore.  In that way you don’t have to take responsibility for anything you do!

Trisha: Exactly – so how do we draw the line to prevent this extreme personal liberty?

Aimee: Make education merit-based again not just a right. There are people who will get into the best schools, get the best grades and those will be the people who work the hardest. That goes for making the team too.  The kid who works out the most and practices the hardest makes the team and those who are lazy don’t make it.

Trisha: But if the local culture of a region or a group puts a child at a disadvantage, and the child doesn’t have the resources, how can s/he have a chance?  For example, you’ve got a lot of poverty-stricken urban and rural areas with out of date books and a lack of computers and classes of 40+ students per teacher.  Even those that work the hardest are stunted.

Aimee: Well I do know that throwing money at the problem isn’t the answer. Washington DC has some of the worst schools in the country and their spending per child is the highest in the nation. (*this was true in 2003, but in 2006, the last time the numbers were calculated, Washington DC ranked third behind New York and New Jersey)

Aimee: This is where the original intent of affirmative action comes in, I think.  It’s just been taken advantage of as a program and is no longer affective. Send the kids to summer school. Or camp. Do year-round schooling. Different programs that are merit-based for the kids.

Trisha: Someone still has to pay for the summer school/camp and schooling. I mean… there is also the appropriation of funds that get “thrown” at the school problem.  Look at the salaries of school superintendants – and the high-ranking government officials overseeing the schools.

Aimee: Yes, but I think a lot of federal funding can be reorganized.

Trisha: Capping the pay infringes on the “capitalist” mentality.

Aimee: Yes. But that’s not what I mean. There’s a lot of wasted funding – programs that don’t work. The system needs an overhaul. I don’t know how to do it, but education needs help in the U.S.

Trisha: And there needs to be a balance of personal liberty for students with meeting certain levels.

Aimee: At a certain point Darwinism takes over. Give the students the choice to enter programs and the ones who want to succeed will. Kids, any more than adults, can’t be forced into education.  They might regret it later, but they can go back to school. I might be overoptimistic or oversimplifying it, but I don’t believe it’s ever too late to learn.

Trisha: But parents aren’t allowing that, currently.  You’ve got so many parents who are suing schools for not passing their “darlings.” And, if not suing, harassing the teachers and staff.

Aimee: Ugh – I’m going to sound like an old lady again – but parents have to be told to trust the schools.  Tort reform – get frivolous law suits thrown out of courts. I’m idealizing.

Trisha: Would LOVE to see that.  But, alas, yes: idealistic. At the same time, I wouldn’t go so far as to “trust” schools.  I don’t know if that’s the right word… I don’t trust schools.  I flubbed my way through most of mine, and I know far too many teachers who do abuse their power and have favorites.

Aimee: I’m not sure what to say!

Trisha: It goes back to responsible parenting… we’re quite cyclical on this topic, aren’t we?  I’m sounding like an old lady, myself, but my parents most certainly knew how I was doing in school and how much effort I was putting in.  (More or less – but definitely more than most parents I see.)

Aimee: If I got in trouble at school my mom and dad would ask me what I did.  Today the parents ask what the teachers did TO the kids.

Trisha: And we’re back to personal responsibility and accountability.  If we can’t force people to be accountable – how do we handle that?

Aimee: That’s their choice. We have to let people fail. We collectively hate to see people fail, but some people are going to fail.

Trisha: People failing’s part is fine with me… but how do we get people to take responsibility for their failure – or, in this case, let their kids take responsibility for their failure?

Aimee: Tort reform! Throw out the parents’ law suits!!! There’s no real answer here, you know.

Trisha: I know… but it’s good to ask the questions.  I don’t know if enough people are asking questions and trying to get to the root of the problem.

Aimee: I agree with you on that.

Trisha: And, with the shakiness of personal responsibility/loss of critical thinking – I don’t know that people realize they should be asking questions.

Aimee: I worry about that actually. I worry that when the public goes to the polls to elect an important official that they don’t know the issues.  They don’t read the paper – or the internet – and understand what the candidates stand for.  My faith in the American public is shaky at best. All because of the lack of critical thinking.

Trisha: And the problem seems to be coming from both extremes: excessive personal liberty = and the loss of personal liberty

Aimee: Well there are similar problems in Japan frankly.

