Saturday, April 25, 2015

Saturday Serial: Captain America #9

Thursday, April 23, 2015

It's amazing what kinds of things lodge in your head when you're a teenager, never to be pried loose.

I've been talking to a friend of mine, Tommy, whom I've known for... shit. It'll be twenty years this year, sometime in the fall semester, depending on whether you're counting from the time I first typed at him or the time I first talked to him face to face.

Goddamnit, now I've made myself feel old.

Leaving aside the glorious multitudes of things my parents inadvertently taught me by counterexample, I got more of my people-ing ethics from Tommy than I have anyone else, ever. Most of my really unusual ones were from him, particularly the one where I persist in believing that the strength of one relationship does not hinge on the relative weakness of others. Credit where credit is due: I did have to look these things over myself and decide that I thought it was a good way to run my own life, then implement them without fucking things up too badly in the process. But Tommy was the first one to (inadvertently) propose this stuff as an alternative to the way I was treated at home, which to that point had been my only reference for how emotions were supposed to work.

(I would like to add here, for those who have just joined us, that my mother is blatantly insane. She is Lwaxana Troi. She knows this. She thinks this herself. She is proud of this and does not understand why the rest of the Enterprise are such fuddy-duddies. There's more to it, but if you just keep in mind the image of Majel Barrett-Roddenberry swanning around in an elaborate wig, leaving confusion and homicidal impulses in her wake, you'll get the right general idea.)

Tommy was my first love, and I mean that a lot more literally than most people. It's usually used in the context of a romance; for most people, the first time they're aware of any kind of love at all is within their family, and the milestone is your first connection with someone outside of that default. These people are lucky bastards. My family does not particularly love me. They say they do if asked, but if you watch the way they behave, the only real response is an Iñigo Montoya-like "I do not think that word means what you think it means". I don't really have any connection to them either; they're more or less a bunch of random people, whom I generally dislike, about whom I somehow know an awful lot of things.

The less literal version of my relationship with Tommy, that I go with for ease of conversation, is 'best friend through all of high school', but that doesn't really cover it properly. He was a year ahead of me in school, and I cried wretchedly for months when he moved away to college. Somewhere in the middle of that, I realized that if my actual sibling -- the one who was related to me, who lived in the room next to mine -- fucked off to boarding school, I would barely notice. Most of what did it was that I sincerely missed Tommy, and felt like something was missing when he wasn't there. I never felt like that about any of my relatives. It was one of the first moments I realized something was honestly, palpably wrong in that house, and it quite terrified me.

I already didn't know what was was going on most of the time, and you keep telling me you love me but this is not matching up with the description of love at all, WORDS DON'T MEAN THINGS ANYMORE, I DON'T KNOW, HELP.

Nobody at home did anything about this, of course, but nobody ever did anything about anything that made me unhappy. I can remember sitting at the computer talking to someone in a chat window -- probably Tommy, in fact -- crying hysterically, in full view of both parents, who didn't even acknowledge my presence.

That I had an incredibly fucked-up childhood is evident from the fact that I got into my late teens before I told someone I loved them and had any idea what that meant. Not even in the complicated grown-up 'figuring out the logistics of shared lives' way, just in a basic emotional way. I did it rather poorly -- I seem to recall it was in the front seat of a borrowed car, at highway speeds somewhere on the 101 loop, in the middle of a bout of hysterics over whatever my mother had done most recently -- but I did tell him, and Tommy did not put me out by the side of the road to walk home, so overall I think the episode was a success.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

I was having a conversation the other day with someone about the wide and occasionally insane varieties of Japanese speech. Most languages have this, to one degree to another; while Japanese does draw some of the lines in places we recognize (formal/informal, close friends/distant social contacts), some of the lines strike English-speakers as weird, and one of the big ones is that males and females speak differently. There are different verb constructions, speech tags, and the big obvious one, different sets of pronouns for I/you.

The person I was talking to commented that they'd find that a horrible minefield of confusion, because they were agender and the prospect of having to sift through that sounded awful. I cheerfully assured them that they could just use 'watashi' and 'anata', which is the gender-neutral set they teach foreigners, so we can't fuck it up.

It occurred to me quite a bit later that this is probably one of those conversations that other people don't have. Unusual Things People Say To Me, Volume... hell, I forget.

