Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Counting 'Ku' -- Part 2 -- Counting Syllables

Counting ‘Ku’ – Part 2 – Counting Syllables

Gabi Greve’s description of how the Japanese count syllables has brought back to me, in a forceful way, one of the reasons why I think that a syllabic approach to Haiku in English is legitimate. Gabi’s description of Japanese counting Japanese syllables is charming. One commenter, a kindergarten teacher, suggested that this method of counting could be used in English, and I agree.

Now here is a question for my readers: Suppose in an English poetry class the teacher demonstrates how to count in Japanese style. The class then proceeds to apply this method of counting when they are writing Haiku in English. The question is – are Japanese and Americans counting the same thing?

Many in the Haiku world in America would say ‘no’, they are not. The idea is that the Japanese language is so different from English that even though both the Japanese and Americans would be counting, what they would be counting would essentially differ. It would be like comparing the counting of apples and oranges; the counting might be the same but you are counting different fruit.

My view is that the answer to the question is ‘yes’, they would be counting the same thing. And what would that ‘thing’ be? Repeatable, recognizable, units of sound; in other words ‘syllables’. Each language has repeated units of sound that stand out, that do not necessarily carry a dictionary type meaning (e.g. in English ‘ing’ is such a sound unit), but are heard as discrete. That is what syllable means.

The reason the issue has become confused is that people in America have compared the specific units of sound in Japanese and compared them with units of sound in English and discovered that the units of sound are different. For example, in Japanese a concluding ‘n’ is heard as a discrete sound, therefore a syllable, while in English it is not. Conversely, ‘ing’ is heard in English as a discrete unit of sound, therefore a syllable, while it doesn’t exist in Japanese at all.

But this happens when one compares any two languages. Given any two languages X and Y, there will be sound units, i.e. syllables, in language X that do not exist or are not heard as distinct in language Y and vice versa. This is not unusual. In fact, it is the norm. One example I like to use is that in French poetry, under certain conditions, the French count a silent-to-English-ears ‘e’ as a syllable. But English speaking culture has never concluded that the French ‘don’t count syllables’ or that what English speakers and French speakers count is completely different. Similarly, there is no reason to draw the conclusion that Japanese aren’t counting syllables when they are counting. They are counting syllables, just like Americans are counting syllables when they compose syllabic verse, including Haiku.

The idea that the Japanese ‘don’t count syllables’ has become a standard view among many American Haiku poets. I believe it is nothing more than an urban legend, a story that has taken on its own life but which has no basis either in linguistics or poetics. The Japanese language is nothing special, it is just an ordinary language spoken by ordinary people and like every other ordinary language the Japanese count syllables, just like in French, Russian, Navajo and Bantu; and just like we do in English here in America.


Dan Gurney said...

What makes a "syllable" a syllable is a vowel sound. It's not as simple as we might wish it to be since many vowel sounds in English are diphthongs, the confluence of two vowels sounds counted as one, (as in oah-ee-l "oil" counted as one vowel sound and therefore as one syllable).

But I agree, we can count syllables (vowel sounds) and we're doing pretty much the same thing as the Japanese, or close enough for the purposes of shaping words.

It's possible to teach most five year old children to count syllables by clapping hands as they say words.

I thought you were going to talk about tonal languages which add meaning outside syllabic counting.

Jim714 said...

Hi Dan:

I think the concept 'syllable' is a fuzzy concept; the borders are not sharp. In English all syllables have a vowel, but from an English perspective that doesn't seem to hold with other languages. The example of the 'silent 'e'' in French poetry applies. Glottal stops are counted in some languages, but in English we would not hear a glottal stop as a vowel.

Sounds like 'n', 'm', and 'ng' function as vowels in many languages, but not in English. That's because these sounds can carry duration in the way that standard English vowels do. So in Japanese, they hear a word like 'Zen' as two syllables; Ze-n. Interestingly, a beginning 'n' is not heard as a distinct sonic unit; so 'nanio' is three syllables; na-ni-o. In this case the two n's are not counted as separate syllables, they are counted only if they conclude a syllable as in the word 'Nan', which the Japanese counts as two; Na-n.

But one of my main points is that this is not unusual. Many languages count sounds that we do not count in English; I suspect that most languages do. Some American Haiku poets have hugely exaggerated the significance of these differences, acting like Japanese is very unusual or even unique. It's not. It's completely ordinary and these kinds of differences are ubiquitous between languages.

Always good to hear from you,