Following on the previous post about bludgeoning my way through Gyakuten Saiban in not-English, it occurs to me that most of my audience probably doesn't speak any Japanese. Give it a shot. It's fun, for a certain highly-contrived, lunatic value of fun. I learned it because I wanted to read manga. I also learned French because I have a thing for Dumas (père and fis) and for Victorian policiers, of which Maurice Leblanc wrote about a billion, and German because I like math and Michael Ende. It's not so much a matter of whether I can pick up a language, as it is a matter of if I've run into anything I care to read in it, and how far down I am on the list.

I touched before on the complexity of formality and respect in the Japanese language. It's worse than you think. There are entirely different sets of pronouns and verbs for different degrees of respectfulness. There are some sets that elevate the person you're speaking to, and some that humble the speaker, and -- and this is probably the part that confuses English speakers the very most -- these sets rarely if ever intersect. It's entirely possible to debase yourself without making any comment on the social status of the person listening to you, and entirely possible to exalt your audience without mentioning where you think you stand.

Ayasato Harumi/Pearl Fey uses very polite and humble language almost all of the time. This is why Ryuuichi is so taken aback when he first meets her -- he's never run across an eight-year-old before who sounded so much like an elderly Heian lady-in-waiting. (In English, Pearl is translated as using forms of address for almost everyone, like calling Phoenix "Mr. Nick" and the Fey sisters by their formal inherited titles, "Mystic Mia" and "Mystic Maya". She even does it when it's entirely incongruous, like calling Gumshoe "Mr. Scruffy Detective". She's heard Franziska call him "Scruffy", but he's much older than she is, and is a police detective, so by her logic...) While Mayoi uses atashi (girly, soft, and polite) as her first-person pronoun, and is maybe a little more prone to non-informal verbs than other teenage girls, Harumi always uses watakushi for "I", which is an old and very formal variation that implies humility on the part of the speaker. Chihiro, who is older, more modern, and much more assertive, uses the gender-neutral watashi, which is the level of formality used most in business, and which is generally taught first in textbooks.

The hotel bellboy in Case 1-2 uses both word lists, self-humbling and other-elevating. He consistently refers to Umeyo/April with the honorific -sama (a significantly higher grade than -san, used for respected superiors, nobles, and other elevated things, like gods), even when speaking of her rather than to her as a customer, and he also uses verbs off the list of 'formal things to say to people whom you do not know, and to whom you need to be extra-polite'. It's customary to use this slightly-elevated language in places like shops and restaurants, where buttering up the clientele might get them to give you more money, and on the kinds of impersonal instructional signs you might see hung up on the wall of a business and signed '-The Mgmt.'. He also uses words from the set that humble oneself. Many of these are also distinctly old-fashioned; stubborn humility is a style of speaking associated with the old samurai, for whom it was a part of their 'code of chivalry'.

(They considered themselves humble servants of their lords, but also acknowledged the accomplishment inherent in holding a job that required decades of training and skill, so they customarily addressed ordinary people so as to suggest they were always 'at your service' without mentioning where they thought they themselves fell on the social ladder. Himura Kenshin, from Rurouni Kenshin, does this and then makes it weird -- he ends sentences with de gozaru, which is almost an oxymoron: it's the informal plain verb form of a formal self-humbling compound copula that is almost never seen in any form other than the formally-inflected de gozaimasu. Normal human beings would just take the average there and use desu instead.)

The bellboy never uses anything but those two word sets, wherever possible, and the combination makes him sound like a particularly obsequious butler, the kind who refer to their employer as "Sir" when "you" or "he" would otherwise do.

Mitsurugi is often almost as polite as Harumi, but takes the opposite attitude towards self in his speech, especially in court. Except for set phrases where it's required as part of the idiom (English has this, too; cf. "Your Honor" for the judge, and referring to the various sets of counsel with the non-count collective terms "the defense" and "the prosecution", even if there's only one attorney at each table), he really never uses self-humbling anything. Rather, he uses a lot of precise language with an almost academic construction to create a sense of distance. He calls Konaka to the stand as, and continues to address him during questioning with, "Konaka-shi", employing an honorific whose major modern function is to refer to someone who is well-known and (theoretically) respected for something, but whom one has never personally met -- news anchors commonly use it to refer to politicians or other public figures when reading reports. When he gets angry, the meticulous politesse of his language hits rock bottom very rapidly, but his ego doesn't go along for the ride. He's never particularly rude to Ryuuichi outside of court (well, linguistically he's not; menacing people is not really considered mannerly in any language, even if you have known them for over a decade), but he does drop the distance, and his speech patterns go from highly bookish to a much more ordinary form, where you can go all chanpuru with your prepositional phrases and whack the subject pronoun on the end for emphasis, if you feel like it.

It's also important to note here that, as in many other languages, a little extra politeness is usually glossed as flattering and possibly flirty in the right situation, and a lot of extra politeness plus humility is either terror or toadying, super-duper ultra formality without any hint of modesty is generally interpreted as condescending, dry, and sarcastic. When Mitsurugi is happy with the way his case is going, he is polite to the point of arch. He's very sort of, "I'm given to understand the defense has a problem with this testimony -- pray, do tell the court what you think it is," when he thinks Ryuuichi is being an idiot. He does occasionally get rude with the witnesses, where 'rudeness' in this case equates to a combination of 'not being super-formal at people anymore' and 'suddenly talking to them as if he considers himself their social superior' rather than saying anything whose content was overtly insulting. He barks sentence fragments at them, if they're uncooperative enough. 「証人。名前。」 translates directly and literally to the, "WITNESS. NAME." he's often reduced to bellowing before he can even get the weirder people to sit down and testify.

Comments