North-South-East-West from the English Heart of Tradition

In the British Broadcasting Corporation weather forecasts, the English phrase ‘here and there’ comes often. For instance, a forecast may say: “The snow which fell in the north of England yesterday has now mostly melted, though there are still some patches of snow here and there.”

When this is translated into Japanese, ‘here and there’ becomes ‘achi-kochi’. So the Japanese expression puts ‘there’ first, and then says ‘here’, but the English puts ‘here’ first, and adds ‘there’ afterwards.

It is not only English that gives first place to ‘here’. The Germans say ‘hier und da’, and these German words are in fact the originals of the English ‘here and there’. If the German is spoken quickly, it sounds like the English, and if the English phrase is spoken quickly, it sounds like the German. The English and German sound alike when they are spoken, though when they are written, the resemblance is not so clear.

That is why some English tourists who go to Germany without first having learnt any German, find that they can understand quite a number of German phrases when they are spoken, though they cannot understand the same phrases when they try to read them. When we English see the word ‘da’ written down, we do not recognize it, but when a German says it quickly, it is very like our ‘there’ as spoken in an ordinary English conversation. If an Englishman pronounces the word ‘there’ quickly, he does not sound the final letters ‘-re’. We say something like ‘tha’, so we understand when a German says ‘da’. But in writing, we expect to see the word spelt out ‘there’, even though we do not pronounce the last two letters, so we do not recognize the written German word ‘da’.

Let us return to the point of word order, ‘here and there’. ‘Here’ comes first because here is the most important place. It is the most important because it is the place where I am. ‘There’ is less important, because it is not where I am. Japanese, on the other hand, puts ‘there’ first, because that is where ‘you’ and ‘they’ are. You and they are more important in Japan, or at least, in Japanese grammar. (It does not always apply to actual life.) Does this mean that Europeans are egoists? Perhaps it does. In English grammar, ‘the first person’ means ‘I’. In English conversation, ‘number one’ means oneself. There is a common colloquial phrase, ‘to look after number one’, which means to be selfish, or to seek one’s own advantage. There are parallel phrases in other European languages.

If it is true that the grammar of a language reflects the attitudes of the people who speak it, then we English must be the supreme egoists of Europe,  because our word ‘I’ is always written with a capital letter, whereas the German ‘ich’ and the French ‘je’ are written with a small letter. Still, as I have said already, grammar is not necessarily the same as life; my impression is that French and Germans use the  words ‘je’ and ‘ich’ just as frequently as the English use ‘I’.

I was always impressed by letters which I got from old-fashioned Meiji-born Japanese, who used to write ‘shosei’ in smaller characters than the others, and  sometimes a little to one side. When asked about this, my teacher of Japanese told me that it was a form of stylized humility; he also said, “And they will never have this word at the top of a line. If necessary, they will reshape the sentence so that it comes near the bottom of the page”. I found that was true.

It is a surprise to all of us foreigners that Japanese sentences so often miss out the subject of the verb; we often cannot understand who is the subject. When the subject of the verb is ‘I’, the Japanese grammar is so humble that the ‘I’ disappears altogether. Japanese seem to guess the subject of the sentence by a sort of instinct, though nothing is expressed. But sometimes even an expert Japanese writer is baffled. When Mishima Yukio had his public debate with the zenkyoto of Tokyo University, I saw in the report of the debate that one zenkyoto student shouted out: ‘Dakara, shizen to iu mono wa wakaranai no da yo, zenzen!

I cannot translate this into English because I do not know who is the subject. I should have to use an English passive, and translate: ‘And that’s why it’s not understood what nature is, not at all!’ But that is not a really natural English sentence. I was interested to read Mishima’s reply, which showed that he too felt the same difficulty. He said: “Dare ga wakaran ? Wakaranu to iu no wa, kimi no wa Nihongo de shukaku ga shoryaku sarete ite, ii Nihongo nanda keredomo, dare ga wakaranu to itte iru no ? Kimi ga wakaranu? Ore ga wakaran?” It is not very easy to translate this as a reply to the former remark, but I suppose I could try: ‘Not understood? Not understood by whom? It may be good Japanese to leave out the subject of a sentence, but I ask you: Is it you who don’t understand? Is it I who don’t understand?’

Well, it was a relief to me to find a Japanese who himself was puzzled by these bewildering cases in Japanese where the subject is not only demoted to a humble place, but even disappears entirely.

 I began with the order of ‘here and there’ contrasted with the Japanese achi-kochi’ ,but there are many other phrases where the order is different in Japanese and English. Translators who study Japanese notice such things. For instance, in English we always say ‘right and left’; in Japanese there is a tendency to say ‘sayu’ though I admit that ‘migi-hidari’ is sometimes used. But the ordinary Japanese word for to control is ‘sayu suru’ where the left is put first.

