Broken English: Seen But Not Heard (Part 3)

Time to switch to Italics.

So we’ll recap.

There are some things in language that can only be seen via the written word and not heard via the spoken. This can be inconvenient when you’re caught without a pencil or have lost both your writing hands in battle with the enemy, but it also stands to reason, in the same way that a painting of an incident differs from a verbal description of that same incident.

The flexibility of the written word also allows the clever to do artistic things with writing, as illustrated in my previous posts by the Japanese examples of ate-ji and fake furigana. To summarize these two concepts for the lazy or overwhelmed, ate-ji is kind of like classy puns made of Kanji. Since you can’t “hear” a Kanji, they must be written. Fake furigana is like typing “read: [blank]” where the [blank] is filled with pointed lies instead of the actual correct reading of the tagged word. Example: “Rebecca is a woman (read: witch).

The point I’ve made thus far–that the written language differs from the spoken language–should come as no surprise to those of you who can speak and read a language. That’s why I get bummed out when dudes like retired journalist Bob Ingrassia criticize other journalists for writing words “people never say.” Seems awfully silly to decry literary journalism that doesn’t sound exactly like a dad talking to his son.

In the various Japanese courses I took in college, there was a consistent importance placed on the  differentiation between kaki-kotoba (written words) and hanashi-kotoba (spoken words). My teachers–all of them–spoke plainly of this differentiation with unfaltering certainty: “You wouldn’t really say that word. It’s a kaki-kotoba. The equivalent hanashi-kotoba would be [blah].”

The Japanese version of Bob Ingrassia would surely be a social pariah. Meanwhile I’m left wondering why we don’t have this distinct differentiation in English. To be sure, we could. There’s no reason we should have people who work as journalists for near twenty years and still look down on literary English because “that’s not how people talk.”

Anyway. The segment where I lash out at a guy about whom I know almost nothing is over. What I wanted to get to today is the reverse phenomena of that which I’ve been discussing so far–that is, language that can be heard but not seen. Probably the rarer case, it is still hardly rare. The modern English-speaking populace has formulated lots of clever ways to visually represent the subtleties of  intonation and pronunciation. Writing “gonna” instead of “going to” or “wanna” instead of “want to”–hell, as far as I can tell, all contractions come from a need to mimic speech in writing. The first people to say “gonna” were almost certainly thinking “going to” before “gonna” became a recognized thing.

Then there’s the italics. You may have noticed by now that I use these like a crutch, because I love them. LOVE. They just look so severe. They make you imagine a speaker with grave, mortified intonation:

“So it’s about a space cargo vessel and its mild-mannered crew, but their return flight to Earth is delayed when a horrible alien bursts out of William Hurt’s chest.”

“Yeah she seemed really into me and all, but I guess I was kind of turned off when she turned out to be a man.” 

Also this.

Another such phenomenon that seems to have crept up on our society while I was away from it is the use of periods [.] as emphatic markers.

I. Hate. This. Practice.

The reason I hate this practice is because you can’t just, fuckin’, you know, like, use punctuation marks however the hell you please, man. I mean a period already has a purpose. It ends a thought. Definitively. If your thought isn’t over, you can use an ellipse. . .

. . . dude.

For centuries, the period has signified the end of a thought, represented in spoken English by a falling intonation. Here’s what I hear when someone on Facebook goes, “I. Love. This. Song.”


Tell me I’m not alone.

It’s clear what they’re trying to convey, though. And in their defense, I don’t really know a better solution. If it were up to me, which I guess it kind of is, I’d just go, “I. . . LOVE. . . THIS. . . SONG.”

But that could be mistaken for dying words or vaguely diabolical. And I guess I don’t want that.

Other, more subtle nuances in intonation truly can’t be expressed in writing. Let’s take the word what. Here’s the word what as you would say it when you’re in disbelief.


Here’s that same word, but as you would say it when you don’t know why someone is giving you the stinkeye.


