Japanese and the Weak Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis

July 11th, 2007

I’m not a reductionist. I’m not big on sentences that start with “the reason that…”, especially if the end of the sentence is something universal like “…Japanese people do blah”. However, I don’t think things pop up in a vacuum, either, so while I might disagree that a certain thing is the reason doesn’t mean that I disagree that a certain thing is a reason.

Japanese is known as being a very vague language. There is a lot of inference involved, subjects of sentences are often omitted, and the like. Some people attribute this to the Japanese propensity for avoiding directness, or collectivism, or the like.

Those may all be true, but I suspect that they are, in part, due simply to the quirks of the Japanese language.

The quirk I am thinking of is the extremely low information density of Japanese. Basically, Japanese is not a language that is conducive to packing in a lot of information in a short span. And this, in turn, is due to the form of Japanese syllables.

Japanese syllables (for the few folks who read this blog but don’t know) consist basically of four patterns:

1) Vowel, by itself

2) Single consonant followed by vowel

3) Vowel followed by “n”

4) Single consonant followed by vowel followed by “n”

Ok, so let’s work the math:

There are 5 single vowels. There are 64 consonant-vowel combos. So 69 possible syllables without “n” at the end. Another 69 with “n” at the end. Basically, you’ve got 138 possible single-syllable sounds.

I don’t know how many there are in English, but I do know how many single-syllable words there are: 3,581. Even if we assume that there are 5 homonyms for every single syllable Japanese word, we’re still talking a maximum of 345 Japanese single-syllable words. That’s nowhere even close to the amount of things you can express in English with a single word.

So what happens is that you get presented the choice of being either succinct by leaving out understood stuff, or detailed but quite longwinded. Practically speaking, that leaves only the first choice, unless you’re some Tolkeinish ent.

So, sure, the Japanese may omit parts of sentences due to desire to avoid extreme explicitness, or as an in-group self-identification function, or the like, but probably a much bigger factor (though not the only one, natch) is just the fact that they’re forced to because of linguistic traits which were almost certainly spontaneous and not calculated moves to restrict speech by making it difficult.

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