Bungo Nyūmon

A Brief Introduction to Classical Japanese

Issues with Spoken Classical Japanese 

In Classical Japanese, as with Modern Japanese and English, the proper “literary” style varies greatly from the conversational style. For example, interjections, exclamations, hesitations, and expletives don’t typically find their way into literary stylebooks.

Since Murasaki Shikibu, author of Genji Monogatari (The Tale of Genji), wrote a novel while others were writing primarily diaries and chronicles, we owe her a special debt of gratitude. We owe it because that it was a novel means that she wrote dialogue. It is primarily Murasaki whose writings provide us with exemplars, then, of Heian speech. Were it not for her, we would have far less an understanding than the small one we do of what spoken Japanese of the that age was like.

It is because CJ is preserved only as a literary language, though, that it is unfortunately taught as a dead language meant only to be read. Classes emphasize the ability to parse sentences and read texts, not the ability to speak it, nor even to write it. This is the same way that Anglo-Saxon is taught, and to a lesser extent Latin, although more and more we are encountering academic rebels who want to write original materials and translate into these “dead languages” for amusement and educational reasons. There is as yet—at least in America—no apparent move to do this with CJ, but someday we may see people writing weekly news updates in CJ, as somone does online in Anglo-Saxon, and as some Finnish radio station broadcasts Latin news reports. It is a dream I have.

Still, elements of CJ survive enough to make it into some television dramas and movies. Most notably, it is the simple material—for example, the use of historical adjectival endings (e.g., saying “shiroki inu” instead of “shiroi inu” for “white dog”) and older words and occasionally obsolete grammatical constructs (e.g., “Waga haka o okasubekarazu!” instead of “Watakushi no haka o okashite wa ikemasen!” for “You must not disturb my tomb!”). Ultimately, this is little more than “forsooth-ifying” the dialogue, like substituting “thee” and “thine” for “you” and “your” and the use of the obsolete English second-person conjugation (e.g., “wouldst” instead of “would”). Still, it is something, and it improves the flavor of the dialogue to feel more “correct” for the period, although lately the move seems to have been away from that and towards perfectly modern colloquial speech (witness the success of the popular film Onmyôji, where save for a few token uses of “gozaru” and one or two lines in true CJ, is all in MJ).


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