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.