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Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Batabata (And Other Noises)

Today my elementary school visit was canceled.

     This year three of the elementary schools I visit: Yasuda (安田), Isai (以西), and Narumi (成美), have all converged into one location on Narumi's campus and rebranded themselves as Funanoe Elementary School (船上小学校). The change of course means so much news for all three of the schools. For one, they couldn't keep all that staff in one building. Even if the convergence meant they had three school's worth of kids there's certain positions that just don't overlap like the Principal, Vice-Principal, Nurse, and other such staff members. Also, the student population for each of the schools was very small. Yasuda, for example, had a 5th grade class of about 8 students and the around the same for the 6th grade class at Isai. What this means is that many of those classes could be combined, which consequently means that there would be even less positions available after the change. It's a big deal for everyone over there, and I'm not even sure who was able to stay or had to leave. I'll find out the next time I go to Funanoe. Naturally I have a couple of picks in mind if I were building the 2014 Funanoe Dream Team, but we'll see.
     Last week I received a temporary print out of this year's elementary school and kindergarten visits. Today was supposed to be my first visit to Funanoe but I hadn't received any fax or outline on what they wanted me to do. After Kyoutou-sensei asked about next week's kindergarten schedule I informed him that I hadn't heard about what I was doing for Funanoe; he shot straight up in his chair upon realizing this. He placed a phone call, then informed me that they were "batabata," an expression I'd heard before but never looked into. You could probably figure it out without me explaining it it all, but in short it meant they were busy.
     Onomatopoeic expressions do a lot of heavy lifting around here. One has to hand it to them for everything that they manage to say without saying much. Batabata (ばたばた)is not so much a word, but an expression indicated with the sound one makes by saying "batabata". It's a pretty hard concept to explain back home in America because there just really isn't a way of speaking like that. As with many things, there's similarities met with even more nuance. If you had to imagine it though, rather than saying someone was "shot" you instead said someone got "pew pew'd". That's a rough example but it's kind of the idea. Here's a better one for you. Let's pretend you performed a feat of illusion or some other manner of fantastic accomplishment, a fairly camp way of celebrating the climax might be, "tah-dah!". The word doesn't mean anything particular in that sense. It's just a sound to indicate something in our tangible word. Japan's ideophones (onomatopoeic sayings) on the other hand, cover far more abstraction. There's even a "sound" to indicate silence (しいん) which feels like dividing by zero to me. Some of the most well known ones include "doki-doki" (どきどき) -a heartbeat; "kira-kira" (きらきら) - the sound of sparkling; and Gyu (ぎゅ) - which means all kinds of things including: trembling, hugging, or squeezing.
     What makes all of this particularly interesting for me is the way in which language itself encourages these kinds of formations. I'm not a student of Chinese (language), but I remember way back in one of my college classes we discussed Chinese philosophy. One of the essays I wrote on the final for that class (several pages in fact) was how a white horse is not a horse, don't get me started on that by the way. In any case, one of the things we talked about in that class was how the construction of Chinese language allowed for this kind of jejune pedantry. They were playing games with language. In English, imagine I said "Dog Shark". What are you picturing? Chances are it's something that's either mostly one with hints of the other, that is to say: a dog-like shark or indeed a shark-like dog. For a pop culture reference of how this effect works in action check out the following character known as "Catbug" from the web-series "Bravest Warriors":

Part cat, part bug, 100% cute

     Catbug's form factor indicates he's mostly a bug, but the distinctive cat ears and mouth shape point towards that of a cat. He's a cat-like bug. It seems fairly cut and dry, but in our studies we discussed how Chinese language construction allows for something tricky. If written in Chinese the word "Cat-Bug" might not be interpreted as something cat-like or bug-like but as something that is at once a cat and a bug, or belongs to both groups of cat-ness and bug-ness. It's a bit more involved than this, but if you're interested check out the story here. It doesn't seem like a big difference, but it manifested into the form of an ostensibly intellectual school of Chinese thought, so there you go.
     Language is pretty fun and the sound effect based lingo that thrives here in Japan largely stems from the way their language is constructed as well. Japan has a syllabary rather than an alphabet. Since everything is composed of individual characters that represent a singular sound, it would seem that ideophones are far more represented in conversation than America. Manga is a particularly keen way to witness the uses of these effects, and has proven to be a place where they thrive due to their usefulness. In English we rely on words, descriptors, for actions or effects. Things like, "screech," "smash," "creak," and "knock-knock" are all words that become requisitioned to describe the action on the page. Japan has a veritable treasure chest of sound effects which are not exactly words in the sense that they exist to quite literally be the sound for what they describe whereas our onomatopoeia exists to describe what the sound is.

So long story short: they canceled my elementary school visit today.



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