One, I run in circles where people are generally aware that 'agender', 'asexual', and 'aromantic' are things that one can potentially be. The very concepts are not widely known. Even people who have managed to get their heads around the idea of gay people and bisexual people and transgender people and even polyamorous people sometimes have issues grasping the idea of people who don't want any of that, and don't want that fixed. I can't pretend to be one of them, but I did decide quite a while ago I had absolutely none of the interest in marriage or children that society expected me to, so I know at least a little bit about how hard it is to explain that sort of thing to people who thought it was a fundamental part of humanity and are annoyed to be told they're wrong.

Two, I run in circles where people can comment that they're agender in the middle of an only tangentially-related conversation and expect that it will just be a comment, and not end up a spontaneous exercise in public education. That's nice, I like that -- people expect me to know what words goddamn mean. Even if I didn't already know about AVEN and all that, me English real good. I can figure this out.

Two and a half, apparently I don't react to any of this. Stuff goes in my ear and lands in the internal Rolodex and there's not really a lot that gets pitched through any kind of judgement filter first. Unless someone is already setting off alarms, it's not really worth spending the energy. I can always run an assessment later if I need to figure out what the information looks like to other people. I don't actually know if this is unusual anymore. It's not unusual for me, but I'm informed that I am not normal.

Three, other people will put up with me when I babble about accents! Sometimes they will even ask for help. I can't really give it to them, I've been intentionally ignoring their accents in rehearsal. If we're striving for accuracy then we're all failing, me included -- a month of muttering to myself is not enough practice to fool an actual Yorkie, which would be my standard for success. The important part is that our director is happy with how everyone sounds, which she seems to be. The second important part is that I'm allowed to rephrase things that sound wrong grammatically, which will prevent me from going insane.

Then I went back in a few days later and mentioned that I got on the bus that afternoon and spent most of Watertown having to listen to a girl complaining, in Japanese, about how her boyfriend showed up late for something without a box he was supposed to have. He promised to bring it next week. She was very indignant. I was politely informed that the banality of conversations in random foreign languages was a problem specific to me. Oh well.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

There are some unpleasant truths you learn very quickly when you get to the reading-real-things part of Japanese.

1. The Japanese consider spaces to be optional.
Corollary: People are lazy. If something is optional, it won't be done.

This is one of the few things that gets better when you learn kanji. Before that, it's one long string of kana where you just have to sort of insert breaks at random and test to see if it makes any damn sense. Once you start throwing kanji in, you can at least start by figuring that character + okurigana (kana used for grammatical endings) means it's a verb.

This also, incidentally, makes me uncertain why case markers in Japanese are taught as separate particles rather than inflections. There are short tags that come right after nouns to indicate nominative, accusative, genitive, etc. Left to their own devices, Japanese people will attach them to the end of the preceding noun. English-speakers will slap a space in between the two, to set the particle off as if it's a separate word. They're case-y enough that I used to mark up my German inflection tables in Japanese, because it's a hell of a lot easier to fit を into the little grid square than to try to microprint 'Accusative'.

Anyone out there start learning Japanese in a language other than English, and want to comment? I tried teaching Japanese to someone in French once, but there was a catastrophic mismatch of available verb tenses involved that made me glad I already had a grasp of the present progressive.

2. Japanese people don't finish their sentences any better than anyone else.

They're actually worse than most other languages I know. An honest Japanese-English dictionary would be half blank to account for all of the things that you say by pointedly not saying them. Do not let your attention wander during a conversation in Japanese or you will never pick it back up again.

3. Furigana lie.

Or, to be strictly accurate, furigana are not as definitive as you might hope. Furigana, or "flying characters", are the tiny kana that hover above (or beside, in vertical text) a kanji-ful word to give the phonetic reading. They're sometimes called Ruby characters, from the old name for the physical font size needed for them on printed pages. You see them most in stuff that's aimed at kids who have learned some but not all of the standard kanji -- my Detective Conan game, for instance, has a setting that lets me turn them on and off -- and sometimes on names, which have notoriously idiosyncratic pronunciations, even in works aimed at an older audience. You still occasionally see inline parenthetical pronunciations on platforms where the typesetter can't or is too lazy to dig around and rig it up properly, but XHTML supports Ruby markup now. I'd put it as no more convoluted than CSS, but I was at one point teaching a mini-class in CSS to a bunch of my schoolmates, so YMMV.

The thing about Ruby script is that you can make it say anything you want. Content isn't restricted to kana; really all it does is render a specific string of text at half-size and auto center/justify/kern it over a specified span. Chinese texts will sometimes use it for pinyin or bopomofo, and Korean ones will occasionally mark hanja in hangul. Wiseasses and people who write weird fiction will take unfair advantage of that. It is entirely possible to use Ruby markup to do this:


Where, if your browser responds properly to Unicode and Ruby, the kanji say "Super Magical Multi-Dimensional Blueprints of Heaven And Earth", and the furigana says it's to be read as e, which means "drawing".