And here’s how you’d say it when confronted with this obese duckling:


I dunno. Maybe there are individual solutions for writing to each of these things, but certainly not standardized or even widely recognized ones. But anyway. I guess I’ve made a point. Somebody come up with more examples in the comments.

2 thoughts on “Broken English: Seen But Not Heard (Part 3)

  1. I see where you’re coming from with your annoyance on the “I. Love. This. Song.” usage, but at the same time doesn’t it go against your reason for criticizing Ingrassia? If it’s a stylistic thing and people readily understand the meaning behind it, why not use it? I think any use of language is okay, so long as it expresses the idea behind it (which is the job of language to begin with). Heck, I’m even OK with double contractions (though many tell me I shouldn’t’ve wrote them). Language itself is basically an ongoing popularity contest, with new usages and colloquialisms and ideas being tried out constantly. The things that stick get adopted into common usage, and those that don’t work are forgotten. Sometimes breaking the rules, or at least bending them, makes a new element of language stand out and express something it didn’t before.

    Incidentally, one thing I was against was in your last article on ate-ji and fake furigana, where I noticed the translated comic pages trying to use fake furigana. I understand the problem faced by translators, where that element of language just doesn’t exist in English. But I think you have to either kill it, or find a way to write it that fits into the English construction. This is because we have no history of accenting words with implied meanings, at least in the same way fake furigana does. When I see the “fake English furigana,” I get the impression the comic is aimed only at people who already know how Japanese works (which might be true).

    If you’ll permit me to reference our shared interests, this stuff comes up in Rockman as well. For example, the Zero series boss Hyleg Ourobockle’s title is 幽林の忍蛇. When translating the ate-ji “忍蛇” what do you do? You could make it “ninja” which is the cleanest translation, but it kills the implied snake emphasis. You could translate it as “ninja snake” which contains all the meaning but is a little long in the tooth. Or you could make up something like “ninjasp” which is the most clever way to go about it, and hits on what the Japanese is trying to do. Unfortunately for this case, “ninjasp” sounds stupid in English.

  2. Adam,

    Thanks for the awesome reply! You and I, I think we’ve got some similar ideas on stuff. That said!:

    >. . . doesn’t it go against your reason for criticizing Ingrassia?

    Nope! Ingrassia is literally suggesting that journalists shouldn’t use words people “don’t say,” i.e., literary words. I don’t like the period thing because people are taking a punctuation mark which already conveys a specific thing and denotes a specific intonation, and just using it in this way that has nothing to do with that.

    I will, however, grant you that the tides of change are inevitable in any language, and if people say that a period can be used in that way, then so it shall be. But equally inevitable is the fact that I will grumble about it for five more years or so and then accept it. This is also what has happened with the expression, “I know, right?” which I despised when it first cropped up in my high school years, but now use regularly and unapologetically.

    Funny you mentioned the English fake furigana thing! I had that exact conversation with my buddy last night. It really doesn’t work in English. I used the English scanlations 1) because they’re easier to find than an illegally scanned Japanese version and 2) so that my English-speaking readers (i.e., everyone) might get something out of it, even if it does lack the shibui-ness of the Japanese. And I suppose also 3) because as we’ve just discovered, it makes for a good conversation piece in its own right.

    My friend and I agreed that that scanlation would have required a footnote for it to be at all worthwhile, and we couldn’t really think of a better way to pull it off. I would say that the fake furigana is similar to writing “(read: [blank]),” but that probably wouldn’t have worked in the context of that comic. I think they would have to come up with something very creative to make it truly work in English. I might’ve left the furigana in Japanese, written over the English word, forcing the reader to do research to solve the puzzle.

    The ninja snake dilemma (NSD) is a good example of the non-scientific nature of JE translation. You’ve got all these options, and it’s up to you to just pick the one you think “feels” best. Realistically, I would’ve sat in a blank room for six hours trying to think up a better pun than “Ninjasp” before just settling on something I hated and chalking it up to “lost in translation.”

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