Can you read this? (Me neither.)

Climbing the Tower of Babel

By Dennis E. Powell | Posted at 10:15 PM

Many years ago, in junior high school and high school, I studied Latin.

My reasoning at the time was water-tight, to me. It was my hope to become the world’s leading herpetologist. The most daunting obstacle, I thought, was the memorization of scientific names. But if I knew Latin, I’d just translate the common names of snakes, turtles, and lizards into that language and I wouldn’t have to memorize anything. It is funny the things that make sense when you’re 13.

I was not a sterling Latin scholar. My ninth-grade teacher was the frightening Miss Elizabeth Cauthorn. Tall, thin, and very old, she wore long dresses with high collars of a fashion one would expect to adorn the characters in Gothic novels. This was her attire, too, when she taught Latin to my mother 30 years earlier. The only recorded instance of her smiling was when a girl, her arms full of books, tripped in the hallway and the books went flying. She did not expect her students to succeed, and I did not disappoint her expectations. There was a little poem:

Latin is a language

As dead as dead can be.

It killed the ancient Romans

And now it’s killing me.

We all were sure that Miss Elizabeth Cauthorn had been around to preside over the departure from this life of those ancient Romans.

But it wasn’t her, it was me. This was demonstrated in the following years when teachers changed but my mastery of Latin didn’t.

I’ve observed a phenomenon and wonder if it extends to others. I’ve found that studies in which I didn’t do especially well are the ones in which I’ve retained the most of what was taught. Though my Latin grades were not good, it seems that snippets of Latin pop up in my mind just when I need them. I prefer the Mass in Latin. I can dig into the base meanings of words. It’s useful stuff to know even if reptiles aren’t your thing.

Nevertheless, my talent at languages is not anything to showcase. I can barely write English (there are those who would cast doubt even on that, and I have no defense).

So now I’m trying to learn Japanese.

I must. The final straw came last week, when I watched episode 24 of the excellent, 30-year-old anime, Yu Yu Hakusho. Though it was made in 1993, the episode took on and dispatched brilliantly the “trans” issue that currently befuddles so many. I was watching the subtitled version. When I looked for it to send a link to friends, the readily accessible version was dubbed rather than subtitled. And the translators, as is typical, changed the meaning of the whole scene. I’d rather learn the Japanese of the authors than hear the politics of translation “localizers.”

My favorite series of anime series is the whole Monogatari saga, written by the brilliant, palindromic Nisioisin. There is a good argument to be made that it alone is reason enough to learn Japanese. The subtitles — there is no dubbed version, nor could there be one — are so elaborate that it can take me an hour to watch a single 25-minute episode, after which my eyes are very tired indeed. Nisioisin’s work is filled with puns, double meanings, and plays on kanji characters it will take years of study to understand.

Lately I have been having a delightful time spending many hours texting back and forth with someone in Hakodate, Hokkaido, Japan. There is great freedom in having a close friend who is half the world and 13 time zones away. You can exchange thoughts and secrets you’d never divulge to someone local. If I’ve had a more rewarding relationship, I do not remember it, and I think we’re both surprised how close we have become.

Nothing is perfect, and there is a problem here. I don’t speak Japanese and she doesn’t speak English. Our conversation, therefore, is at the mercy of translation software. She is very good at using it; I am less so. We think we’re talking to each other, but as far as either of us knows for sure the software might be enjoying itself. I may have taken on the entire debt of the nine biggest Japanese corporations or we might have entered into a legally binding marriage contract. (Which in the fullness of time might just be a good idea.) We’re trusting translation software, some of which is offered by Google, whom I do not trust at all and who does nothing for free. There are stories and stories about translation software errors, some of which are potentially catastrophic, like the errors provided by autocorrect software. (The state of the art at this point is said to be DeepL.) She wisely employs three or four different translation programs. She does the translation practically all the time because she is more sensible than I am, and faster, and kinder.

So we’ve thought it might be fun, to use an inordinately broad definition of the word, and useful to learn each other’s languages. As time unfolds, we will try to assist each other. That will test a relationship if anything can.

English, I’m forced to admit, is not a simple language. There was once formal study of English in school. It was called “grammar.” This is no longer the case. The teachers unions have decided that politically indoctrinated illiterates are more useful to their nefarious purposes. (And let there be no doubt: those purposes are nefarious.) But if one really wants to do so, an American can learn English. The problem is, English is a language of a few rules and many exceptions.

