Unexceptional: Part 4
One way of looking at the relationship between Japanese and English syllables is through what I am going to refer to as a ‘performance definition’. In Japan Haiku and Tanka poets count syllables on their fingers. I think of this as a performance: the movement of the fingers is an embodied performance of what a syllable means.
In a previous post Dan, a follower of this blog, who is a grade-school teacher, commented that he teaches his classes the meaning of an English syllable by clapping hands. As Dan recites a sentence out loud, the class claps with each unit of sound, i.e. each syllable. This is very easy to do and the kids like it. Dan also noted that there are instances of ambiguity: for example, some kids will clap twice for the word ‘fire’ (hearing the word as something like ‘figh-er’, or ‘fy-er’), and some will clap once. This can also be fun for the kids to discuss.
In both instances, counting syllables on one’s fingers, and clapping one’s hands for each syllable, we have an embodied performance of what a syllable means. In both instances it would be easy for those involved to switch the procedure. Although Japanese are not used to clapping, it would not be difficult to offer instruction and instead of counting on their fingers have the Japanese clap for each syllable of their Haiku or Tanka. Similarly, Americans are capable of counting syllables on their fingers; I have observed Americans counting on their fingers when counting change, for example, or counting the number of days until an appointment.
What I want to suggest is that these embodied procedures for counting syllables reveal that, in fact, the Japanese syllable and the English syllable are the ‘same thing’ at the level of this kind of embodiment. That is to say if you observed Japanese counting syllables on their fingers while composing a Haiku, and then you observed Americans counting syllables on their fingers it would appear that they were doing the same thing. I would argue that, in fact, they are doing the same thing. And the same would be true if one observed the two groups clapping hands to mark the flow of their syllables.
It is only when we become obsessed with abstractions and the micro-level of the two languages that the idea that Japanese and English are counting different things appears. I would suggest, for the readers' consideration, that this is an example of the abstract mind causing confusion rather than clarifying. At the level of embodiment it is obvious that English speakers and Japanese speakers are doing the same thing: that is to say they are both counting syllables. Yet another indication that the Japanese and English languages are not so different after all.