Wednesday, July 17, 2013

It Made Robert Wonder

We were sitting at dinner the other night, serving the last of the salad - which Miasa was about to finish up - when her sister Mitsuki said "Mitsuki wa mada tabetenai!" ("Mitsuki hasn't eaten any yet!"). I had heard this J-syntax countless times before, but for some reason I heard it literally for the first time, and it dawned on me that Mitsuki was speaking of herself in the third person! This form of Japanese is used mostly by females, toddlers to teens; not by males or older women.

I wonder if that is a cultural practice in any other language, and what effect that subtle sublimation of the "I" might have on the socio/psychological development of the female self. She is thereby enabled to consider and speak of herself as another person! This unique structure seems to be a sort of semantic means of averting negative emotional response to actions that would otherwise be seen as overtly selfish (by saying "I want x"), focusing any social negativity on a target abstraction out there in the semantic ether that bears one's name, but is not one, exactly; rather it is a selfless third entity, apart from oneself, a sort of cavitation in the emotolinguistic sea. It is only used in that specific way; Mitsuki wouldn't say "Mitsuki saw a great movie last night," a declaration of past action that would beget no possibly negative reaction.

Offhand I know of no other language in which it is traditional to distance selfness with such facility, pretty much enabling one (at least a young female - and why only females?) to speak of oneself as an additional member of the group... I know of no other culture wherein the power of politeness drives the need to make an other of oneself (only young females!), so as to deflect any negative reactions toward overt "I"-ness. I try to sense the difference between me saying: "I haven't eaten any yet!" and me saying: "Robert hasn't eaten any yet!" But as an adult male American semantic alien, it doesn't work for me; I can't 'feel' it, even in the slightest way.

Whence in long-ago Japan was such a word structure inspired to appear in a moment's discourse - and be understood! Be approved! Be carried on into the future of the language as useful! Apparently, when it was first said, no one went "Huh?" They accepted the distancing, and the need for it.

Given the cultural changes now ongoing in Japan, I suspect that this subtle usage, like the need for it, may disappear before too long; thought I'd mention it.

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