Another case is the pair: positive-negative. Many Westerners now know about ‘in-yo’—‘yin-yang’ as the Chinese pronounce them. Most Westerners know them by the Chinese names. I have noticed that when a Westerner talks, or writes, to explain them, he generally explains them in the reverse order. He will  ay: “Yang is the positive, and Yin is the negative.”

Unconsciously he has substituted the natural English order, which is always ‘positive-negative’. When he talks about them as a pair, he may use the ordinary Chinese order ‘Yin-Yang’ as he has seen it in the books, but when he goes on to explain them, it is the Yang that he takes up first. Very few Westerners would think it natural to explain the negative first.

An interesting change of order is in the way of reciting the points of the compass. There is a great difference between England and Japan. The Englishman says ‘north-south-east-west’, and it is a surprise to find that the Japanese say ‘ to-zai-nan-boku’. Because it is surprising, and not familiar, we tend at once to think it is somehow wrong. When I first noticed the Japanese order, ‘east-west-south-north’, I too thought: ‘How strange!’ Yet when I came to think about it, I realized that the English order is strange. Our country is a northern one, and to the north of Britain there is nothing but sea and ice. So the north is not a very interesting direction; we never go north for our holidays, or for business. So perhaps it is rather odd that in English we put north first. But by the same reasoning, it is odd that the Japanese phrase begins with east: to the east of Japan, for a long way there is nothing but ocean.

And I suppose that until this century, Japan did not do much business in the eastern direction. So why have the Japanese always put the east first?

I asked Mr. Takamura, who was then a member of the Japanese Service of the British Broadcasting Corporation, about these points. He made an interesting reply: “Ah yes, to-zai-nan-boku”. Japan has been from the beginning basically an agricultural country, so a major factor in our thinking and feeling has always been the sun, rising in the east. Then to the west is China, of great importance in our history. Next comes the south, the direction of warmth, also important to farming people. Only the north, the direction of cold and snow and darkness, is unattractive and unimportant to us. So naturally north comes last.

“But to you British people, who have been such great explorers and navigators, who are Vikings, of course the north was most important. Because it is by the Pole Star that for so many centuries you navigated your ships. Of course the north has been the most important direction for you, so it comes first in your north-south-east-west.”

And he pointed out to me that the crest of Sir Francis Drake, one of the great sixteenth-century British admirals who defeated the Spanish Armada and who had sailed his ship right round the world, shows a star shining in the sky, and reflected in the water below. “There is the Pole Star”, said this Japanese to me, “shown in the crest of one of your great heroes”. I felt ashamed that I had not known this. As often happens, it is a foreigner who knows the history of the country better than those who have been born there. To the foreigner, Drake is new and exciting, whereas to us, the name tends to recall history lessons at school, and some of the boys’ adventure tales which we read when we were about ten years old.

The remark about the Vikings was also an eye- opener. The Vikings were certainly brave, but they were also terrible pirates and plunderers. A learned Japanese professor said to me once, after having visited the great British Museum in London: “This is an unrivalled collection of treasures from all over the world.” I could feel my chest swelling with pride, but as it is ungentlemanly to boast, I just said: “Well, I suppose we have a few good things.” This sort of understatement is thought to be a mark of refinement and culture. The other person then ought to say, “Ah, you are too modest”. Then he should bring out all the words of praise which I should like to say myself, but which I am not allowed to say.

This brilliant young professor, whom I knew very well, perhaps thought that he would have a little joke with me. He continued: “Yes, and those things are beautifully arranged, and catalogued, and carefully studied.” I thought to myself that he perfectly understood our English manners; he was playing his part, which was to produce compliments which I would reject by words, but with which I should secretly agree.

To my amazement, he went on: “And all these things were stolen.” My jaw dropped. “I admit”, he continued, “that if you had not stolen them, most of these things would have perished long ago. I admit that you have looked after them. But still, they were stolen. The British Museum is the biggest robbers’ cave in the world”.

By this time I had recovered, and I nodded my agreement. We burst out laughing.

When Mr. Takamura made his remark about Vikings, it brought back this incident to my memory. Yes, we British have indeed been Vikings. All I can say is, that we have gradually become respectable.  We do not arrive in foreign countries in warships today. We just broadcast on short-wave, and we publish books. If anyone does not like us, they can switch off the radio, or close the book.

© Trevor Leggett 1987

Index for this series of articles
1 Foreword
2 Consideration for Strangers
3 Social Conventions and Surprises
4 Cruel to be Kind
5 Losing to Oneself
6 North-South-East-West
7 It Likes That
8 Warukuchi
9 Japanese Logic


Similar Posts