Articles

(No.10) Is Japanese Easy to Read?

What is the main purpose of language? Is it to transfer information, to persuade, to consider philosophy, to record events? Those objectives are related but differ significantly. I considered this using the world around me.

(1) For information transfer, readability is important
(2) For persuasion, logical organization and brevity are important
(3) For philosophy, contents dependent on logical structure and easy representation are important
(4) For archiving, long term stability for easy reading is important

Here, I will use English, Japanese and Chinese as examples. Regarding item (1) above, Japanese is unique in that it includes many different types of characters, which makes it easy for us to read. In European languages, each word is typically set apart (segmented) with a space. Many Asian languages do not use a symbol to separate words. This seems natural for Chinese characters, each of which has a meaning.

Current Japanese is typically 30% to 40% kanji, with the remainder made up of hiragana, katakana, numerals and alphabetic letters. This mixed character representation makes it easy for us to read without the help of commas. This feature is most efficiently used for computer-based word extraction by character code segmentation, as with alphabetic segmentation. Mixed character representation appears more often in business contents, but what about other contents? Historical novels, for example, comprise 7% commas compared to business sentences with only 5%.

This difference becomes more apparent between Japanese and Chinese. Comparing the translated "Column 5" of this web page, which contains many foreign words, the ratio of commas is 2:3. Other columns do not show such a big difference; this gap may be caused by foreign words. As kana was introduced in the 9th century, we see that Japanese had started preparing for globalization 1000 years ago.

Language is an important tool for persuasion, especially in democratic societies. A Japanese scholar says that Japanese presentations take 1.5 times longer than English presentations at scientific conferences. During five minutes of discussion, a Japanese speaker can handle 1 to 2 questions in Japanese compared to 4 to 7 questions in English.(Minoru Kojima, Japanese as a tool for scientific research, Science, Iwanami Publ. Co. Vol.73 (10), p.1143, 2003. )

What about logical discussion and debate? Here, I will focus on mathematics. In Japan and China, mathematical levels were fairly high in the 17th century, although somewhat behind Europe. Some technical books were published in Chinese both in Japan and in China. But most technical achievements are lost because they were difficult for people to understand. Modern mathematics was again introduced through European languages later. This indicates that European languages are superior to Chinese in logical mathematical expressions.

But what about archiving? Chinese history books can be easily traced back more than 2000 years and most are not so difficult to read for modern people. Japanese descriptions can be traced back about 1300 years. Although we need to put forth some effort, we can enjoy those contents even now. English of 2000 years ago is unknown. Even 11th century English is almost impossible to read: Science, Vol.303, 27 February 2004 is a special issue on language. English has evolved quite successfully in 1000 years. Will English continue to evolve and dominate? The answer seems to be NO. Please enjoy the story by David Gradual, "The Future of Language, Science, Vol.303, 27 February 2004.

(Ej,2004.04)



Back to index

Page Top