Good luck with that there sci-fi manga, champ.

4. A lot of incorrect things become correct in context.

Most language classes are prescriptivist in nature, i.e., they give you a book that details how words should be used, and expect you to follow it or feel crushing guilt for being wrong. Then you get out into the real world and discover that sometimes people do things wrong for effect.

(I've had language teachers who were unable to distinguish between me being wrong by accident and me being a wiseass on purpose. Drives me bonkers, especially since the point at which I can do that is the point at which I start feeling competent. One of the reasons I liked the teacher I had at NAU so much was that she could generally tell when we were being screwball.)

Japanese, for example, has a lot of transitive/intransitive verb pairs. There's a set of matching bookend verbs for to open/to be opened, to close/to be closed, to move/to be moved, etc. They're approximately equivalent to active and passive voices in English. The thing moves, the thing is moved. You're told very sternly that it's incorrect to use the intransitive form with inanimate objects -- you can say ドアを開ける, doa wo akeru,  (someone) opens the door, but you cannot say ドアが開く, doa ga aku, door opens (itself).

Except if you read a lot of weird stuff, doors totally can do that. The second sentence is creepy as fuck, because doors aren't supposed to open themselves, but that thought does exist and can be uttered like that, and if you do indeed mean the door is opening itself, then it's not semantically or grammatically wrong.

They also tell you things like that the character ん only appears at the end of a syllable, and never appears by itself. Sure it can, if your speaker is making a small confused noise! It's the one English spells 'hm?' Only the interrogative version, though; the 'whaddayaknow' statement version is usually ふむ.

5. Kana spelling is not much better at being phonetic than any other kind.

Supposedly, modern Japanese spelling -- kanji aside -- was dragged back in line with modern Japanese pronunciation in about 1900, and then beaten completely into submission after WWII. To be fair, it's a lot better than it used to be. There were a lot of cases like verb endings that were spelled ーませう -maseu and pronounced ーましょう -mashou. To be critical, about half of the various grammatical particles are still written wrong (は, the subject particle wa, is written with a kana that normally says ha, even though わ normally serves for wa just fine; へ, a dative particle that's read e, is written with a kana that is normally used for he, even though there is a perfectly good え already; and を, the direct object marker, is read o now and used to say wo when that mora existed, and written with a kana that is no longer used for anything else anywhere in the language. This is all super fun when you're trying to enter Japanese phonetically in Windows using a QWERTY keyboard). There are also assorted other problems, like Japanese pretending that they have only five vowel sounds (they don't) which are always pronounced (they aren't) and that the language has no tonal accent (it does).

This isn't even getting into accents, dialects, and idiolects. Moggie and I were recently watching Magic Kaito 1412. The main character, Kuroba Kaito, suffers from chronic teenage-boy *mumblemumblewhatevernstuff* overlaid with one of the worst cases of sarcastic vowel drawl I've heard in ages. The subtitles give the misleading impression that he's speaking perfectly clearly; he's not. Japanese people are as prone as anyone else to taking a word like 面白い, omoshiroi, which really is supposed to be pronounced exactly as the spelling suggests, and mangling it into something which should properly be written おもしるぅぇぇぇぇ~ out of sheer bored snot-nosed sass. The subtitles render that "Sounds fun", but I'd bring it across almost exactly as "Eeeeeeeenterestingk," with the same rather loose association to what the word originally was.  Moggie apparently cannot understand a single godblessit thing he says.

Osaka-ben has some strange vowel changes involved and swallows a lot of less-pushy consonants, particularly near the end of words. No one ever notes this when it's written out. The pitch accent is also bizarrely different and varies over a couple of different axes that I have yet to figure out. Hattori Heiji, in Detective Conan, is from Osaka and voiced by a guy who is also from Osaka, and Moggie apparently can't understand him either.

6. Fuck names.

Just fuck them, All of them. Even native Japanese people can only take blind stabs at figuring out how name kanji are supposed to be pronounced. There's a Detective Conan case where some dude manages to elude capture for years by putting on a dress and changing how his name kanji were read. Seriously. There's a reason that my Japanese monogram is a single character that's read the same as a a male name, a female name, a color descriptor, and a goddamn noun,.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

One of the things that takes a while to grasp when you learn Japanese is how to spot equivalents in the various fonts. Japanese has different typefaces just like Western languages do, and they're even grouped into families the same way. You've probably read English long enough that you don't think about it anymore, but imagine being a Japanese kid and being presented with


and being told that all the characters on any given line were supposed to be the same thing. You would think you were losing your mind.

