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Foreigner Talk or Foreignness – The language of Westerners in Japanese fiction

Posted By admin On May 21, 2013 @ 1:50 pm In Abstracts for 2013, Linguistics and Language Teaching | Comments Disabled

Erik Oskarsson, Master´s Student

Centre for Languages and Literature

Lund University

The present study seeks, using a corpus of eight Japanese works of fiction written in the 20th century, to find out if the speech patterns of Westerners in Japanese fiction are related to the simplified register commonly referred to as “foreigner talk”, i.e. the way of addressing non-native speakers with a limited proficiency in the language used. Connections between this real-life register, “primary foreigner talk”, and the depiction of broken language in literature, “secondary foreigner talk”, have previously been treated in sociolinguistics (Ferguson 1975, Valdman 1981). The conclusions of these studies will be discussed briefly in my presentation.

Previous research on the language of Westerners in Japanese literature, mainly in the field of yakuwarigo (‘role language’, the study of stereotypical speech patterns in fiction) research (Kinsui 2003, 2007 and 2011), has found that the nationality of Westerners in Japanese fiction tends to be explicitly shown in their utterances – for example by overuse of loanwords and misuse of sentence-final particles. It has, however, also been shown that the language of Westerners is depicted as overtly polite – a peculiarity possibly originating in the stereotypical situations of interaction between Westerners and Japanese in real life (such as business meetings), where a polite style is appropriate. This makes Westerners believe that the polite style is the standard form of Japanese (Yoda 2011).  Yoda’s theory, in fact, implies that there might be connections between the language of Westerners in fiction and foreigner talk. This possible relationship is the topic of the present discussion.

In my study, the characteristics of real life, primary Japanese foreigner talk, as reported in previous studies (mainly Skoutarides 1981, Uzawa 1986, Sokolik 1987 and Long 1992) are compared to the language of the Westerners in the chosen literary works. The methods of these real life studies are commented upon, since the kinds of modifications reported are related to the methods of elicitation. The literary works investigated were chosen following the principle of representing as wide a range of genres and periods of the 20th century as possible.

My study was focused on the frequency of lexical and syntactic modifications, using quantitative methods such as measuring sentence length and syntactic complexity (the ratio of verbs/graphic sentence), as well as providing more detailed analyses on characteristic sentences of the characters. Since there are occasions where the characteristics of Japanese foreigner talk might be natural also in conversations between native speakers of Japanese, the language of the Westerners was also compared to the language of one Japanese character for each studied text. Furthermore, the quantitative analysis of the language of the Japanese characters was divided into scenes featuring Westerners and situations featuring other Japanese, with the goal of finding out whether “primary foreigner talk” (a means of facilitating comprehension) is depicted in Japanese fiction or not.

To summarize the results of my study, the term “diversification” could be used. In all of the studied works, irrespective of genre and period, the Western characters’ nationality was somehow marked linguistically (mostly by the use of loanwords, as noted in Yoda (2011)), but the language of the characters was only seldom portrayed as being “simplified”. Hence, it is concluded that “Westerner language” is basically used as a means for showing “foreignness”/”exoticism”. There are, however, works in which the language of the Western characters is depicted in a way reminiscent of the results reported in studies of primary foreigner talk. The sentences of the Westerners are short and restricted to basic sentence patterns. Furthermore, personal pronouns and ellipses of particles are more frequent than in the sentences of Japanese characters:

Watakushi [Ø],          sono     onna [Ø],         doroboo-to         machigae-mashi-ta.

I-SUP.POL    that       woman            thief-COM          mistake-POL-PAST

‘I mistook that woman for a thief.’ (Okamoto: 1920)

This “secondary foreigner talk” is used mainly by characters of minor importance to the story – an observance in accordance with the theories of Kinsui (2003).

Furthermore, the occasions where a simplified register was used by the Japanese characters for facilitating comprehension are discussed. This register is characterized by repetitions and short sentences, as well as by clarifications using personal pronouns:

Antara-no        ie …       sum-u             ie…      ne-ru                   tokoro…        doko?

You-GEN        house      live-NPAST   house   sleep-NPAST      place             where?

‘Your house… the house where you live… the place where you sleep… where?’ (Takeda & Koyama: 2006)

There are, however, differences between this language and the findings of studies on real life foreigner talk – it bears more resemblance to the characteristics of foreigner talk reported in Western languages. This difference might be related to the methods and purpose of previous studies of foreigner talk in Japanese. Therefore, more research on primary Japanese foreigner talk as occurring in different contexts is necessary for further studying the interaction between foreigners and native Japanese in fiction.


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