I’m told, and it amazes me, that in Japan people who speak English are thought to be very intelligent. But to me Japanese sometimes seems entirely inscrutable. The English alphabet contains 26 letters. There is not a Japanese alphabet; the characters used in Japanese can’t be thought of as an alphabet, really, at all.

There is a system, called rōmaji, that attempts to use Roman characters — our alphabet — to spell Japanese words. It is in use in many places in Japan itself, but as a tool to learn the language it is just about useless. You’ll not be able to read and write Japanese and your pronunciation will be off, too, if you rely on it to learn the language.

There are two categories of characters which we can almost think of as alphabets, but here, too, there are twists that can be dispiriting to someone seeking to learn the language. These are hiragana and katakana. Linguists will tell you that these are properly called “syllabaries,” which I believe means that each character represents specific sounds. If you were taught to read via phonics — “sound it out,” the teacher would say — you can grasp the general idea. Hiragana, though, is used to describe the sounds in Japan-created words. Katakana is for words imported into Japan from other languages. They overlap, so some sounds are duplicated in both systems. Then there are adjacent small modifying characters. If you learn all of this, you will be able to read aloud some Japanese writing. You won’t know the meanings, but you’ll be able to make the sounds. Some of the sounds.

Then comes the big one. Many Americans think that Japanese is written in kanji. Kanji is hard. Most Japanese people know only a little kanji, of which there are tens of thousands of characters. They are derived from Chinese script, but people from China say their knowledge of their own language isn’t much use in reading Japanese. The characters are constructed with strokes conveying different meanings, sometimes built on other characters. (As with kana, kanji also requires that the character be written in specific stroke directions in a specific order, but I’m not even thinking about that right now.) Some of the characters are unbelievably complicated. And they are not letters as we know the term. You will hear someone say, “My name has a kanji that means willow tree near a river” (I made up the example, so don’t go looking for the character, confident I am that it exists.). Nisioisin sometimes dissects kanji characters as part of his plays on words. To greatly oversimplify, kanji can be like the spelling of the name — let me pick a version at random to use here — Caitlin. “Would Caitlin raise her hand?” the teacher might ask a room of 50 girls. Lately, 50 hands would go up. So the teacher would begin to spell it and with each passing letter some of the hands would go down until only one is left. (My theory is that no two girls spell that name the same way.)

If I began today and devoted every waking moment to it, I would never fully understand kanji. I do not know that anyone in the world fully understands kanji, even as no one knows every word of English.

So, then, how to learn Japanese? Most courses and other training methods seem to concentrate on learning phrases. Say this series of sounds for this effect; if the response is this, do that. My hope, and I may fail at it, is to learn sentence structure — in English, the basic form is subject-verb-noun: who is doing it, what he is doing, who or what he’s doing it to. In Latin the verb is at the end, with the subject and object left toward the front to fight it out between themselves. Japanese follows, apparently, subject-object-verb. “Keiko a flower saw.” Many words are understood and therefore omitted. Pronouns often fall into this category, which translation software finds difficult to overcome.

Then it comes down to vocabulary, after which point I hope to be mostly understandable most of the time, and will count upon my friend to stop laughing long enough to show me where I’ve erred.

I’ll need to learn katakana and hiragana, often collectively called kana (though kana includes other things, too), if I hope to pronounce words correctly. The importance of this can’t be overstated, particularly compared to rōmaji, where a person might be named Sosuke but the “u” is silent, and instead of three syllables the name has only two, non Sos-u-ke but Sos-ke. Using kana the situation never arises.

Along the way I’ll have to learn how to make kana characters come from my keyboard.

It is my hope to learn by building my knowledge of the language in that way. I do not expect to write Japanese literature, but I do think I might some day write well enough to get understood and read well enough to gain increased appreciation for the language.

It won’t be instant, but it will be interesting and, I think fun. Having a friend in the oncoming lane will make it more so. Our communication is worth it.

I gave up on herpetology, so in that regard my Latin study was superfluous. But I still have an interest in the subject. I have a turtle I raised from an egg. As my interest in things Japanese grew, I decided to name her after a kind of Japanese yokai, a supernatural creature that in this case has the shell of a turtle.

She is called かっぱちゃん.

Dennis E. Powell is crackpot-at-large at Open for Business. Powell was a reporter in New York and elsewhere before moving to Ohio, where he has (mostly) recovered. You can reach him at

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