Saturday, 29 May 2010

Don’t boss me around, woman (unless you’re at a sports event)

A couple of posts back, I waffled on about how Japanese language - well, the little that I have studied - mirrors the social conservatism of Japan. Maybe I wrote up those unoriginal observations prematurely, since by far the most eye-opening examples to date came up in the new grammar covered this week.

Bearing in mind that women outnumber men in my class by 9 : 5, it is only a minority of my classmates who may one day need or want to use the standard Japanese ‘imperative’ and ‘prohibitive’ forms. Unless the female majority plan on getting gobby at sports events, that is.

In fact, page 50 of Minna no Nihongo II is one of the most illuminatingly matter-of-fact textbook pages I have ever read. It’s truly a a shame we don’t get much of a chance to discuss the social background and implications of this grammar in class.

To quote the textbook, the use of the imperative form, used to force a person to do something, and prohibitive form, used to command a person not to do something, both of which have ‘strong coercive connotations’, is in most cases ‘limited to male speakers’. The book then lists a number of extremely specific contexts in which it might be used (by men).

1 by a man senior in status or age to a person junior to him, or by a father to his child.

2 between men who are friends.

3. where there is not enough time to be polite, e.g. when men senior in status or age are ‘giving instructions to a large number of people in a factory or during an emergency’.

4 when a command is required during training many people or making students take exercise at schools and sports clubs.

5 when cheering at sporting events. In this case the expressions [below] are sometimes used by women as well. [emphasis added]

6 when a strong impact or brevity is required, as in a traffic sign or in a slogan.

Just in case women in Japan want to tell someone to do something or even not to do something (the temerity!), however, there is another imperative style they can use, both to males and females. No need for men to worry too much about being ordered around though: it is a ‘little gentler’.

But there’s a catch. Even this gentler imperative form cannot be used 'when speaking to a senior'.

Quite how a woman tells a male senior to go away, or not come close, or words to that effect, is anyone’s guess. I would guess that’s pretty important language to know in most male-dominated societies.

So thank God for expletives.

And open-plan offices.

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