Trisha: The government, as it’s moving with its legislation, from No Child Left Behind to the Patriot Act to the new Health Care, is not supporting personal liberty or personal accountability, and the two really have to go hand in hand.

Aimee: The parents get upset because the kids aren’t pushed enough – they want personalized attention, things like that.  It’s different, but similar.  Too much basis in conformity – but wanting to be ahead of the pack too.  Think of it this way, you wouldn’t give your teenager personal freedoms if he wasn’t responsible enough for them.

Trisha: So… almost the opposite sides of two coins

Aimee: Yes. Until the American public is ready for the freedom – can take personal responsibility, maybe the public they can’t have the freedom.

Trisha: Also, though, with the teenager, you have to start somewhere.  If the teen hasn’t the chance to prove responsibility because he’s so sheltered, where do you go from there?

Aimee: That’s a parent-eyed view and a devil’s advocate stance.

Trisha: That’s a hard one because the people who do have that responsibility are punished.  It’s like the responsible teen who gets grounded and restricted because of the troublesome sibling.

Aimee: You’re right.  I don’t believe in so much legislation anyway.

Trisha: Nor I.  I’m for small government, personally, and LMTFA… (if that’s an appropriate acronym for our professional-ish debate.)

Aimee: We’re back to the same question – how do we convince the public to take personal responsibility for their actions so that they can have all of the personal freedoms they crave?  AND on the other side of the coin, how do we convince the Japanese people that they WANT personal freedoms so their personal responsibility is rewarded and they can think and live creatively and critically?

Trisha: … While allowing them to have their personal liberty of ignorance and wanting to be safe?

Trisha: I think, on the Internet, there are subcultures that are having conversations on this (like you and I are), and that, in and of itself, is a positive movement.

Aimee: It is clear that if something doesn’t happen soon, the U.S. is going to lose its place of prominence on the world stage.  And Japan is not going to be its successor. I agree that there are movements. Grassroots movements.  Who is it that said, “Never stop believing that a small group of like minded people can change the world.  Indeed it’s the only thing that ever has.”  It might have been Margaret Mead.

Trisha: I believe so, yes!  Perhaps a future conversation should be how the Internet is affecting change in global education?

Aimee: Phew, that’s a big one. The bottom line is that until people can take responsibility for their actions, personal liberties will be further and further eroded in society as the governments look to legislate and assign blame. They will do so with good intentions – the intent of protecting the people, but we will end up with a society of robots who cannot think for themselves.

Trisha: Or, a rebellion.  At least in the U.S.  (I don’t know about Japan.)  There are an awful lot of grassroots movements of people willing to fight – quite literally and not just in paper – to maintain their constitutional rights.

Aimee: The thinkers vs. non-thinkers?

Trisha: If we take some positive steps in real education reform that takes into account personal accountability, we could avert those negative outcomes.

Aimee: And that’s why we’re both educators, isn’t it?

Trisha: Not even as black and white as thinkers vs. non-thinkers.

Aimee: Writers and educators and thinkers!

Trisha:   Yes – absolutely.  And, at least for us, being able to write and communicate is the basis for all this.  Good writing embodies critical thinking and looking at the many sides of an issue.

Watch this space and also Trish’s blog! Next week we’re going to post some follow-up, responses and further thoughts on these issues.

Metaphor: Cultural and Literary

According to the field of psychology, humans use conceptual metaphor to make sense of their world.  People describe things in terms of other things.  A common use of conceptual metaphor is war imagery when citing arguments.  For example, people “pull out the big guns” when they argue. Or they speak of winning the fight if their argument is superior to their opponent’s. It’s a common theme in language and it is one that people across the globe comprehend.  Some conceptual metaphor is culturally based so less comprehensible to the foreigner.  For example, I live in Japan, and people talk about “speaking from the belly” which is the literal translation of the metaphorical language.  They do not literally speak from the belly; Japanese people, however, use the terms to mean a specific understanding that happens between two people without an exchange of actual words.  If two people are on the same wavelength, they speak from the belly.  This can cause all sorts of issues cross-culturally.  But the metaphor is important to the understanding of the Japanese culture and people in general.  In order to understand a culture, one must not only immerse himself in literal language; one must delve into the realm of figurative language as well.  In psycho-social terms, the conceptual metaphors of a people are the thoughts and ideas that imbue a culture with uniqueness.

