Friday, March 29, 2013

Unexceptional: Part 2

Unexceptional: Part 2

What Are We Counting?

Last year I visited some friends in Portland.  I was delighted by the prevalence of rose gardens in the city.  The roses in Portland are astonishingly beautiful; in fact I’ve never seen such well-kept and cultivated roses. 

Suppose one of my friends from Portland visited me here in Sonoma County, California.  I decide to take my friend to some local gardens.  We visit a well planted and cared for garden in the neighborhood.  My friend says, “This isn’t a garden.  Where are the roses?”

You see, this particular garden doesn’t have any roses.  At first I think my friend is joking; perhaps he’s contrasting this garden with the abundant rose gardens in Portland.  But in follow-up questions I discover that my friend is serious.  My friend asserts that since there are no roses it is not a garden.  I respond, “If this isn’t a garden, what is it?”  My friend says, “This is a plant cultivation center.”  For my friend, if there aren’t any roses then it’s not a garden; it’s something else.

My feeling is that something similar has happened to the concept ‘syllable’ in discussions among English Language Haiku practitioners.  As English speakers we are used to syllables appearing in a certain way; that is to say English syllables have certain sonic contours.  When English speakers visit the world of the Japanese language, and wander in its garden, many of the specific sounds that English counts as syllables do not appear in the Japanese language.  In addition, there are sounds, such as a concluding ‘n’, that the Japanese count that are not counted in English. 

The response by some ELH practitioners has been to conclude that what the Japanese are counting and what English speakers are counting are so different that we need a whole new conceptual apparatus to designate what it is that Japanese count.  Like my fictitious friend who refuses to put into the category ‘garden’ a yard of flowers if among those flowers one cannot find roses, so also ELH practitioners have decided that because the specific sonic contours of English and Japanese differ, that therefore what Japanese count must not be syllables, it must be something else.

The ‘something else’ has been called by many names; among the candidates over the decades has been ‘onji’, ‘jion’, ‘moira’, and ‘sound unit’.  I think there are a few others that have made a brief appearance, but you get the idea; it’s a kind of endless hunt for some other word, or term, than syllable.

What has happened here is that ELH practitioners have taken the English language as a standard for what constitutes a syllable.  But, and this is important, the concept ‘syllable’ is not a language specific concept.  That is to say, the word ‘syllable’ is not defined by any specific features of a single language.  The sonic structure of English does not define the meaning of syllable. It is, therefore, a misapplication of the concept to apply the specific features of one language, such as English, and use them as a standard, a yardstick, to determine if other languages measure up to the meaning of the word ‘syllable’.

One way of looking at this is to note some examples of syllable presence in a non-English language that English would not recognize as a syllable, and are non-Japanese as well.  An excellent example of this is how in French poetry a silent ‘e’, in some linguistic contexts, will be counted as a syllable.  Now it is ‘silent’ from an English language perspective.  That is to say this kind of ‘e’ does not carry enough weight for an English speaker to count as a syllable.  In this way it is similar to a concluding ‘n’ in Japanese which, again from an English speaker’s perspective, does not carry enough weight to count as a syllable.

In spite of this well-known feature of French prosody, no one has ever suggested that the French don’t count syllables.  Nor has anyone suggested that the French language is so utterly different from English that ‘you can’t compare the two’.  I think there is a general lesson to be learned from this comparison.  The lesson is this:  just as we English speakers find the French language and its poetry comparable, so also we, as English speakers, should be able to find the Japanese language and its poetry comparable.

Continuing with the metaphor of the garden; suppose I ask two people to count the types of flowers found in my garden.  Person X comes back and says there are six kinds of flowers: tulips, marigolds, calalilies, geraniums, daffodils, and roses.  Person Y says there are eight: tulips, marigolds,  calalilies, geraniums, daffodils, tea roses, climbing roses, hawthorn.  Person X complains; tea roses and climbing roses are both roses, therefore they should count as one.  And the hawthorn is a tree, and a blossoming tree is not really a flower.  Person Y counters; tea roses and climbing roses look very different and it is the appearance that counts in a garden.  The blossoms of the hawthorn are the flower of the tree and therefore should be included in a full count.

Here is an example of how our subjectivity intrudes on what might seem, at first, to be a simple and matter-of-fact procedure.  Both people are counting the same garden, but they are coming up with different counts.  And both X and Y have reasons for their different results.

Applying this to the question of Japanese and English ‘syllables’, I believe this metaphor offers a resolution regarding how Japanese and English speakers can come up with different counts when listening to the same word.  For example, the Japanese word ‘Manyooshuu’ receives six counts, is heard as six syllables, in Japanese: ma-n-yo-o-shu-u.  In English the same word is given three counts: man-yo-shu. 

What I am getting at here is that just because the two language groups count the same word differently (meaning the two language groups parse the sounds differently), that does not mean that they are not both counting syllables.  Just as the two people counting the flowers in a garden came up with different results, so also an English speaker and a Japanese speaker will come up with different results as to how to parse some words into their constituent sound groupings; i.e. syllables. 

But this is not a problem and it does not mean that Japanese are counting something different from what English speakers count when they count syllables.

The thing is that the kind of discrepancies regarding syllables and syllable counts appear when you compare any two languages.  For example, in Russian the word ‘kto’, which means ‘who’, is one syllable.  It is very difficult for an English speaker to either hear the word as a single syllable, or to pronounce it correctly as one syllable.  Almost always an English speaker will insert a vowel between the ‘k’ and the ‘t’; something like ‘keeto’, or ‘kito’.  In listening, most English speakers will hear it as two syllables, even when pronounced by a Russian.  Russians hear it as clearly one syllable.

Again, when comparing any two languages one finds these differences.  And Japanese is not an exception; it is unexceptional in this regard. 


Dan Gurney said...

Counting English syllables is paradoxically very easy to do for most words and very difficult for a few words. I can teach almost all the five or six year old children in my class to accurately count the syllables in most words simply by clapping while saying the words and counting the claps.

There are some words, however, that produce different numbers of claps from the group. "Fire" will get about half the class clapping once "fire" and the other half twice: "figh - er." I think what causes the confusion is the diphthong.

Generally, when counting syllables we're trying to decide how many vowel sounds appear in the word. When a word contains a diphthong it can seem to be only one syllable when said quickly, but that same word might seem like it has two syllables when said more slowly.

Jim714 said...

Thanks for the feedback, Dan. The results of 'fire' are not surprising to me. If you listen to popular song words like 'fire' are sometimes used to rhyme with a two-syllable word (higher/fire, or figher), and sometimes with a one syllable word (fire/mire).

I like the procedure of clapping; that's an easy and embodied means for comprehending 'syllable'.