The first font you learn to read in your Japanese class is the one in your textbook, which is going to be unfairly legible. It's usually a printed minchou 『明朝』style, which is the equivalent of a serif font in Latin alphabets. The name comes from Ming-chou, as in Ming Dynasty, the period during which they nicked it from China. (The characters mean "light" and "morning", which goes to show you what the Ming Dynasty thought of itself.) It typically has little triangular ticks at the ends of the lines, which are meant to echo the ink trails left by a brush being lifted gently from the page at the end of a stroke; I have never run into the English term serif used in this context, but I'm not sure if the term I know (『うろこ』, uroko or "fish scales") is official or not.

Occasionally you'll find a textbook or a set of flash cards that uses a Gothic font. As in English typography, it's nothing to do with scary castles and vampires, but describes a family of print styles with equal line weights used both horizontally and vertically, and no serifs hanging off the ends of things. (Interestingly, fonts don't have faces in Japanese. The character used to tag them, 体, is a marker/descriptor for bodies, as in 死体, shitai, a corpse.)

The second style you learn to read is the one your teacher uses to scrawl on the board. This will vary depending on whether your teacher is an actual Japanese person or not. See, they teach handwriting in Japanese schools, but they don't generally teach it to foreign students -- I get the feeling the Japanese think it's a lost cause. The tell you what order to make the lines in, because Tradition Says So, but the object isn't to teach you proper writing technique so much as it's an effort to make you draw tiny pictures that other Japanese speakers can maybe someday decipher. Native Japanese handwriting, translated into Latin letters, is the exact polar opposite of Cyrillic cursive: pointy chicken scratch.

I'm told that my kanji are readable but foreign-looking. Mog, on the other hand, has been told that hers are terribly authentic, probably because her handwriting in English should automatically qualify her to be either a doctor or a serial killer, depending on her mood.

Once you start attempting to read things in real life, all bets are off. Some of it was fine for me, some was not. I've impressed several people by being able to identify characters on wall hangings done in sousho hand (草書, the fluid, slithery brush style you see used in calligraphy) but the ultra-cheerful fucking felt-tip bubble font used in a lot of graphic design flummoxed me for ages. Edomoji in general are kind of caterwampus but since the drag marks follow the order of the brush strokes they're not all that bad, whereas I have all but given up on the stylized kakuji hand used for official stamps. It's your name, dammit, you're really just going to have to read it to me.

Video games are a special case, usually in an unpleasant sense. For quite a while, the only times you ever saw kanji were on title screens and splash pages, because the available resolution was simply not high enough to display complicated characters in dialogue boxes instead of unreadable blots. (Unreadable blots have historically been a problem in Japanese. There is a special typographical character that specifically means 'either the typesetter can't read this character or the word processor doesn't know how to print it, so we're all just going to have to guess blindly at what's meant to be here'.) The text in early games was written out entirely in kana. The Zelda games used all katakana, as most computer displays did at the time, but that tends to be read as the equivalent of SHOUTING IN ALL CAPS and annoys people, so more text-heavy games like Final Fantasy opted for an all-hiragana character set instead. The oldest stuff I have knocking around that uses kanji as per standard book Japanese is from the Playstation era, although probably there are some for the SNES/Genesis/TG-16 that use a limited set of characters that would be legible on screen.

The DS screen is rather small and all its Ruby markup is in katakana, either out of laziness or necessity. For various reasons this makes it easier to distinguish シ and ツ (or ン and ソ, for that matter, although that's generally more obvious from context), but I just about need a magnifying glass to make out whether there are dakuten/handakuten involved.

Friday, April 17, 2015

As you all know by now, I am physically incapable of putting down any video game that involves crazy puzzles, big gay lawyers, or both. I've found out that there are Detective Conan games, because of course there are, and that they are not available in the US, because of course they aren't. This is why I have a flashcart.

My Japanese is, by my own standards, not fantastic. This is because my standards are based on English, a language that I learned to read so early that I do not remember what it was like to see marks on paper and not have them mean things. By the standards of normal Americans, who took two semesters of Spanish in high school and have long since purged it from their brains, my ability to hammer my way through games like this in Japanese is some kind of crazy magic power. The level of incredulity in Boston is much lower than in Flagstaff, where I would get people walking up to me when I had my nose jammed into a not-English book specifically to ask, "Can you really read that?" I've never come up with a good answer to that, but Tommy suggested, "No, but I'm determined to find Waldo in here somewhere!"

