Saturday, May 28, 2011

Subway Phonaesthetics

Out of all the subway systems I have travelled on (Calcutta, Delhi, London, Istanbul, Tokyo, Kyoto), I think Tokyo Metro has by far the nicest sounding announcements. My favourite is the announcement for Aoyama-itchōme. I love the gliding vowels of Aoyama flowing into the geminate ch of itchōme, the ‘long vowelō and the gentle, abbreviated me.

I made a recording today, and if it doesn’t sound as nice as I just made it out to be, you can blame it on the audio recording on my camera.


This is the romaji text of the announcement:
Tsugi wa Aoyama-itchōme. Aoyama-itchōme desu. Norikae no go annai desu. Hanzōmon-sen, Toei Ōedo-sen wa onorikae kudasai.
A literal translation would be as follows:
The next one is Aoyama-itchōme. It’s Aoyama-itchōme. Transfer information: please change here for the Hanzōmon line and the Toei Ōedo line.
Of course, the translation fails to convey some information, especially the level of politeness and formality expressed in the Japanese announcement. Politeness can translate in interesting ways. There is a (possibly apocryphal) story about a Japanese maths professor who used to tell his students, “Please let n be an integer.”

A ploy to encourage reader participation: What is your favourite subway announcement? And do you like it for the sound, the associations, or something else?

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Books Kinokuniya, Shinjuku

Well, in Japan, so is everything else.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Speaking in Tongues

There are more things in Shinjuku than are dreamt of in your philosophy. Fascinating things can be found in the unlikeliest of places, like in the TOEFL and spoken-English learning materials section on the seventh floor of Books Kinokuniya.
Besides the usual books and DVDs, the shelves also have speakers simultaneously playing various audio CDs for learning English – some for beginners and some for advanced learners, some for tourists and some for businesspeople. So while one speaker blurts out random words and phrases – ‘sidewalk’, ‘square’, ‘as always’ – others play disconnected sentences. I stood there and jotted down a few.
  • The fitness industry has seen rapid growth in recent years.
  • She was puzzled by the strange message on her answering machine.
  • Is there a post office nearby?
  • Although the economy is improving, the exchange rate continues to fluctuate.
  • Stan was happy to hear some pleasant news for a change.
  • This ice-cream has a strawberry flavour.
Each one of these could potentially be Famous Last Words, or the Central Creed of a Modern-Day Religion, or any number of profound and quotidian things. But – and this is the beauty of it – before you can meditate on the infinite possibilities of any one sentence, the speaker has moved on to the next, and three other speakers have played other sentences in the meantime.
After a while, the speakers began to exercise a hypnotic effect on me, and the spell was broken only when a shop assistant politely informed me that closing time was in five minutes.



Edit, 13 July 2017: I've just learnt that such sentences are called effles.
* * *
Last Friday my Japanese teacher told me, Sroyon-san wa conjugation ga jouzu desu ne. (You’re good at conjugation.)
Seldom have I received an odder compliment, but it cheered me up like anything. I should get a T-shirt saying, Don’t mess with me. I can conjugate.
* * *
When learning Japanese, I first memorised a number of useful phrases by rote; more general vocabulary and rules of grammar and syntax only came later. So it would often happen – and it still happens, though less frequently – that I would say something in Japanese and the other person, thinking I am a fluent speaker, would reply with a long, fast and complex string of Japanese which left me totally baffled.
Of course, children don’t learn languages like that. They don’t speak well-formed sentences with adult inflection before they form at least a basic idea of what the words mean and how they fit together. Or at least, most children don’t.
My friend Arjun’s childhood is rife with entertaining incidents. One evening, his mother’s colleague came to visit. Arjun was watching an American soap in another room. At one point on the show, one of the actors said something that created quite a stir. The sentence somehow stuck in Arjun’s head, and the dramatic effect it produced in the soap impressed him favourably.
So Arjun Sarkar, four years and six months old, walked into the living room, looked his mum’s colleague in the eye, and told her, “Your husband is sleeping with another woman.”
It did indeed create a sensation. His mother dragged him away and gave him a spanking he would never forget.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Backpackers Hostel K’s House, Kyoto

I could not have asked for more amusing roommates at my Kyōto hostel – one is a programmer and the other is a physicist. And last night we were all in an exceptionally philosophical mood. I don’t know whether it was the large quantities of beverage we imbibed after dinner (coffee for me, tea for the physicist, beer for the programmer), or the fact that we had spent much of our day strolling down Philosopher’s Path. But for whatever reason, we were waxing philosophical on everything from manga to plasma turbulence.


And after touching lightly on such topics as fish-eye lenses, tea-cosies and Eurobonds, we moved on to singing the praises of our hostel. It is cheap, friendly, conveniently located and immaculately clean. The staff understand the needs and aspirations of backpackers. They organise free movie nights and walking tours. The information board at the reception has all kinds of useful information – not just the usual maps and time-tables, but also Calendar for this month’s shrine flea markets, Legends and folklore of Kyoto and It’s Raining! Where Should I Go?

But what endeared us most to Backpackers Hostel K’s House, Kyoto is that they provide lots of things for free, which are as follows:
• Tea
• Coffee
• Wi-Fi
• Alarm clock
• Books, maps and DVDs
• Padlocks
• Board games

When we had drawn up the list, the programmer remarked, “What more do you need as a traveller?”
“In fact,” said I, going further, “what more do you need in life?”
We all nodded in solemn agreement, but it was well past midnight, and – as I mentioned earlier – we had all drunk more than was good for us.