Why is this important to a writer, though?

Metaphor is a powerful tool for a writer.  A writer needs a toolbox full of ways to make language come alive without being overly sentimental.  A writer needs a way to touch the reader with the words by touching an image in the reader’s brain either through real or imagined memory or images.  This is a connection and an understanding with the reader.  Touching the reader in this way makes a written work into a dialectic rather than a monologue.  Look at the following examples:

  • The snow was a blanket covering the city
  • The aroma of sautéed garlic assaulted the senses the way a truck rolls over a sandcastle
  • The flame licked the edges of the paper so it gave way to a pile of ash
  • The steady thump thump of the bass beat a rhythm into his brain
  • The taste of the hand-made bread was as if he had come home at long last.

These are not literal feelings. This is the use of metaphor and figurative language.  Writers use words like these mostly because they appeal to the reader’s senses to understand a concept the exact way the author wants him to.  Thus the psychological term of conceptual metaphor blends with the idea of a literary metaphor.  When you close your eyes, you can see the idea of snow blanketing a city.  From that description, you can almost smell that garlic as it sautés.  The writer has appealed to common experience; he is counting on the fact that his reader has experienced the taste of hand-made bread and can associate with the warm feeling of coming home after a long absence.

This is the power of metaphor.  The use of metaphor allows people and especially writers to express themselves in a way that is referential, and indeed, perhaps even reverential to other people.

Language as Definition

The other day I was having a chat with a very good friend.  She is a real linguist; she speaks Korean, Japanese and English with equal fluency and has great insight to the nuance that each one presents.  Because I’m taking Japanese lessons, the intricacies of the language are often a topic of conversation.  In Japanese, she explained, people define themselves by the way they use language.  They take on a role via their usage of language.  For example, the big boss of a department at the bank would not speak the same way his underlings might speak.  There are separate words and phrases that women use that men do not.  School children use different language than older counterparts, but all children are taught the language of respect when speaking to elders.   I’m not explaining the fine nuances nearly as well as my friend did.  She gave an example using the word “funny”.  In Japanese there are different words for ha-ha funny and funny meaning creepy.  A boss would want to be ha-ha funny sometimes with his employees to lighten the atmosphere, but never creepy-funny.  Of course then she had to laugh; maybe the example wasn’t the best because especially in Japan, being a boss is serious business, she said. But I got the gist of what she meant.

As a writer, this concept of language defining a person fascinated me.  The characters we create, whether we work in fiction or even non-fiction have to somehow differentiate themselves from each other and then jump off the page for the reader.  What better way to do this than with language? One person might talk with one type of words and another character might employ a different set to convey a similar idea.  If a writer is clever, the cadence of speech is discernible to the reader.  And the biggest way for this to happen in English might be through dialect.

In graduate school, one professor had us write out a conversation without any “he said” or “she said.”  We had to differentiate between the two speakers via their dialects.  The lesson in there was that the dialectical language has to be carefully placed and not overdone so that the words become incoherent to the reader.  When doing it, I used a conversation between my aunt and myself – my aunt having a pretty thick Long Island accent (though she’d deny it to the hilt!).  “Sweethawt, you’re not listening tah me,”  I wrote as the first line.  Line by line I worked and in the workshop oriented classroom, my peers were careful to point out where I had done well and where I had gone too far.  I used the words and the dialect to build tension between the two speakers – my sixteen-year-old self was arguing with her at the time – but then had to cool it down as the voices were lowered.  I’m not sure how I succeeded, but it sure was an interesting experience.

I’ve written a few short pieces about speaking with this particular linguist friend, with whom I’ve been close for a long time.  She says that when she dreams, if I’m in her dream, the dream is in English, but if she is dreaming about her father, she dreams in Korean.  The subconscious use of language transcends even our cognition sometimes.

What I have learned from knowing this friend and from writing, is that language can be a defining piece of a person and if used properly, is the strongest tool that a writer has regarding his characters.  I look forward to many more discussions on the subject.