To be honest, I'm not 100% sure that my literacy level is technically high enough to be playing these. I meta-game a lot, in these and related things, like Professor Layton and Ace Attorney titles. I'm so familiar with the genre I could probably solve one -- or write one -- in my sleep. I've legitimately picked a lot of things up from context (protip: It is a bad idea to shout "You can't prove that!" at the detective, regardless of what language it's in), but there are a lot of things you simply can't do that with. It's kind of the point with this kind of mystery: the case seems bizarre and insoluble at first because you've found a thing that is inexplicably outside of its usual context, with no indications as to how it got there.

[It's a particular problem in Japanese. The triumvirate writing system of kanji, hiragana, and katakana results sometimes in different spellings of the same word that are almost, but not quite, interchangeable. And, because they stole most of the kanji from Chinese and then smashed tone when importing the readings, there are a metric fuckton of homophones. Someone in the first proper case of the Detective Conan game found a 「クモ」 ("kumo" in katakana) on the front of the victim's kimono. Katakana is the pure phonetic syllabary, used for writing out loanwords, onomotopaeia, occasional names, and things that English would put in italics or all-caps, like shouting or mechanistic robot voices. I spent a few dialogue bubbles tying to figure out if they were talking about a spider, or if someone was just being really emphatic about clouds.]

[[Double tangential note, katakana is one of the reasons Ran comments on Conan's name being weird when they're first introduced. One, legal names in Japan generally come off of a list of things that are traditionally approved as names. I don't think it's a requirement, like it is in France, but you don't sign things in Japan, you stamp them, and anyone with a bizarre katakana loanword name is going to have a hell of a time finding a hanko. (Normally you can find them in convenience stores. Moggie went with 『金子』, "Kaneko", while she was there, because she is very blonde and the first character is the one used to describe blond/e hair.. All of the Japanese people she handed paperwork to gave her a very funny look, as if wondering if the foreigner knew it was being funny. It did succeed in its purpose, however, which was to make sure none of them ever forgot who she was.) Even foreigners have to choose an official Japanese name made of official Japanese characters if they harbor any ambitions of doing any damn paperwork while there.

And two, for various historical and cultural reasons -- read: blatant sexism -- only girls' names can be spelled in kana. "Conan" is spelled out in katakana, which in all my years of jamming my head full of manga, I have never seen on a guy who was not specifically supposed to be non-native Japanese. "Edogawa" has kanji (江戸川), but they're ateji -- kanji used strictly for their pronunciation without regard to meaning -- and moreover they are part of a stupid pun on the part of the mystery/horror author who used them as a pen name in the first place.]]

It is incredibly strange to run through a piece of text and realize that there are a lot of spots in it, where I either I know what the character means but not how to read it aloud, or that I know what sound it makes but have no idea what the meaning is. Is this how normal people feel when reading complicated things in their native language? Like things are full of holes and they have to guess constantly? It's disconcerting. I much prefer when I just look at things and information magically filters into my brain.

My reading comprehension is surprisingly not that bad. There are points where the game presents you with a question and you have to pick one of three answers to make the dialogue progress. A good 50% of the time, I know which option the game is going to consider correct before I even properly read the damn things. I find this somewhat creepy, because it means there's some linguistic thing going on that I'm not consciously aware of. It's some kind of black box process wherein things seem to have gone from unfamiliar pixel blots to recognition vocabulary without passing through an intermediate subvocalization stage. The end result is that I go 'fuck if I can remember what that means, but it's clearly being used as a noun and it's been in a lot of speech bubbles lately, so that's probably what the game wants to hear'. It does depend on the story being a fair-play mystery, which games have to be, but novels don't.

There's a similar minigame involving spelling out an answer by picking kana off of a roulette wheel, but I can do more traditional code breaking on that. It boils down to 'what is the least common character on here and why would they have included that one'. Nobody's going to think of sticking ぶ on the Wheel of Spelling unless they need it. I expected to have to brute force all of those with combinatorics, but it turns out I have just enough random access to the stuff in the Japanese language banks that I can run through a list of recently encountered words, looking for one that has the oddball kana in any position.

My vocabulary, as usual, is weird. I could not for the life of me tell you what the Japanese word for 'traffic signal' was, but 『密室殺人事件』 is a locked-room murder case.